It’s hard to understate just how excited I was for Prometheus, Director Ridley Scott’s 2012 return to the beloved franchise over three decades after his 1979 horror landmark Alien. Unfortunately, Prometheus ended up being a bloated exercise in mythology building with Scott trying to tie-in the history of the killer creatures with the origin of the human species itself. With Alien: Covenant, Scott has taken the most ridiculous aspects of Prometheus and (literally) doubled down on them, offering up the worst film in the entire Alien franchise (and that’s saying something).
For those keeping track, Alien: Covenant is a sequel to Prometheus, while being a prequel to 1979’s Alien. As such, there isn’t much for the movie to do, especially considering the fact that Scott has confirmed that there are two more prequels on the way. Alien: Covenant is essentially a two-hour stop-gap in the series — it serves no real purpose other than the fact that it’s a new entry in the Alien franchise.
The film follows the same basic premise as Prometheus — sleeping settlers aboard the ship Covenant are bound for a new planet to colonize when they encounter a space disturbance en route, killing their Captain (James Franco, who for some reason is in the movie for a total of 90 seconds), and throwing their entire journey into disarray. It’s then up to the God-fearing Oram (Billy Crudup) to take control of the ship, who then decides to investigate a human message from a previously-unknown planet. Against the staunch wishes of crew member Daniels (Katherine Waterston, the Captain’s widow), they descend to the new planet in search of any signs of life.
The first 30 minutes of the film play out exactly as they do in Prometheus — the ship members land on the same planet, and explore the same grounds as our doomed crew in Prometheus did. It’s one thing to explore familiar terrain in a sequel, but the audience should never know more than the characters do for long — we all know exactly how this chunk of the film will play out, which zaps it of any tension or excitement. Some crew members begin getting severe chest pains (must be all that space food), while they meet what appears to be the sole inhabitant of the planet, David (Michael Fassbender), the android still stranded following the Prometheus expedition. Since the crew of Covenant have their own android, Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender), there is now twice as many opportunities for grandstanding speeches about man’s role in the cosmos, which Scott seems to relish for some reason.
The relationship between Walter and David does produce some (unintentionally) hilarious moments, including a scene where David shows Walter how to play the flute (“I’ll do the fingering,” he remarks dryly, which elicited howls during the screening I caught), and a eerie moment of robot-on-robot love. Still, Fassbender is one of the most exciting actors working today, and he imbues both roles with a stoic intensity that deserves more than what he’s given to play with here.
The rest of the cast is entirely forgettable — Katherine Waterston does an admirable job in what is basically the Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) role as the ship’s resident badass, while the rest of the crew (including the hilarious Danny McBride who is given almost nothing to do), simply run around and wait for their eventual death scenes.
The third act of the film (much like with Prometheus), is when things really go off the rails, and the film basically becomes a B-movie space slasher. Bowing down to pressure from audiences, Scott finally gives us the Xenomorph from the original Alien films (as opposed to the earlier incarnations of the creatures from Prometheus). In the most cringe-inducing scene in the entire franchise, we even get to see the creature attack a couple having sex in a space shower (a scene that is not played for laughs).
It’s hard to figure out Scott’s plan with Covenant — he seems to be responding to the criticisms of Prometheus in all the wrong ways. He has amped up the gore here (the film definitely earns its R-rating), but then films the alien fight scenes in such rapid-fire shots that we can barely tell what’s going on. He brings back the iconoclastic original Alien, only to have it slumping around and killing lovers in a bathroom.
The film’s meaning is also hard to grasp — any time a film opens with a monologue laying out its themes you should be worried, as we witness in the film’s opening chat between Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his creation David. There is much talk of gods and their relationship to their subjects, and it’s easy to see the aliens as mankind’s punishment for our hubris. The one God-fearing man on Covenant (Oman) is also the dumbest of the bunch, blindly following along even as the horror surrounding him is ratcheting up.
At least the film looks great — Scott reunites with his Prometheus DP Dariusz Wolski, who presents the claustrophobic interiors of the ship with the sort of lived-in feel of the original Alien. The effects are also top notch, and while nothing matches the sheer horror of the Prometheus surgery scene, the cavity-bursting scenes here are about as disgusting as you’ll find in a mainstream horror movie.
Alien: Covenant is a mess of a movie, one that tries to balance Scott’s high-minded cosmic deliberations with schlocky B-movie aesthetics. In the end, it does neither very well, resulting in a languid film that serves no real purpose. Our poor Xenomorph deserves much better than this.