Provided you ignore its ties to the Alien series, Prometheus was actually a decent slice of sci-fi horror. From the beginning Ridley Scott said that whilst Prometheus took place in the same universe, it was not intended to be an Alien film. But regardless of its intent Prometheus was met with much hostility upon its release, with many bemoaning the absence of everyone’s favourite homicidal xenomorph. With cries for a return to the dark, shadowy, death filled days of yore, Ridley Scott appears to have succumbed to these demands resulting in Alien: Covenant being a bastard love child of Alien and Prometheus in an attempt to provide answers to the numerous questions raised by the latter and a return to the ticket selling success of the former.
What we get is something which only goes halfway to doing either. In short, Covenant neither satisfactorily follows up from Prometheus nor delivers a pure Alien experience. Things begin promisingly, with the film’s title unfolding against the black of space set to Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting theme that he scored for the original Alien back in 1979. The crew of the colony ship Covenant are then rudely awakened by a random space storm that causes the death of the ship’s captain (a bizarre and short-lived appearance by James Franco). Whilst conducting repairs the crew intercepts a rogue distress signal from a nearby planet which appears to be potentially more habitable than the Covenant’s original destination. Naturally, acting captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the ill-fated decision to go and check it out.
Protesting the decision is first officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who is recovering from the loss of the ships captain who was also her partner. This adds an interesting and new angle to the Alien franchise, due to this being a settlement mission many on board are non-military and have their partners with them which helps add a deeper emotional consequence to the dangers the crew face. Outside of Daniels and Oram however the only other (human) crew member worthy of note is Danny McBride’s Tennessee (who’s memorable in part due to his cowboy hat). Covenant has a much larger cast than previous Alien films but they’re also fairly forgettable and serve as Alien fodder rather than meaningful additions to the team.
Upon arrival at the signal’s source things obviously go from bad to worse, the key word here being obviously. One of Covenant’s greatest shortcomings is that it’s terribly predictable, it retreads familiar ground and throws in twists that are both obvious and inexplicable. We do get a break from the traditional enclosed corridor areas that usually house the horror, with some outdoor sequences bringing the action front and centre, such as a Jurassic Park-esque sequence early on as baby proto-Aliens ambush the crew in a field. But these sequences come at a cost to both tension and atmosphere, later in the film we see the full CGI alien scurrying about in daylight, which takes away that ‘fear of the dark’ feeling that defined the series originally.
Once the first few casualties occur a familiar face appears to rescue our grief stricken party. Previously decapitated android David escorts the crew to the grim necropolis he has made his home and recounts how he and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw survived the events of Prometheus and went in search of the Engineers. Michael Fassbender doubles down on acting duties this time, playing both David and Walter, the Covenant’s synthetic servant. Fair play to Fassbender he plays the two deftly and manages to differentiate the two androids on more levels than just having different accents. Though it does lead to some of the films stranger scenes including one that plays like something straight out of a Fassbender fanfic where David teaches Walter to play the flute and features dialogue such as ‘I’ll do the fingering’ and later culminates in a scene of Fassbender kissing himself.
David and Walter are the most fascinating aspect of Covenant, and are definitely more Prometheus than Alien in nature. They have lofty conversations about the nature of slavery and creation and I can’t help but feel these are themes best left for Blade Runner which Scott is also revisiting later this year. Which leads me to the Alien itself, the familiar form of which only appears in the final act, prior to that we get the previously mentioned proto-aliens (being referred to by fans as neomorphs). As ever the Alien still strikes a formidable figure and thanks to modern technology looks great and now moves with a speed and ferocity previously unseen. But that’s about as good as it gets, as Scott seems set on removing all mystery around the origins of the Alien and bringing it ever more into the light, Covenant vastly under-serves one of cinemas most famous monsters.
Covenant has a bad habit of answering but not answering the questions it raises. And it’s done by making the truth so overly wordy you’re not really sure what’s been said. It’s like someone writing a university essay and needing to hit a word count and digging out all the exposition and grandeur they can muster. Covenant feels like another step on the long way round to an ending we already know. It brings the lofty exposition of Prometheus and tries to blend it with the pure unexplained horror of Alien and ends up being a lukewarm and predictable mix of the two.