It’s possible Alien: Covenant exists because Ridley Scott grew envious toward Neill Blomkamp. Regarding Prometheus (2012), Scott seemed adamant on steering the Weyland Yutani franchise away from Xenomorph carnage. Although designed as a prequel, the film’s absence of LV 426, facehuggers and all other Gigeresque designs confirmed the 79-year-old’s initial decision.
After many years of development, Prometheus finally hit theatres on 31st May 2012. To phrase it in the nicest way possible, Scott’s highly anticipated origin story received mixed reviews.
Although the Alien prequel can be praised for tackling high-concept subjects which many blockbusters tend to shy away from, a lot of the film inevitably gets lost up its own backside. Too much ambiguity means the plot quickly turns to meaningless mush, plus Damon Lindelof’s pisspoor writing worsens matters considerably.
Jump forward to 2015 and District 9 (2009) director Neill Blomkamp triggers an online nerdgasm by announcing he’s working on an untitled Alien 5 project. Despite what Scott initially thought, a taste for Xenomorph blood certainly still existed within popular culture.
Several months later Ridley Scott performs a U-turn, Blomkamp’s Alien 5 gets cancelled and Prometheus 2 is retooled into Alien: Covenant; a Xenomorph gore-fest that does the total opposite of what he previously set out to achieve. Although it’s plausible to assume Scott changed his mind over the years, one cannot help but wonder whether this decision was brought about by a man jealous his movies no longer hit the same notes they once did.
Admittedly we don’t know what Blomkamp had in mind for Sigourney Weaver’s 5th outing as Ellen Ripley. It could have been terrible for all we know. What we do know, however, is that Ridley Scott’s now undoubtedly returned to making full-blown Alien films. Not a spin off or loose prequel or whatever the hell Prometheus was aiming for; just good old fashioned chestbursting Xeno-flicks.
Alien: Covenant opens with what’s essentially an extended prologue for Prometheus. Android David sits with his maker – Mr Peter Weyland – discussing existence and the creation of life. Next we jump to deep space several decades forth; slap bang in the midst of a colony’s journey toward their new home. Their ship – the Covenant – is struck by a freak solar storm which causes devastating casualties and prematurely awakens the main crew from hypersleep. As they repair the outer ship they discover a distress signal from a closer habitable planet. Seeing as none of the crew are too keen on going back into hypersleep, they decide on settling there instead.
Scott does an admirable job of setting up the first act. Although the characters aren’t all that well developed, he manages to build a similar level of tension found within the first act of the 1979 original.
Tension builds upon arrival at the mysterious planet; escalating well as Covenant’s runtime progresses. As first-victim Ledward is infected by airborne spores, crewmate Karine drags him back to medical. By this point the tension builds to an angst-inducing level. Witnessing a terrified Faris lock them both inside the medi-bay as Ledward’s spine ruptures open promotes the high tension to terror. It’s a brutally realistic and human response; disturbing because it’s possible to picture one’s self behaving in such a frantic manner under similar circumstances.
The buildup to Ledward’s demise gives the impression that Alien: Covenant may turn out to be good after all. It alludes to the promise of a ruthless, tense and seemingly realistic horror movie. Perhaps Scott’s done it, maybe he’s managed to make the first decent Xenomorph flick since 1986. Except all that potential disappears in a heartbeat. Ledward’s back splits open and we see the neomorph flap around the room for the first time. It’s this moment in which the entire movie unravels at the seams.
From here onward, Alien: Covenant is revealed for what it is; a disappointing shambles. The new alien designs are weak, creature movements are horribly cartoonish, the action is appallingly paced and characters behave like two-dimensional slabs.
Looking back on this film, one of its worst offenders is probably the creatures themselves. For one thing, their movements are far too quick and spindly. Although on paper the idea to make them spider-like may sound like a good one, the onscreen execution is laughable. They take you right out of the action, coming across as farcical more so than they are scary.
Movement isn’t the only factor spoiling these creatures; it’s their level of visibility too. One of the stronger aspects to Scott’s 1979 original was how much he left up to interpretation. For a majority of the film we only see the alien in parts. Closeups, low lighting and sets resembling the beast mean audience imaginations are sent into overdrive. Suggestive imagery is far more effective than explicitly showing, even when it comes to a design as terrifying as Giger’s Xenomorph. Even when Alien does show the full creature, such shots are so brief audiences are still given little idea on how it moves or hunts.
All the unconvincing CGI, dangly Alien movements and well-lit creature shots take all this away from Covenant. Instead of having a film with a murderous beast lurking deep within the shadows of a ship, you have a snarling insect dashing about the place like something from a videogame.
Covenant reduces these iconic terrors into cartoon reiterations, and not just when it comes to their execution either. There’s a moment in the film when it’s revealed that android David is responsible for their creation. Sometime after the events of Prometheus, he and Elizabeth Shaw arrived at the Engineers’ home world. Upon landing he decides to wipe out their entire species by using their own biological weaponry on them. David murders Shaw and spends the remaining decade tinkering with the bio tech he previously used to commit genocide with.
Which is how the Xenomorph is born. No longer are they some ancient incubus originating from the depths of our imaginations or universe; but the byproduct of an android with a conscious and a taste for organic tinkering. They’ve been reduced from demonic star-beasts symbolising sexual anxiety to experimental exhibits built by a synthetic misanthrope. From nightmare fuel to a robot’s play doh.
All of this raises the problem with trying to shed light on things that need no light shedding on. In spite of some fans claiming “how cool it would be if we found out where these aliens came from”, their mystery was actually part of what made them so horrifying. When the crew of the Nostromo set down on LV 426, they fell victim to a life form they knew nothing about. Although rules regarding their lifecycle were established, they were still parasitic nightmares who stemmed from an unknown corner of the universe; a place so terrifying no human mind could comprehend.
This is one of Covenant’s biggest problems. It provides audiences with far too much information – both visually and narratively – regarding what Xenomorphs are. Scott’s officially canonising the origin story for AVP wikia.
Ultimately this means Scott has now attempted to throw both too much ambiguity at the Alien timeline as well as too much exposition. He ventured down cryptic lane in 2012, then after figuring out fans didn’t like his decision he decides to trek up obvious avenue in 2017.
If anything, Scott should have just carried on with what he started in Prometheus. Fans may have been sulky about not getting facehuggers and co, however if he’d just let someone else make a Xeno-centric film while continuing his prequel/spin-off malarky; things may have turned out better.
But let’s forget Alien and Xenomorphs for a moment, because if we’re being honest, trying to look at the movie from that perspective makes for a more critical viewing than if we treat it as a standalone picture. If the creatures in this movie were completely original, would it be improved in anyway?
Well not entirely, because Alien: Covenant still has serious problems wired into its overall existence. These are issues which can be traced back to Ridley Scott as a filmmaker in general. When it comes to the overall visuals, this man is truly in his element. He’s responsible for creating some of the most exquisite scenery ever to grace the silver screen, and such beauty is certainly present here. With the exception of all those gangly creatures dashing about the place, everything else looks breathtaking.
Problem is although he knows how to put together dazzling vistas for his film’s backdrops, he struggles when it comes to pacing and overall storytelling. His films are often either far too long for their own good or drag at an excruciating rate.
Alien: Covenant is no different. Although he’s managed to scale it down to a 122 minute runtime, the pacing is borderline amateur. Nothing happens for vast stretches, then everything happens at once. Take the neomorph scene as an example. The buildup to the back burster is steady and tense. Scott takes time building toward it. Suddenly, there’s two creatures running about the place and the action sequences stack up one after the other. Shortly thereafter the plot slips back to doing very little, then suddenly BOOM! We’re back to fifty events at once. It’s either too-little-too-long or too-much-too-fast.
Pacing isn’t the only tonal inconsistency found in Alien: Covenant, as the narrative’s subject matter is just as uneven in that respect too. It’s clear Scott is trying to make two completely different movies at once here. On the one hand he wants to execute a grand, sweeping science fiction think-piece; while on the other he just wants to make a crowd-pleasing monster movie.
Themes surrounding philosophy and religion pop up abundantly throughout. Even the “why are we here?” discussion established in Prometheus bobs its head above water from time to time. As for the religious undertones, there’s a fair few here. The endless biblical symbolism strewed throughout; Oram (Billy Crudup) being a religious man living in an atheist world; David’s speech on how it’s “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” and the android’s decision to create a demon-like species that’ll annihilate his creators as well as their own. These are but a few examples of how much religious subtext is crammed into this one movie.
Admittedly, these are the stronger parts of the film, except instead of following through with all of these cerebral concepts, Alien: Covenant switches to being a mindless monster movie at regular intervals. Scott tries to have his cake and eat it here. It appears he wants to continue whatever on earth it was he started with Prometheus, while cashing in on Xenomorph popularity simultaneously. Problem is, both Prometheus 2 and Alien 0.5 pull in opposite directions from one another. It’s jarring and muddled in ways which do it no favours.
Characters are likewise a problem. Their dialogue is unreal, plus they have next to no personality. This makes it difficult to feel any tension when they start getting killed off. No matter how unpleasant a death, caring about their demise isn’t an easy task. Much like the daft looking monsters, a plot filled with emotionless planks takes you further out of this story.
The only characters remotely interesting is android David and his next-gen sibling Walter. On top of the fact both are played by the excellent Michael Fassbender, their dialogue raises questions regarding the consequences of artificial intelligence; what it means to be alive; humanity’s place in the universe; the philosophical implications of creating a new species and all those Prometheus 2 type concepts referenced above. These are the strongest moments of the film. If only Scott had given us more of this instead of dragging it back to being Alien 0.5. As underwhelming as Prometheus may have been at times, expanding on such themes would have made for a much more interesting sequel.
In the context of it being part of the larger Weyland Yutani franchise, Alien: Covenant is a colossal letdown. Although not the worst Alien film to date, it visually and narratively tarnishes everything which made the Xenomorphs terrifying back in 1979. The fact this feature is directed by the same man who helped make the series so successful in the first place is absurd.
As a standalone movie it’s a tonal/thematic mess which nonetheless manages to exhibit stunning cinematography and some interesting themes when it wants to. It could have been so much better, sadly the bland characters, poor action, dodgy pacing and weak narrative doesn’t help it in the slightest