“Alien: Covenant” is a film which, like “Prometheus” before it, fails to live up to its potential. It’s a film with a number of positive features, such as its accomplished cinematography and believable performances, but the plot is riddled with holes and ultimately it lacks a true identity.
The tagline for “Alien” was – in space no one can hear you scream – and it was built from that concept. It was about isolation and exploitation – everything from the setting to the monster design was intended to amplify those themes. Fast-forward to “Aliens” and again you’ll see a film which realises its intentions and reveals them through its execution. It built on the original and raised the stakes, and it did this not by trying to outdo the first film on its own terms (using tense psychological horror), but through a shift in tone. “Aliens” took the series in a more action-orientated direction, adding more Xenomorphs to the mix and giving the protagonists the tools with which to fight them, making for a film which was easier to watch and arguably more entertaining.
Unfortunately, “Prometheus” wasn’t a cinematic milestone like “Alien” was, and as such the job that Ridley Scott had on his hands when it came to building upon the first film of this new series was substantially trickier than the job that James Cameron had when he wrote “Aliens”. With this film Scott had to address the plot holes that “Prometheus” dug up and try to fill them with a story that also made sense of “Alien”, which even for a talented director is almost impossible.
To his credit, “Covenant” was entertaining and frightening at certain points; it established its tone with the very first scene and the way that it was shot conveyed the feeling that the human characters were constantly fighting against something more powerful than themselves, whether that be space, their environment, or killer aliens. However, the positive features of this film did nothing to dispel the feeling that its purpose was to paper over the cracks in “Prometheus”, and the fact that it concluded with a clear nod to another sequel only furthered the thought that it was simply a transitional film.
What I’m trying to say is that ultimately this movie felt pointless. It started out as a horror film and then devolved into a CGI action-heavy mess by the final act, its characters were disposable and the majority of them will never be mentioned again, and it didn’t really make the lore of the series any clearer than “Prometheus” did. This was largely a result of the failings of the aforementioned film – it’s certainly clear that much of what “Covenant” got wrong resulted directly from having to contend with what “Prometheus” didn’t explain – but the fact that this movie asked more questions than it answered really didn’t help.
“Covenant” would’ve been a far more coherent and satisfying film if there had been a conscious effort to right the wrongs of “Prometheus” by presenting a tight narrative, rather than leaving the fate of its characters hanging by the end of the film, and although the final twist was a good one on paper it didn’t leave a positive impression. From my perspective the twist rendered most of what had come before it completely superfluous, particularly because David (Michael Fassbender) could’ve achieved the same outcome that he achieved at the end of the movie by leaving the humans to their own devices and stealing their ship whilst Faris (Amy Seimetz) was alone. He would’ve had to contend with the three crew members left on board the Covenant, but I’m sure that that wouldn’t have been too much trouble for him.
You could argue that David is an inquisitive android who is so enamoured with his creation that he wants to admire it by watching it kill the crew one-by-one, and you could also argue that he was looking for an opportunity to test out his facehuggers on living organisms, but that doesn’t change the fact that he could’ve done this with the 2,000 colonists on board the Covenant at a later date.
Still, despite the many issues that I have with this film I would probably watch it again, and it’s far from the worst entry in the “Alien” series. I liked many of its smaller details and there were elements of it which I would keep if I was conceptualising how to improve it as a whole. My assessment of this film is actually almost identical to my assessment of its predecessor, as I feel that it inherits many of the same problems as well as many of its redeeming qualities.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review the cinematography is impressive and it creates a distinctly science-fiction feel. I’ve seen it described as unoriginal and uninspired but personally I felt that it was suitably classic, presenting a world which was grandiose and diverse, even if it wasn’t fully explored. Scott placed the humans in the middle of a land that they didn’t fully understand, which I think is a great trope of the genre, and he made them seem vulnerable by using wide shots to capture the enormity of the landscape. The scenery was beautiful but foreboding and seeing the characters struggle to make their way through it gave the movie the feeling of isolation that the series is known for, because although they weren’t in a claustrophobic environment they were exposed and alone, unaware of what dangers awaited them and unable to hide.
If there’s one criticism that I would personally level at the film from a cinematography standpoint it would be that some of the action/horror sequences either happened too quickly, in such a way that it was hard to focus on exactly what was going on, or were shot without adequate lighting making it a struggle to work out who had the upper hand. This didn’t happen very often but when it did it was very noticeable and took away from the tension that the film was attempting to create – at the end of the day it’s quite difficult to be afraid of something that’s supposed to be visually disturbing when you can’t actually see it.
Finally, it’s worth noting that despite “Covenant’s” many issues the performances are sound across the board. There was only one performance that I personally didn’t enjoy (Billy Crudup’s portrayal of Christopher Oram) and this was largely down to the writing of his character rather than his delivery or facial expressions. Once again Michael Fassbender was great as David, making him suitably menacing but also compelling to watch, and he was so good that for much of the film I found myself routing for his character rather than the protagonists.
So, overall “Alien: Covenant” was a messy, clichéd, and predictable film from a narrative perspective, but it did have redeeming aspects such as its cinematography and Michael Fassbender’s performance as David. It’s not an insulting film and it hasn’t devalued its predecessors in my opinion, nor has it dampened my enthusiasm to see more Xenomorphs in the future, but ultimately it was a disappointing effort from Ridley Scott. He definitely made an effort to explain some of the issues that arose in “Prometheus” – this is by no means a lazy movie – and there are themes which carry over from that film which are interesting, but it lacks clarity and leaves far too many questions unanswered when the final credits roll.