ON IN CINEMAS
The Covenant of the title is a huge space ship headed on a colonisation mission to the planet Origae-6, with thousands of would-be colonists and hatch-on-arrival embryos on board. Michael Fassbender plays Walter, a successor model to the android David from Prometheus, who acts as caretaker while the colonists and crew are in hibernation. While he puts out the ship’s solar sails for a recharge, the vessel is hit by a stellar flare that causes it damage. Walter makes the decision to re-awaken the crew so as to deal with the scenario. However, during the scramble the crew’s captain, named Branson (an uncredited James Franco), dies when his cryogenic pod catches fire. While his bereaved wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) grieves, second-in-command Oram (Billy Crudup) succeeds his command.
Another member of the ship’s crew named Tennessee (Danny McBride) goes outside the ship to conduct some maintenance. However, while he does so he intercepts a transmission via his helmet receiver. When he comes back inside the crew examine the garbled message and deduce that it includes a part of a John Denver song - thus implying that its source is human - and that it is coming from a nearby planet. Despite objections from Daniels, Oram decides to stay from the mission and land on it.
While on the surface they discover a crop of cultivated wheat, providing further evidence that the planet can sustain humanoid life. However, the team soon runs into trouble when two of its members inhale some mysterious spores and start to become sick. Soon, the crew begins to face a full-blown xenomorph nightmare.
Many people (including myself) were rather disappointed that 2012’s Alien prequel Prometheus largely jettisoned the undiluted terror of the 1979 film in favour of a rather overblown mythology and tons of glossily fake-looking CGI. Alien: Covenant is admittedly a marginally better film than Prometheus and does at least try to regain some of the feel of the still-masterful original. Unfortunately it still has a number of the same issues, along with a few new ones of its own.
The epic mythology in the early Alien films was indeed tantalising, but it was (for good reason) kept as a flurry of background detail while the main focus was on scaring the wits out of the audience. When it’s put into the foreground it just comes across as a disjointed series of vignettes. Here, such moments feel downright out of place when put up against the more horror-orientated sections. The scenes between two Michael Fassbenders - he plays both Walter and his predecessor David here, giving a subtly different performance as each - kick off an intriguing and timely discussion on the nature of what an AI persona should be, but seem to have wandered in from a rough sketch of a proposed sequel to Bladerunner. There’s also a flashback to a spectacular act of genocide, but again it’s so visually and tonally out-of-step with the bulk of the film that it doesn’t belong here.
Unfortunately, despite some atmospheric visuals and effective gore, the horror sequences don’t necessarily work as well as they did Alien, Aliens, or even (whisper it) Alien 3 for that matter. The CGI aliens here are overexposed, shiny and cartoon-like, and really don’t hold a candle to the pure chills generated by the briefly-glimpsed practical effects in the early films. Throw in some hyperactive, what-the-hell-is-going-on editing and we have another example of what’s wrong with big-budget blockbusters nowadays. The only sequence that comes close to approximating what was great about the 1979 and 1986 entries is the film’s final one. Really - why should we wait an hour and three quarters for Ridley Scott to deliver something almost (but not quite) up to par with a film released 38 years ago?
Another sticking point is the film’s trendy insistence on self-conscious riffing and on-the-nose referencing. The whole idea of the space journey diverted by a signal that gets picked up is a variant on the setup of the original Alien. Fassbender’s performance as David deliberately channels that of Ian Holm as Ash in the original. Remember the scene where the penis-metaphor xenomorph tail comes up between Lambert’s legs in the 1979 film? Well, here we get it coming up between another female character’s legs DURING A SEX SCENE (just in case we don’t get the image’s subtext). Eagle-eyed viewers might remember the drinking bird ornament seen in middle-distance during a shot in the original, but here they decide to linger on it looming in the foreground. There’s even a homage to the Replicant “kiss” scene from Bladerunner.
The sad thing is that, once you get past the lazy riffing, tonal incoherence and bloated mythology there is evidence that some people involved in this space-journey-gone-awry could have made the movie into a much better one than it was, had their crewmates decided to pull their weight. Hell, even I was convinced at points that this might turn to be a better movie than it ultimately was. The performances are pretty solid across the board, with Fassbender particularly chilling in his dual android role, Waterston transitioning rather convincingly from a loss-inflicted victim to a plucky surrogate Ripley, and even Danny McBride in a more serious than usual form in a crucial supporting role. The production design by Chris Seagers is also impressive, recapturing the clinical/industrial aesthetic from the original while adding a few imaginative flourishes of its own.
On the whole though I would have to say to Ridley Scott: please, please, don’t do another Alien film. This is an improvement but it’s still a misfire. Please, just leave us to our memories.
Runtime: 122 mins
Dir: Ridley Scott
Script: Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Egojo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, James Franco, Guy Pearce