I won’t lie, I was ready to be disappointed by Alien: Covenant.
When I finally walked into it, I did so with low expectations and gratitude that my ticket was free. An ardent fan of both Alien and Aliens, I’m still sore about how disappointing Prometheus turned out to be. I was hopeful that Alien: Covenant would be different, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath. I thought I’d learned my lesson about managing expectations.
So imagine my surprise and delight when Alien: Covenant turned out to be thrilling, scary, and downright thoughtful. Alien: Covenant, thankfully, broke new ground instead of rehashing Prometheus and took meaningful steps towards giving us the same kind of gruesome and disturbing space horror epics we all know and love.
Alien: Covenant picks up about 15 years after the events of Prometheus, when The Covenant, a colonization ship carrying some 3000 passengers, is severely damaged halfway through its journey to a new planetary system. The crew, having suffered the loss of their beloved captain, decides to change course in favor of a nearby planet that seems perfectly hospitable to human life. Accompany by the ships official Weyland-Yutani-brand android, Walter, (Michael Fassbender), the crew descends onto the planet only to encounter worse horrors than they imagined, as well as an evil that threatens the crew and the lives of the colonists and embryos on board The Covenant.
All in all, the action sequences were good, the monsters were frightening, and the film explored new ground with central themes of creation and destruction. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, and it has some distinct flaws, but Alien: Covenant was a far more enjoyable film that what I had expected.
First, the highlights.
Alien: Covenant did a better job of reclaiming the original’s penchant for a strong cast. The actors were generally solid (even the nameless ones were believable), with a surprisingly solid dramatic performance from Danny McBride. I didn’t know how I would feel about him in this movie, but he was pretty convincing! He should think about more dramatic roles for his career, especially if he can get a hold of a more developed character. I digress.
Alien Covenant was at its best whenever Michael Fassbender was onscreen. As in Prometheus, Fassbender is the film’s MVP. He’s the unquestionable star. (Little known fact, the alternate title for the movie was Alien: 2 Michael 2 Fassbender.) This was a not unanticipated development, as Fassbender stole all his scenes in Prometheus. It wasn’t hard to see how a studio executive would want not one, but two Fassbender characters that are coldly handsome and unnervingly smart and just plain…off. They explore David’s horrid cabinet of curiosities together! They fight each other! They have weird sexual tension! They have philosophical and literary discussions that turn into passive aggressive arguments!
I loved it. I looooved both David and Walter. Fassbender is always a joy to watch, but he’s particularly fun in these movies. His portrayal of David is a polished, intelligent, and tense depiction of a mad man slowly coming apart at the seams. His is a new interpretation of a sincerely mad scientist, and Fassbender wisely chooses to underplay David’s growth to make him cool, calm, and utterly creepy.
On the other hand, Fassbender plays Walter as subdued, earthy, and insightful. He may come across as naïve and unexperienced, but Walter is no dummy. He’s constantly observing those around him, analyzing behavior and developments. His subtle, restrained mannerisms are a good foil to David’s dramatic flourishes. It’s also a perfect example of how Michael Fassbender did a lot of work to conceptualize both characters and actually portray them in distinct ways. The Alien: Covenant script did give him a lot of material to work with, but Michael Fassbender has all the best scenes because he works hard to make them impressive.
Concerning the script, Alien: Covenant had much better writing than Prometheus, though it was uneven. Very uneven. I did appreciate how it balanced its more esoteric concepts with blood and kick-assery (I won’t spoil those parts, which are very, very fun).
The movie was a little slow in the beginning, but if you’ve read my blog at all, you know that I love a slow burn, especially when it builds characters and establishes tense group dynamics. I didn’t mind that it took 45 minutes to set up the movie, especially the film gave me more meaningful character development than what I got from Prometheus.
Granted, most of the script focused on David, Walter, and some of Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston). Most fascinating was David’s arc, which takes a turn from creation to creator, coming full circle from Frankenstein’s monster to Dr. Frankenstein himself. David is a provocative critique of humanity. Through his eyes, Alien: Covenant explored David’s preoccupation with creation and what it means for those around him. David seems to equate power and autonomy with the ability to create and control. It’s something he was supposedly denied by his creator, who he feels he has surpassed. Creation is the only way David has to demand the respect and fear he believes he is owed.
Walter, on the other hand, is a more empathetic and compassionate portrayal of humanity’s shortcomings. He knows the human beings around him are petty and fairly helpless, but he’s not interested in asserting his superiority, if any. He wants to offer them acceptance and understanding. Seeing these two androids debate and fight about the profound act of creation and destruction was eerie and riveting in a way I’m not used to seeing in a summer blockbuster.
I also enjoyed Daniels, the terraforming officer and not-Ripley stand-in played. She was strong, smart, determined, but also vulnerable. I loved her frustration with her superior’s orders and I appreciated her struggle to fall in line, despite knowing that the crew was headed into a dangerous situation. She’s a team player, but she’s not afraid to speak up even if she does get shut down for stupid reasons. As someone who works in a corporate environment, Alien: Covenant became way scarier when I saw it as the terrifying story of a woman beset on all sides by incompetence, finding herself at the whim of a leader who failed his way up the corporate ladder until fate cruelly placed him in charge and her fellow crew members are too emotional to think straight.
But whereas David, Walter, and Daniels were developed characters, other characters were there to be killed off. Seriously, there were a whole bunch of crew members that I can’t identify except by the way they died. It would have been nice to actually care about the characters so that their deaths could have some punch and meaning. This is especially true for Captain Oram, the most glaringly weak character. He could have been so engrossing, but he was flat and annoying and I was glad when he died. Ridley Scott has many strengths, but he has never been good at presenting religious characters in a way that feels realistic or compelling.
Oram’s faith seemed tacked on while being the character’s main trait, i.e. the “religious one.” He struggles with leadership not because he is unprepared for the harrowing crisis he finds himself in, but because he’s “religious” and can’t relate to his crew. I was not convinced. Billy Crudup tried, bless him, but Oram was a wasted opportunity given the film’s exploration of godlike power.
Speaking of lazy writing, how many times will a character in an Alien movie ignore quarantine procedures? Goddamn it, the maintenance of quarantine is a plot point in every single Alien movie, and yet only recently have stupid characters been allowed to violate quarantine through mind-boggling dumb choices.
It drives me CRAZY. I thought the Alien movies were supposed to be above such cheap, stereotypically bad horror movie tricks. I cannot for the life of me understand why Ridley Scott allows his characters to keep doing this idiotic shit. It makes no sense that these supposedly well-trained and experienced crew members would change course for a random planet, do some the bare minimum research, and land without so much as sending an unmanned drone first. And to go down without any suits? Are you f*****g serious?
Thank goodness the film was nice to look at. Naturally, Ridley Scott made sure Alien: Covenant had stunning cinematography. Dariusz Wolski, the cinematographer for Prometheus, returned for Alien: Covenant and did an excellent job capturing light and texture, thereby creating gritty realism and somber atmosphere. I think Prometheus has more cohesive aesthetic direction and is the prettier film, but Alien: Covenant made me want to pause the movie to study certain frames.
Flaws aside, I enjoyed Alien: Covenant as s solid summer action-horror movie. It made me hide behind my hands, it made me cheer, it made me cringe, and it made me think. While I had to turned off my brain in parts, in others I had much to ponder. That’s more than I usually glean from a summer blockbuster horror movie, and if this is the new direction the Alien series is heading in, I’m eager to see more.