Alien: Covenant

UK Release Date 12th May 2017
Director Ridley Scott
Starring Fassbender & Fassbender
Runtime 122 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 21st May 2017

I have a long and slightly odd history with the Alien franchise. For a start, the previous entry Prometheus was the first I saw at the cinema. Secondly, for a franchise I've purchased in special edition format on VHS, DVD and finally (?) Blu-Ray, I'm not sure how much of it I actually rate. My weird obsession harks way back to my pre-teenage years when a mate had a copy of the original video game for Alien on the Spectrum. The tape cassette for the game came with a free sixteen page booklet, setting the scene for the game (essentially an outline sketch with images from the movie of all the events up to the moment John Hurt gets nasty heartburn). I have a vivid memory of the image showing his cocooned body being jettisoned into space (many thanks to worldofspectrum.org for confirming all this did actually exist) and since I was way too young to even consider seeing the movie (I guess it was probably available on VHS by this point, it being 1984) this is all I had festering in my mind until I finally got to see the movie. I have no memory of actually playing the game and weirdly, no memory of my first viewing of the movie. So go figure why, after two decent movies, one okay one, one 'what just happened?' one, a couple of disposable 'Vs' and one pummelling disappointment, I'm still desperate for this series to be amazing.

As you can imagine, it was with some trepidation that I scoured the various reports of Neil Blomkamp's supposed sequel and Ridley Scott's actual sequel / prequel. The former appears to have been permanently scuttled by the series' overlord and I genuinely had little to no interest in another plodding exploration of the origins of mankind out in the cosmos and oooh, there's something with big teeth! There's evidence here that Ridley Scott's confidence is sufficiently, shall we say, wavering to spend too much time on the big questions....

So Alien: Covenant (the subtitle eventually landed at after numerous nixed ideas) picks up before Prometheus with dubious android David's (Michael Fassbender / Ghost of Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia) first steps (literally) and a highfalutin conversation between him and his creator Weyland Yutani (Guy Pierce back, sans the Walther Matthau makeup). Here we are supposed to see the seeds sown for David's ideas of grandeur over his creator. Skip forward many years and ten years after the Prometheus vanished and we have the jolly crew of the Covenant, a colonisation spaceship en-route to new beginnings with a crew of fifteen, a cargo of 2,000 colonists and a whole bunch of embryos a ready for a sowing. Anyone concerned about that last bit yet? Yup. A newer model of David (Walter) is staffing the vessel during its flight whilst the crew sleep, when a fluke space event breaks the solar sails and forces the crew out of hibernation.

Which of course is the beginning of the end. But, Ridley isn't quite ready to spill the claret just yet. As what appears to be an attempt to instill some life into the Alien chum, we get to spend a little time with the crew - we see a new captain, the incumbent meeting an unfortunate microwave style fate, we learn that the crew are all couples, we learn that... never mind, makes no difference, by the closing credits I defy you to name more than two of them (for the record, it will be Danny McBride's Tennessee and Katherine Waterston's Daniels). During the repairs Tennessee picks up an odd signal in his helmet and on return to the ship, the crew discover a weird signal coming from a nearby planet that could easily host human life. How had they missed it in their professed previous thorough scanning work? Why would they get back into the captain-cooking sleep pods to continue another seven years of flight to their original planet if they can just pop down to this one? Surely it's worth a quick look New Captain keen to please his crew? We don't need to do all the prep work that Daniels is so insistent on do we? Hell no! Let's go!

And so, in true Darwin Award fashion, all but three members of the crew descend to the planet's surface in the ship's only shuttle and troop out onto the surface with nary a containment suit in sight. Needless to say, things start to turn funky quicker than you can say 'contagion carrying spore'. It's not long before they are stranded, losing several Ensign Expendables and Walter's left hand in the process and have to be rescued by a mysterious and very familiar looking man....

To say that Covenant is a collage of the previous Alien movies is the MU-TH-UR (I thank you)  of understatements. Desperate to rein in some of the wailing that audiences threw at Prometheus, Scott throws just about everything at making this an ALIEN movie, right down the the incremental letters of the credits and the nodding bird on a water glass. We get the lax quarantine corridor panic of Alien, alongside an amped up version of the body horror (which manages to dull the shock factor by throwing it around so much), we get the troops in the dropship but still outgunned of Cameron's Aliens, we get the agile creature and POV shots from Fincher's Alien3 and the evolutionary tinkering from Jeunet's Resurrection. All thrown into a big old pot that explodes from some unfortunate's back once he's been dragged back to the med bay.

What we don't get from anywhere is any sense of who these mugs actually are. David, yes, we get plenty of him and great, nasty fun he is too, but the remainder of the cast, they don't even come close in terms of characterisation to even Clemens, Dillon and Andrews from Fincher's much maligned third outing. Which is a shame because without even remembering the character's names, we're just left waiting to see whether they're offed by the Alien straight away or impregnated in order to explode messily later on. Any tension Scott had hoped to build is dulled by both the familiarity of the proceedings and the disposable nature of the characters.

That's not to say there isn't anything good to be seen here. The score is terrific, albeit a riff on the original Alien score and the sound in general adds to the atmosphere well. The cinematography is impressive to behold too, tight and claustrophobic on the ship and expansive and otherworldly on the planet's surface.

Of the performances, Fassbender has a whale of a time twice with his androids, really getting into his stride with the increasingly unhinged David and to be fair to Katherine Waterston, she come across well in what wants to be Ripley's character but doesn't have the script or the commitment to get even close. Of the rest, meh, they're all pretty much cardboard cutouts, inhabiting that Prometheus style world of 'Really. You're really going to stick your head / arm / leg in there are you? Well, good luck with that' incompetence.

In Brief:

Scott boxed himself into a corner with Prometheus, a corner with BIG questions. With Alien: Covenant, he has addressed none of those questions in a scrabbling attempt to get back to the fertile ground of the original two movies. Now confined to a prologue and some brief comments, the BIG questions are left dangling exactly where they were after Prometheus. Except for the likes of the audience, in which case the BIG questions are not 'Who made us' 'Why?' but 'How have these idiots stayed alive this long?' and 'Is that supposed to be a twist?' It's not an awful movie, it's much better than its predecessor but it's still a movie that leaves you with one final BIG question: 'What was the point of all that then?' 

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