Length: 122 mins
Writer(s): Jack Paglan and Michael Green (story), John Logan and Dante Harper (screenplay)
Dir.: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride
SPOILER ALERT: Mild spoilers for Alien: Covenant and possibly Prometheus.
Much like its predecessor, Alien: Covenant is a movie that asks more questions than it answers. At times these questions are high-minded and almost philosophical – the fundamentally unanswerable and existential questions that have kept the finest minds in history awake at night. For the majority of the movie, however, these questions are far more mundane. Like “what the fuck is going on?”
Yes, unfortunately for us all, Covenant has all the same problems that Prometheus did, chief among which is an ‘idiot plot’ – i.e. a plot that only happens because all the characters in it are colossal fucking idiots. Set a decade after the events of Prometheus, the movie focuses on the increasingly poor decisions of the starship Covenant, humanity’s first colonisation mission. Rudely awoken from cryosleep by a freak accident that kills their captain, the remaining crew intercept a strange signal coming from a nearby planet. Finding that this hitherto uncharted world has a breathable atmosphere, they boldly decided to abandon their original plan, endanger the lives of the 2000 colonists still in cryosleep, and take a detour to investigate. Tits rocket decidedly skyward from that point on – aliens happen, Michael Fassbender discusses philosophy with himself for ages, and nearly everyone dies. The end.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that the original movie of this franchise, 1979’s Alien, was actually a relatively simple film. Duplicitous androids with ulterior motives aside, the story was essentially an 80s slasher movie set in space. A confined and claustrophobic setting, a shadowy and seldom seen villain or monster, and a group of ostensibly regular joes who are picked off one by one – it had a fairly standard set up. This simplicity, however, allowed for a much more atmospheric movie and the result was a genuinely creepy film that still holds up some 30 years later. In contrast, Prometheus and, to a much greater extent, Alien: Covenant are desperately overwritten and needlessly complicated – to the point where they feel disjointed and almost nonsensical.
Layered on top of what should be a similarly straightforward plot – i.e. a bunch of idiots land on a planet and then aliens happen – are mountains of pseudo-intellectual filler and exposition that do nothing but detract from the movie. At the start of the second act, the film just sort of stops and takes and an inordinate amount of time to explain what happened after the end of Prometheus. A good chunk of this section sees David – the obligatory deceitful android from the previous film played by Michael Fassbender – talking to the another android (also played by Fassbender) about the nature of creativity, quoting Shelley and Milton, and just generally being creepy. For half an hour. It just doesn’t gel with the rest of the film – like, at all. All it does is serve as a set up for one of the most poorly executed twists I have ever seen in a movie. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s so painfully obvious that I found it almost insulting.
At no point during the film did I feel that I fully understood the motivations of the characters involved. Despite its formidable runtime, the movie doesn’t adequately characterise any of the lead roles. Some of them literally state what their characters are – like the stand-in captain who is apparently religious, but otherwise does nothing to explain why he would be the second in command – but the majority of the cast seem to be there solely to be picked off by an alien at some point. I don’t even know what the main character was supposed to do – outside of her vaguely being responsible for the terraforming equipment. Say what you like about the crew from Prometheus, but at least you knew why they were all there.
This is particularly the case for David – I genuinely don’t know why he does anything that he does in these films. In the first Alien movie, it’s heavily implied that the nefarious Weyland-Yutani Corporation – the seemingly omnipresent organisation that finances all of these space missions – is hell-bent on obtaining a living xenomorph, regardless of the cost. This is why the ship’s computer has hidden mission objectives and why the company android – played wonderfully by Ian Holm – appears to have a secret agenda. In these prequels, there is absolutely no reason for David to behave the way that he does. While this movie goes out of its way to try and explain this, all the reasons that he gives come across as revisionist, in that they seem to contradict everything we’ve been shown before. David states that he hated his creator – Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland – even though this was never apparent in Prometheus, and Weyland treats him like a favoured son in that movie. David says he hates humanity in general, but at no point was this even hinted at in the previous film. All of his apparent motivations come completely out of the blue, and it totally undermines the entire plot.
From a purely technical viewpoint, Alien: Covenant is far more competently made than its predecessor. It can’t be denied that Ridley Scott has a great eye for composition and atmosphere, and at times the movie is visually stunning. The over reliance on CGI gets a bit much at times – particularly with the aliens themselves, which is a bit odd – but, for the most part, it’s a good looking film. When it comes down to it, though, Covenant is an exercise in bad storytelling – and no amount of pretty shots can cover that up.
All in all, while Alien: Covenant is a slight improvement on Prometheus – it’s a better-made movie than the first prequel. But, at the end of the day, Ridley Scott is not a good storyteller. There are so many basic problems with the narrative, so many inconsistencies with the characters and plot lines, so many pretentious diversions onto faux philosophical tangents, that the basic story gets completely lost. Don’t get me wrong, there is a good movie in here, somewhere. It’s just totally over-written, meaningless schlock that in no way lives up to the franchise it belongs to.
Still, at least we’ve got Blade Runner 2049 to look forward to, right?