Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Katherine Waterson, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir
Plot: A colonist crew are awoken by a freak disaster in space, which attracts them to an unknown planet which could sustain human life. Predictably, it is too good to be true…
The first thing to consider before watching Alien: Covenant is: what are you expected from a 2017 Alien film? While the right signs are well and truly present (Ridley Scott back at the helm, an actual appearance from the beloved Alien, an emphasis on terror), we are still dealing with a franchise based off of a simple horror that’s best trick was the element of surprise. The modern audience know the deal by now. There will be a suspicious looking egg, a naïve traveller, a terrifying spider-like creature that will leap from the egg and plant an alien creature into the traveller’s stomach. After a chest-bursting reveal later, there will be a fearsome black Xenomorph running around, unstoppable and malevolent. The real trick of an Alien movie is keeping these trademarks fresh. Covenant does this to a point, but even if the quality has readjusted into the positive from the abysmal Alien V Predator: Requiem, the poor Alien: Resurrection and the ‘not-quite-Alien’ Prometheus, there is still a sense that this is just another Alien movie.
However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that if this is where your expectations are fixed. While the stereotypes are well and truly present, from the stock Alien storyline of a colony of space-travellers ending up in a strange, alien world getting picked off one by one in gruesome ways, at the very least, Ridley Scott is in charge of them. While it was James Cameron who put Alien on the map, there is something undeniably enjoyable about having Scott bring the movies back to that original spine-chilling atmosphere. His strongest move is sticking to his guns and not quite giving us the same Xenomorph we have had in the past. While this might dissuade the purists, and a few negative reviews prove that this development has left a sour taste in the mouths of some, what this addition of a new Alien does do is bring back that fear of the unknown. There is a delightful early moment in Alien: Covenant where we have no idea what is going to happen. Dust particles latch onto unsuspecting red shirts and we are tensed for exactly how everything is going to go wrong. The first reveal of the dreaded Alien is a terrific scene which kills off two members of the crew promptly in a medical bay. These are the kind of deaths where you will be hard-pressed not to turn away from the screen for just a moment. The dread laced throughout Covenant is what sells this picture and sets it apart from the other Alien films. There are two deaths involving fire and Scott uses subtle tricks to take those kills from bad to downright stomach-turning. There are other tricks too that require Scott’s creative mind to ramp up the fear. When an Alien goes loose on a spacecraft, Katherine Waterson stumbles across the fresh corpses of its latest kill, while Paolo Nutini plays in the background, the chorus echoing eerily throughout an empty ship. It adds so much to what could have been a standard moment of the film. It is almost a shame that Scott still feels the need to be restricted to the conventions of the modern day Alien film. It is hard not to frown when the ending of Covenant embraces a more action-packed tone. The original Alien movie was so strong because the Xenomorph was kept to the shadows: no one really knew what it looked like even when the film rocked to a close. Here, Scott shows the monstrous Alien in full daylight from pretty much all of the closing scene. It is hard to fear the Alien in the final moments, because it is reduced to a snarling thing that needs to be killed. Again this is one of the downsides to having a horror movie evolve into a franchise, but seeing as the first half of Covenant was a slow-burning fear-fest, it feels discouraging when Scott stops trying when it becomes time to wrap the movie up.
No matter how good Covenant is, there is this burning sense in the back of your mind that, much like Prometheus, it wouldn’t be half the film if it wasn’t for Michael Fassbender. The actor really is a credit to both of those films and there are points when you have a feeling that he is keeping everything afloat. It helps that there are large chunks of Covenant where Ridley Scott seems to stop being interested in the other characters. The character roster here isn’t necessarily bad (Waterson and Crudup have strong characters), but there is no one here that lays a candle to the first two films’ heroes. Scott develops everyone fairly until he gets to the moment in the movie where the ship’s android, Walter, comes face to face with the older model from Prometheus, David. Forget the fact that you have Michael Fassbender acting off of his one true equal, another Michael Fassbender, and you still have a pretty awesome dynamic: two synthetic androids both programmed with totally different perspectives. As David philosophises on the purpose of humanity and a robot’s place in that world, Covenant stops becoming an Alien movie and becomes a really interesting side discussion of Bladerunner, Scott’s other prominent Sci-Fi series. Fassbender is truly hypnotic and even when the script veers towards the surreal, his performance keeps you riveted, watching the screen with wide-eyed fascination. There are a few particular moments that people will talking about for quite some time (“I’ll do the fingering!”), especially the chilling ending that a few people will predict, but that doesn’t lessen the impact that promises an equally atmospheric follow-up Alien film. Hopefully one that puts a bigger emphasis on scaring rather than showing off its prize monster.
Final Verdict: Not quite the triumph of 2017 I predicted, but a modest addition to the Alien franchise that thrills in a pleasing way.