Review by George Ilett Anderson
Spoiler Alert: Look away now if you don’t want to have the…ahem, “plot” ruined for you. Alternatively, I’d heartily recommend seeing two films called “Alien” and “Aliens” instead as they have more bite and substance than this sorry assed excuse of a film. This could get messy…..
The Origin of the Faeces
Alien Covenant is a stupefying excursion into been there, done that land and a perfect example of the saying “once bitten, twice shy.” I can’t think of a film in recent memory that has left me feeling quite so disappointed and under whelmed as this cinematic turkey. Oh, hang on a minute I can, it’s called “Prometheus.” This, the prequel’s sequel, is a formulaic and derivative experience that fuses the pretentious twaddle of its predecessor with the DNA of various Alien film incarnations to produce a shambling monstrosity of a film that should have been culled at birth. In other words, it’s a fucking travesty of a film.
I’m conspicuously aware that Prometheus is a divisive film that has as many proponents as it has detractors and Alien Covenant is no different. I’m sure there will be people who think it is a return to form for the series but as you can probably guess I’m definitely not in that camp. This feels very much like Ridley Scott attempting to reply to the negative response that Prometheus provoked by creating something more familiar and palatable to the franchise’s fans. Unfortunately for those of you who were expecting an exciting, tense and scary film experience what you are served can best be described as a dog’s dinner of a film. Alien Covenant is a confused mash of recognizable elements and sumptuous visuals offset by poor scripting, idiotic characters and a complete lack of anything resembling fear. It seems that you really cannot polish a turd.
I don’t know quite how to describe what a mess this film is. Much like the creatures that appear throughout the film, Alien Covenant feels like the bastard offspring of the Prometheus and Alien universes. Alas, its inability to decide whether it is a sequel to the former or a prequel to the latter gives the film a very uneven tone with pacing all over the shop. It’s a feeling that you have almost from the offset with a prologue sequence that appears to have been grafted from when this film was a direct sequel to Prometheus. We are re-introduced to Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) discussing art, philosophy and existence with his newly created “son”, David (Michael Fassbender) and the initial impression is that this is a film that has learned nothing from the flaws of its predecessor with an over reliance on vaguely conceived ideas and heavy handed dialogue.
We then jump forward ten years and join the colonial transport Covenant on its mission to populate the distant planet of Origae-6 with its cargo of 2000 colonists and embryos in cold storage. We have a brief introduction to Walter, a more subservient version of the David model of synthetic, before the ship is hit by a neutrino shockwave that critically damages the ship and throws the rest of the crew out of sleep. Featuring a blink and you’ll miss it cameo of James Franco doing an excellent impression of a human torch, we are quickly introduced to the members of the crew, the majority of who are easily discernible cannon fodder due to their lack of presence or characterisation. The exceptions are Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Tennessee (Danny McBride) and newly promoted Captain Oram (Bill Crudup). The scenes aboard the Covenant are visually striking but they can’t gloss over the fact that this is a ship that seems to be staffed by people who need to perpetually explain the plot. I don’t know about you but I think I’m more than capable of interpreting what is happening on the screen without a cinematic commentary track. It’s a key feature of Alien Covenant and one that gets on your nerves very quickly. This is not by any stretch of the imagination a subtle or nuanced film and that desire to explain everything that you see get very tired very quickly.
Anyways, back to the “plot.” So, whilst repairing the ship a garbled transmission is intercepted that sets in motion the achingly rusty plot gears defined by gravity defying leaps of logic. Establishing that the signal’s point of origin as a habitable planet that no-one appears to have noticed before, Oram decides to abandon the original mission and divert the Covenant to investigate the source of the transmission. It is but one of the many “eh?” type moments that reinforces how slapdash and contrived the film’s script is. All the breathtaking imagery and design can’t disguise that this is a movie that lacks any real substance and is heavily reliant on the familiar. From that description of events you’d think that sounds suspiciously like the opening to “Alien” and you’d be absolutely right in that assumption.
That appropriation of familiar elements is not restricted to just one instance and as a result Alien Covenant looks and feels like a greatest hits package. From the planetary descent (Aliens), to the Neomorphs (Alien 3 Bambi Burster) to portentous and pretentious themes of creation (Prometheus) or the finale (Alien, except with trucks!), this feels like a hodgepodge of borrowed ideas and concepts with little originality or freshness. This over familiarity isn’t helped when you have characters that are so badly written you begin to wonder whether the Covenant crew trained at the Prometheus Academy of numpty space exploration. So, deciding not to survey the planet from the safety of their sophisticated ship, most of the crew descend to the surface dressed like it’s a hike in the park and decide that safety in numbers is irrelevant to the situation and split up. Walking around the curiously lifeless planet, we are treated to excellent examples of numpty behaviour as one character prods some weird looking pods and another decides that being a spatially aware soldier is highly overrated. So, before you can say “Prometheus!” these two get infected and give birth to aliens that proceed to slaughter a large portion of the red shirts and manage to destroy their escape route as an added bonus.
Stranded and facing attacks by the rapidly growing Neomorphs, the surviving crew are saved by the intervention of a mysterious hooded figure. Employing their sound understanding of the Prometheus reflex methodology (panic and run), they follow their saviour to a city piled high with Engineer corpses and the comparative safety of a big temple with lots of dark corridors. If my description sounds flippant and stupid that’s because Alien Covenant is exactly that but don’t worry, things get even better once the survivors actually begin to take stock of their situation. It turns out that their saviour is none other than David from Prometheus who has been holed up alone in the Engineer city for the past decade and writing the Weyland guide to Sinister Robotics. I’m pretty sure that by this point in the proceedings I was thinking about whether the film was going to improve at all. Alas, Alien Covenant devolves further from this point onwards.
Alien Covenant’s inability to decide what kind of film it wants to be is demonstrated once the action moves to the dead Engineer city. Whereas the first half strongly echoes the Alien films, the second half moves in and out of Prometheus territory and attempts to find connective tissue between them. Unfortunately what you get is exposition heavy and pretentious allusions to the nature of creativity interspersed with a wholesale destruction of the mythic nature of the Alien. This section of the film continues the themes and concepts presented in Prometheus that made it such a divisive Marmite film. I’ve always been of the persuasion that Alien was effective as a film because it portrayed the universe as a cold, uncaring place where things exist that cannot be explained or understood. A key element of that is the nightmarish unknown of the derelict, the Space Jockey and the Alien and the dark, primordial fears they conjure up.
By comparison, Alien Covenant seeks to continue the work set down by its predecessor by explaining everything Alien in the context of some ill conceived grand mythology. Just as Prometheus demystified the Space Jockey, so Alien Covenant completely negates the terrifying nature of the Alien. This is a film where the Xenomorph is reduced to a representation of Scott’s vaguely religious ideas and concepts about the creation and perfection of life. Only here, the divine hands guiding life aren’t those of the God like Engineers but the artificial ones of a synthetic person suffering delusions of grandeur. I’m sure there’s much more that can be construed from the revelatory reveal that David is the creator of the Xenomorphs but by this point I was so numbed from how badly the film hangs together I just wanted it to end. I don’t really know what kind of quality control Twentieth Century Fox employed on this movie but the obvious answer is “not much.” Alien Covenant lurches from set piece to set piece like one of David’s failed laboratory experiments, relying on incoherent ideas and terminally stupid characters to propel the plot forward. It’s a situation perhaps best summed up by Billy Crudup’s character Oram who, upon witnessing David cooing to an adult Neomorph that has just slaughtered one of his crewmates, utters the immortal words, “None of this makes any sense.”
A point reinforced by the next sequence of events that had me putting my popcorn down in disgust and eying the exit. David offers to “explain everything” and conducts a tour of his quarters that show the fruits of his labour before leading Oram into a chamber of very familiar eggs. Yet again demonstrating that he is a fully paid up member of the idiots club, he doesn’t instinctively use his large gun nor does he leg it out the chamber. No, instead he decides to peer into the top of an open egg sac with predictable results. It ably demonstrates that this is a film devoid of common sense but jam packed with face palm type writing. You have to wonder who the fuck thought that this script was ready for shooting and then you realise the blame must squarely placed at Ridley Scott’s feet. I appreciate that he can be a great filmmaker and is more than capable of producing epic visuals but as demonstrated by Alien Covenant it may be time for him to step away from anything Alien related.
There’s one scene in particular that really exemplifies how far the fruit has fallen from the tree where David hovers over his latest victim like an expectant father only to demonstrate his paternal instincts in a come to daddy or Christ like pose depending on your interpretation. It reminds me somewhat of that scene at the end of Star Wars Episode 3 where we see Darth Vader in all his glory only for him to scream “NOOOOO!!!!” in his James Earl Jones voice. A seriously ham fisted attempt at drama that induces more groans than gasps; it’s just bloody awful and makes you wonder whether anyone was on set going “are you sure this is a good idea, Ridley?”
Apart from the pretentious overtones, inept dialogue and etch a sketch characters you’d think that the saving grace would be the scary and tense atmosphere but even that has been ditched. Alien Covenant is a movie so completely devoid of anything remotely resembling “frightening” that what you are left with is copious amounts of blood and at times, badly rendered CGI monsters running amok. It’s the kind of film that is crying out for the perverse and disturbing influence of H.R. Giger to add fresh nightmare like imagery and play around with our subconscious fears or another director to add a different perspective.
For all its breathtaking and exquisitely composed shots and aspirations to be greater than the sum of its parts, Alien Covenant is a film that feels like it was dead on arrival. It just doesn’t appear to know what kind of beast it wants to be and as a result is a turgid and bloated mess of epic proportions best avoided.