Alien: Covenant review

Title: Alien: Covenant
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender,
Katherine Waterston,
Danny McBride,
Billy Crudup,
Genre: Sci-Fi, Horror
Runtime: 2 Hours 02 mins
Music: Jed Kurzel
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Certificate: US: R
UK: 15
Release Date: US: May 19 2017
UK: May 12 2017
See If You Like: Alien,
In Space, no-one can hear the fanboys scream at hot Android-on-Android action

Prometheus was a problematic film – it was supposed to spearhead a new prequel trilogy for the famous xenomorph franchise, under the charge of original  Alien director Ridley Scott. Instead of focusing on information fans of the series were interested in, it subjected audiences to a bunch of whinging scientists banging on about meeting the creators of the human race and not being able to. Whilst some of the horror was in the same vein, it wasn’t what people wanted an Alien movie to be. Fast-forward to today and we have the release of the second part of the trilogy which puts a tentacle closer to a great xeno-movie, but not quite a foot.

10 years since the Prometheus went missing, humanity has started to leave Earth on colonisation missions to prolong the survival of the species. One such mission, on the colony ship Covenant, is fraught with danger and the recently appointed captain, Oram (Billy Crudup, Jackie), is at odds whether to take an easier option on a ‘too good to be true’ newly discovered Earth-like paradise. Despite the complaints of his second Daniels (Katherine Waterston, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them), the crew touch down on this new world, only to find a darker side involving some familiar lifeforms.

Early previews suggested Covenant would be more like it’s predecessor than a traditional Alien film, but what we have here is a messy, patched up, halfway-house of the pair  which works remarkably well. The improvement in clarity of character motivations and depth to the Alien Universe lore, from Prometheus is impressive. Michael Fassbender is stellar in his portrayal of the returning android David and the shocking yet surprisingly fitting revelations about what he’s been up to during the last 10 years are so horrific and crazy that it works so well in this franchise.

At the same time, Covenant is a real Alien film at it’s technical heart. Scott, a master at world-building, spends 30-40 minutes introducing the situation, the perils and goals of the Covenant as well as capturing the pretty but worrying paradise they’ve discovered. Covenant may recycle the plot structure of his original movie (and James Cameron’s follow-up) but since it’s been a good 20 years since we last had a proper Alien on screen (not counting the dreadful Predator crossovers), using a similar layout story-wise is absolutely fine – refreshing rather than eye-rolling you could say.

The classic titular alien as we know it returns in full force as you’d hope, but while it’s nice to see them do the usual acid-ing, mauling, facehugging and so on, there’s a lack of presence. Despite a great introduction and the blood letting that commences, it’s all CGI. With no noticeable practical effects to add a new solid image for fans and seeing them in typical situations we’ve seen before, it’s a little disappointing. More interesting are the intelligent proto-morphs we see in the second part of the movie (not only a new sight for us to coo over, but their faceless look makes them really unnerving too) and the engaging David with his hidden motivations. Both bring a welcome change from the same rinse/repeat monster we already know everything about.

Like any horror movie, there are only four to five characters worth paying attention to. Waterston is under immense pressure in the Ripley role, but there is nothing done in terms of filmmaking, scripting, or performance to help distance her from unfavourable comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s iconic performance. Fassbender does double duty as Walter, a second generation android based on David, who comes complete with a naff American accent. Crudup is entertaining as a tired and strained Oram (a man of faith, forced into a leadership role that conflicts with his beliefs, who constantly makes the wrong decisions). Despite high expectations for comedy actor Danny McBride (Vice Principles) as pilot Tennessee, he’s just on the low-end of what you’d like to see from ‘space-pilot Danny McBride’.

Close to the original, Alien: Covenant is on the decent side of horror; blood spills everywhere, the low-lighting atmosphere comes out of the screen, how the proto-morphs are birthed is wonderfully disgusting (it may even top the chest-bursting in terms of sheer visual violence) and, while the rapid despatches of scientists by flashes of unworldly creatures (pausing briefly to take in the sight of them) isn’t new, it never stops delivering. Interactions between David and Walter (a smug superior and a rather inelegant personality) not only add to the horror, but provides some of the film’s highlights in terms of character development and creepiness, which climax in a  gloriously uneasy moment.

Unlike however a baffling amount of head-scratching moments which dent the film’s impact. How can this crew of capable scientists/clever people (who are, don’t forget, also space explorers) not have the sense to wear protective clothing when arriving on an uninhabited new world? People regularly slip over six-pinters of blood spread over the floor; it makes you think “well that was dumb”, rather than add to the panic. Xenomorphs are adult sized in the space of five minutes. Bad decision after bad decision makes Oram wonderfully pathetic. Incredibly jarring. An Alien story doesn’t need to be bulletproof; just don’t make the holes so big we can look straight through.

In a same vein, the script is just OK. Certainly better than Prometheus‘ unrelenting ideals and science moaning jargon, it still feels vanilla with stock lines, literature & scholar quotes and trope-reinforcing dialogue. Hardly the stuff of the original Alien where you could relate to the space-truckers arguing over pay or even the overly-machismo soldier one-liners of Aliens. Scott’s visuals are still at a good standard of cinematography, but there’s been a noticeable dip in his recent output when he brings poor/average scripts to screen.

If you’re looking for Scott to ‘get Alien right’ again, then keep looking – Covenant is not it. However, there is an endearing quality here. Plenty of face-palming sure, but if you’re in the market for an effective and uncomfortable space horror, it ticks all the boxes – just not quite the boxes you would expect with a killer alien race as part of a film. Instead, it is the sheer lunacy of the creatures’ origin which, despite lacking a memorable script or iconic group casting, drives a fine modernisation of the 70’s original. Plus there’s a cool ‘loader’ fight at the ready.

Terry Lewis@lewisonlife

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