When the Alien franchise spectacularly re-launched with Prometheus in 2012, it made a bold statement by bringing back original Alien movie director, Ridley Scott. Even then however, Prometheus drew very mixed reception, with some praising it as a cerebral and spiritual new take on the franchise, while others dismissed it as pretentious, sloppy and underwhelming, with critics and audiences seemingly agreeing only on its outstanding visual design. I was very lukewarm about Prometheus myself, feeling like it was an appropriately grand sci-fi blockbuster that fell short of its potential, and that gave me appropriately lukewarm expectations for its follow-up, Alien: Covenant.
With the re-adoption of the Alien name in Prometheus’ sequel, it seems apparent that 20th Century Fox is already trying to bridge the gap between Prometheus and Alien, as Alien: Covenant tries to marry the sensibilities of both movies, in the hopes of producing the best of both worlds. Unfortunately though, Alien: Covenant ultimately ends up being another disappointment, feeling like more of a heterogenous mixture than it should, with the first half resembling Prometheus and the second half resembling Alien, without an effective marriage between the two sides.
If there is a bright side though, it’s that Alien: Covenant is at least more entertaining than Prometheus, since it trims some of the ideological fat that didn’t end up going anywhere, while also featuring more effective scares and thrills. The movie still falls well beneath the likes of Alien and Aliens, but it’s definitely one of the better Alien movies for what that’s worth, even when its storyline is even more of a stretch than Prometheus in several respects. If you enjoyed Prometheus, or are looking for an at least decent horror/sci-fi movie, then Alien: Covenant is nonetheless good enough to check out in theatres, where you can best enjoy its gorgeous visual design. Unless you’re a passionate fan of Alien however, you could also just as easily wait for this movie to arrive for rent on home viewing, since it certainly doesn’t manage to return this franchise to its former glory, even when it clearly so desperately wants to.
Alien: Covenant stars an almost entirely new cast of characters, after almost every personality from Prometheus ended up dead by the end of the movie. The only returning actor from Prometheus is Michael Fassbender, now playing a new synthetic android variation named Walter, who is coming along on a colony mission aboard the colonization ship, Covenant. Fassbender’s former role as David in Prometheus does come into play, though I don’t want to spoil how. I must stress however that Fassbender remains easily the best actor in Alien: Covenant, realizing the one personality that feels consistently compelling and memorable. At this point, especially with the revolving cast of characters, it feels like Fassbender has now officially replaced Sigourney Weaver as the new face of the Alien franchise, and I can’t say I’m complaining.
Despite Fassbender’s crucial role in Alien: Covenant however, we still have a Ripley stand-in of sorts in Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, a terraforming expert that also happens to be married to the ship’s late captain, played in an extremely quick cameo by James Franco, who is barely in the movie for a whole minute! One potentially interesting hook to this effect is that all of the lead characters in Alien: Covenant are married couples. This presumably plays into the idea of having them populate and colonize a brand new home for humanity, but it’s also meant to act as a way to get the audience to easily care about any characters that are killed off, since this would inevitably cause horrible anguish and despair in their partner.
That’s the idea anyway. It’s not so much effectively put into practice, since these characters are even less characterized than the former personalities were in Prometheus! There’s just nothing to latch onto with any of these personalities. Even Waterston is given frustratingly little to work with in the end, mostly being there because this is an Alien movie, and thus demands a pivotal female hero. Billy Crudup is also at least a bit more noteworthy, playing the Covenant’s acting captain, Oram, someone who is basically a successor to Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus, being the representative Christian aboard the Covenant. Oram is supposed to struggle with a crew that doesn’t want to follow his lead, believing it to be because of his faith, but the simple truth is, Oram doesn’t feel relatable, since he’s written to be such an obvious moron, making the crew appear in the right for doubting him! Crudup is left to do nothing but constantly make the wrong decisions throughout this movie, which feels like an incredible waste of his talents as a character actor.
Mercifully, there is at least one standout among the supporting cast, and that comes via Danny McBride’s Tennessee, the lead pilot of the Covenant, who, in a rare serious turn for McBride, actually ends up being the most logical, cool and reasonable character in Alien: Covenant! That’s why it’s so disappointing that he spends almost the entire movie on the sidelines, left to hover on the ship above while the rest of the would-be colonists investigate the seemingly ideal world of LV-223. Yes, this is the same planet from Prometheus, as the visual design makes obvious. Also like Prometheus however, for a movie that wants to be so grand and impressive, Alien: Covenant has disappointingly little recognizable humanity to it. Its personalities feel too workmanlike and forgettable, basically making most of them little more than lunch meat for the inevitable alien threats!
In another page taken from Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is a movie that thrives on its audience knowing as little about the storyline as possible going in. I’ll be very careful to avoid spoilers, as usual, but what I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus, still making it a clear prequel to the original Alien, and involves a group of would-be colonists being awoken from their sleeping pods early, before a mechanical malfunction leads to the death of their captain. Since they happen to be floating around LV-223 at that very moment (contrivance #1 of many), and pick up a signal that acting captain, Oram decides to investigate even if it means breaking protocol (contrivance #2 of many), the colonists decide to break from their mission to explore another seemingly ideal world for humanity, oblivious to the dangerous alien threat that lurks in their midst.
As with Prometheus, the storyline of Alien: Covenant is sadly the weakest and most frustrating element of the movie. Almost the entire plot is pushed forward by these formally trained colonists having to unrealistically act like idiots on and around LV-223, with the resulting story gymnastics being necessary to make any element of the storyline work. Adding insult to injury is the fact that there’s still a huge chunk of story missing from between the events of Prometheus and this movie, since Prometheus’ ending is given a definitive answer, but almost of its details are left out, leaving the resulting answer feeling like a cheap cop-out, one that too quickly sweeps almost every lingering question from Prometheus tidily under the rug.
As I also mentioned, the latter half of Alien: Covenant starts feeling like an entirely different movie as well, as any pretense of greater themes and subtext is cast aside for a sudden cranking of the action and horror elements, all culminating in a forced climax that feels completely ridiculous. Ultimately, it feels like Alien: Covenant does provide a few more answers about where the Xenomorphs came from and why, especially when a new pre-evolution strain called ‘Neomorphs’ are used in much of this movie instead, but those answers don’t necessarily feel worthwhile. The Xenomorphs felt more effective when they weren’t so heavily explained, and Alien: Covenant suddenly pivoting the story to make it all about their evolution, while treading too many familiar story beats from Alien and Prometheus all the while, feels like it does more harm than good.
As much as director, Ridley Scott seems to mistakenly think that the issues with Prometheus basically entirely amount to a lack of Xenomorphs (which is not true), it’s still difficult to argue that his visual direction at the very least is quite stunning. That’s why it’s really too bad that Scott doesn’t seem nearly as good at directing the more action-oriented sequences in Alien: Covenant. These scenes rely on a lot of darkness and choppy editing, which make the Neomorph attacks feel disorienting for all the wrong reasons. There were actually instances where the editing became so choppy and poor that I actually couldn’t tell who was even being killed, or whatever else might have been happening, until character deaths and the like are suddenly brought up by other characters later in the movie!
Oh, and speaking of the character deaths, they are extremely telegraphed in Alien: Covenant, to the point where it becomes painfully obvious when someone is going to die, every time! There’s not really any suspense with the Neomorph attacks, because you feel like you already know how they’re going to pan out, even before they properly happen. The clever, exciting suspense of the original Alien isn’t successfully replicated here, as Scott seems far more interested in developing the lore and world of LV-223 once again, with less emphasis on characterization or genuine philosophical weight. This unfortunately makes Alien: Covenant even more empty-headed than Prometheus was at its worst.
On the bright side though, even if you know, without fail, exactly when any given character is going to bite the dust, Scott is still very skilled at body horror and grisly gore during the actual death scenes themselves. While Scott has started to fall back on CGI a little more than he should in Alien: Covenant, he still has a few standout sequences of fantastic practical effects with the Neomorph attacks, with some of the movie’s more successful killings providing legitimately compelling and squeamish body horror. These horrifying deaths are the point where Alien: Covenant most feels like it honours its classic inspirations, especially since this movie does at least have a bit more teeth and scares than Prometheus did. If nothing else, at least Scott’s direction helps Alien: Covenant get most of the horror element right, beyond the complete lack of real suspense.
If there’s one especially apparent effort to emulate the feel of the original Alien in Alien: Covenant, it most often comes from the soundtrack. Jed Kurtzel, an up-and-coming composer that most notably scored the Assassin’s Creed movie late last year (another Fassbender vehicle), scores the soundtrack to Alien: Covenant, complete with even reprising the classic Alien theme at one point, as well as some familiar compositions from the score of Prometheus. The soundtrack of Alien: Covenant does manage to make the experience feel very genuine, and if nothing else, the movie at least sounds the part of existing within the Alien franchise’s familiar sensibilities.
The rest of the audio work is similarly heavy and droning, creating a very bleak and uncertain feel that still works fairly well, especially when Alien: Covenant’s horror material is more effective than the majority of the movie. The Neomorphs bursting out of their victims, not to mention tearing them apart during the attacks of their fully-grown cousins, sounds as entertainingly gross as ever, creating a very oppressive and immersive experience, even when the storytelling lets the atmosphere down. At least Alien: Covenant still knows how to invest you in said atmosphere though, so even at its worst, this is a movie that’s just as easy to listen to as it is to watch, assuming you don’t have a weak stomach anyway.
For all of Scott’s latest directing stumbles in Alien: Covenant, it’s at least impossible to deny that his visual suite for the movie remains outstanding. Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is a genuinely beautiful movie, filled with detail and atmosphere, as the world of LV-223 effortlessly grips audiences once again. This sequel is also less idealized in its presentation than the atmosphere of Prometheus, allowing LV-223 to take on a darker and more uncertain feel in Alien: Covenant. Scott remains one of the absolute masters of sci-fi world-building in his direction, and that remains true in Alien: Covenant, which sports some of the most impressive and fantastic shots in any movie released all year so far! Again, not all of the CGI looks convincing, especially when it starts becoming forcibly applied to the unnatural-looking Neomorphs, but some CGI does look effectively gross and terrifying, as do the handful of practical effects that Scott is continuing to stand by in order to realize this movie’s gory desires.
Alien: Covenant is also offered in an optional IMAX format in some areas, which definitely isn’t essential, though if you have the option, it can help you boost the atmosphere a bit. Alien: Covenant ditching the 3D presentation from Prometheus is a bit of a disappointment however, considering how excellent the visuals are throughout much of Alien: Covenant, and how surprisingly solid the 3D presentation ended up being with Prometheus’ theatrical release. Ultimately though, Alien: Covenant is still a visual masterwork in many respects, barring some of those moments of less effective CGI. If you’re coming for the gore most of all too, rest assured that it’s pretty much always effective, nicely honouring the twisted legacy of the late H.R. Geiger, the creature designer for Alien. Some of Geiger’s own touch is nonetheless missed here though, since the Neomorphs don’t always feel completely convincing with their CGI effects, even during their enjoyably violent massacres, ironically adding more of a sense of retroactive awe to how the creature effects were realized in the classic Alien movies.
Alien: Covenant still doesn’t feel like the necessary return to glory that the Alien franchise has never managed to truly attain past its heyday, in any form, with 1986’s Aliens still remaining the series’ last truly great movie. This newest Alien offering is at least less pretentious and more entertaining than Prometheus, though the story in Alien: Covenant feels like it has even more problems than its 2012 predecessor, so whether you’ll feel it’s better or worse than Prometheus might be a matter of debate. What’s not up for debate though is that Alien: Covenant remains an over-hyped and ultimately disappointing Alien movie, one that continues to have these prequel movies failing to justify their existence for the most part, especially when they start blatantly over-explaining the Xenomorphs, thus making them less scary.
The horror elements are at least still good enough to make Alien: Covenant worth checking out for genre fans, and if you appreciate movies with great visual design, Alien: Covenant really excels there as well, easily standing as one of the most gorgeous and breathtaking blockbusters of 2017 so far. This certainly can’t be called a bad movie, even amidst its failings, since Alien: Covenant does remain considerably above the franchise’s most notable low points, such as Alien: Resurrection, or the two Alien vs. Predator movies. Even then though, Alien: Covenant never fully becomes a truly good movie either, since its plot still has far too many holes in it, plus it’s still pushed forward on far too much unrealistic character stupidity, which continues to have the Alien franchise floating uncomfortably close to the realm of dumb, disposable horror flicks in its prequel saga.
Maybe the third time will be the charm for these Alien prequels. After all, Alien: Covenant still has enough good ideas and untapped potential to keep exploring these events in another follow-up, one that 20th Century Fox is bound to formally announce sooner or later, since this franchise continues to be one of the studio’s top R-rated moneymakers at present. Again, the shift to a Xenomorph evolution-focused storyline doesn’t even come close to fixing the lingering issues that started with Prometheus back in 2012, but if nothing else, at least the titular aliens’ violent and gory edge still works as well as ever, now that they’re almost fully unleashed again.
- Fassbender continues to act circles around most of the other personalities
- Incredible visual suite and world design once again
- More thrilling pacing with legitimately effective gore and body horror
- Storyline is even more faulty and contrived than Prometheus
- Most of the characters are under-developed Neomorph fodder
- Starts taking away too much of the mystique behind the Xenomorphs