Directed By: Ridley Scott
Release Date: May 19, 2017
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup
Since kicking off all the way back in 1979, the Alien franchise has definitely had its ups and downs. While Ridley Scott's original film and James Cameron's 1986 follow-up Aliens are undeniable classics, and David Fincher's Alien 3 is an imperfect but still enjoyable entry, the series really took a hit with 1997's colorful but pointless Alien: Resurrection, which lowered the bar enough for the two Alien vs. Predator films (released in 2004 and 2007) to swoop in as an attempt to revive both franchises only to stumble and lower said bar even further.
All this is to say that by the time Prometheus arrived back in 2012, the series seemed creatively tapped. Like all popular horror icons of our time, whether it be the Predator or Freddy Krueger, there comes a point where overexposure in pop culture robs a given figure of its strength, and for the titular creature audiences first met nearly four decades ago - known as the Xenomorph - that point has long since passed. Outside of the Alien movies themselves, other media, from comic books to video games, have only diminished the terrifying allure of the vicious extraterrestrial, meaning that anyone attempting to make the Xenomorph genuinely scary again to the masses has their work cut out for them.
For all of its faults, Prometheus - a distant prequel to the original film - at least promised something fresh, attempting to answer questions about the franchise's mythology that arguably didn't need to be answered while also allowing the franchise to move in a new direction unshackled from the expectations of simply being "another Alien movie." While I personally appreciated many of its pieces - the visuals, some of the heavier themes it was attempting to explore, and Michael Fassbender's performance as the synthetic David - it didn't all gel together as a whole as smoothly as I would've liked, and it's a film I've found hard to revisit in the five years since despite an ending that actually left me optimistic about where it could go next, wherein David and Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw set out into space, seemingly set for an adventure that no longer had to worry about establishing itself as a clear prequel.
Which brings us to Alien: Covenant, a sequel that doubles back on Prometheus' promise to explore new territory in order to shift back into franchise mode, the end result being exactly what I feared it would be from the moment marketing started: Just another Alien movie.
Covenant picks up ten years after the events of Prometheus, introducing us to a crew manning a colonization ship (the titular Covenant) bound for a distant planet. Initially, only a synthetic named Walter - an updated version of the initial David model - is operating the ship while the crew and their cargo (over 2,000 colonists) remain in cryosleep, but after an unexpected accident, the crew finds themselves awake over seven years earlier than expected and the ship damaged. While repairing the vessel, they intercept a human radio transmission from a nearby planet they didn’t know existed, one that could prove even more habitable than their initial destination, and set out to discover if paradise awaits them. Of course, it doesn't take too long for things to go south upon their arrival, and as people begin to die and the mysteriously alone David reemerges, humanity finds itself meeting the Xenomorph for the first time.
As a result of trying to firmly establish itself as an Alien film first and foremost, much of the possibility and potential inherent in Prometheus' open ending is jettisoned. What happened to Shaw and David is reduced to dialogue, inference, and a brief flashback sequence, with the former character pretty much done away with off-screen, an act that comes less like a meaningful shock and more like a slap in the face to anyone who had been looking forward to where the films were going to take her post-Prometheus. While this may not bother those who didn't care too much for that film anyway, it's an incredible disappointment for anyone who would've liked to see such a story play out on screen.
While not all the connective tissue to Prometheus is done away with - David's actions and experiences in that film loudly reverberate throughout Covenant, after all - it feels quite clear that at some point, it was mandated that this film shift the series back to something familiar and less risk-averse than its predecessor. From the set design to the usage of Jerry Goldsmith's theme from Alien to the fundamental narrative beats, Covenant spends more time echoing the past than treading new ground in the present. Even the brand-new elements it does bring into play, like the prototype-like Neomorphs, seem as though they're simply there to buy time until the inevitable arrival of the Xenomorph itself, a surprise that lacks any punch because we all know it's coming anyway.
As always, Ridley Scott's eye for visuals is on point - though some dodgy CGI involving the various creatures throughout the film sticks out like a sore thumb - and the cast, which includes Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, do their best with what little they tend to be given, but there's something about the film that rings hollow thanks to a frequent sense that everyone involved is simply going through the motions, game to make something better but stuck making, as I've mentioned earlier, another Alien film.
Funnily enough, the film is at its best when it's not mirroring the events of Scott's own original or actively trying to fit the Alien film mould, and that's in its further exploration of David, whose distaste for humanity and desire to create life of his own has only grown since the events of Prometheus. Fassbender steals the show here, unsurprisingly, and outside of an unintentionally funny scene involving a flute, his dual performance as David and Walter is more engaging than the presence of the titular creature. It's this exploration of David's character and goals that Scott seems more interested in, and Covenant tends to be delivering something memorable when it's letting Fassbender shine, proof that a more direct Prometheus follow-up could've worked better than cramming him into what amounts to a lesser clone of the film that started it all.
It's almost hard to tell who Covenant is even designed for. It pulls back on the type of scale Prometheus was going for, making for a more streamlined, accessible, and less heady end product that instead seems to be going for the claustrophobic feel of the original film. But as I've mentioned, the Xenomorph just isn't scary anymore, and despite an attempt at offering up some horrifying moments, Covenant gives up the pretense that it's a horror film by the final act and puts the creature on full CGI display, the alien carrying no real weight or dreadful presence when it’s leaping all over the place. Even the Aliens-like final showdown lacks true stakes because the film just doesn't earn the type of investment in its characters the way audiences had in Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley. All the while, the film flirts with loose ends and themes left over from Prometheus, bouncing from thoughtful exploration on creation and existence to action film to horror outing without ever truly committing to any single thing, unsure of what it actually wants to be.
As such, Covenant feels like an assortment of elements from the franchise as a whole while lacking an identity of its own. Even if you disliked it, at least Prometheus felt distinct enough from the films that preceded it, but in trying to be everything, the end result is that Covenant feels like nothing. Is it as bad as the series' true low points, Resurrection and the Alien vs. Predator films? No. Fassbender elevates the film, and once again things end off on the promise of a much more engaging entry to come, but the overall product feels average, if harmless and still entertaining. For a franchise that's been chugging along since 1979, though, Covenant needed to be more than something middle of the road, and it simply isn't. It's just more of the same, and if that's all you want out of your Alien films at this point, you'll likely be satisfied, but for a series set in a universe of possibility, Covenant is proof that it's time for this franchise to stop looking backward and start figuring out how to reimagine itself in order to thrive in the future or risk needing to be put to bed for good.
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