Several years ago Ridley Scott decided that he would take ownership of the Alien franchise with Prometheus and fans worldwide were stunned by the beautifully crafted R-rated mayhem that he dreamed up. Well, in the trailer anyway. The actual prequel itself was such an odd mix of pretentiously convoluted world-building, idiotic characters/dialogue, and an unsatisfying resolution that only Damon Lindelof possibly could have written it. The movie did make big stacks of cash though, given that it was the first R-rate blockbuster is far too long with some stunning imagery worthy of big screen ticket prices. Then it vanished from pop culture entirely aside from the occasional punchline. For a while, it looked like Neil District 9 Blomkamp might get his chance at reviving the franchise as an action epic, but then Scott pulled a power move and willed the Prometheus sequel into existence. As the title Alien: Covenant suggests, the Alien is actually in the movie this time. But make no mistake, this is actually Prometheus 2: Sorry We Didn’t Put The Monster In The First One.
After a bizarre prologue with Michael Fassbender’s android David and his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) that reintroduces themes of playing god for those who forgot Prometheus, we’re shoved into a roaming lonely spaceship. It’s a vessel filled with colonists (and one Fassbender shaped android) planning to revive humanity on a new planet. Or at least that’s the case until a freak accident causes explosions that kill off a handful of crewmembers, including a famous-faced captain. Given that the colonists are all husband and wife combos (for maximum breeding potential) that leaves Katherine Waterston devastated at her loss and puts Billy Crudup’s reluctant Christian in charge of the ship. They then receive a strange transmission from another planet that seems perfect for life. After some discussion amongst the crew (including Danny McBride as a good old boy pilot named Tennessee), they decide to visit the planet to see if it’s more suited to human colonization and save the crew already beset by tragedy another seven years off travel. So, they check it out, and although it seems idyllic, those pesky Prometheus balls of killer black goo return. The next thing you know, baby aliens are bursting out of people’s backs, and there are all sorts of bloody carnage. Plus another android appears with a disconcertingly familiar face. Uh-oh! Here comes trouble.
You can feel every long year of development in this herky-jerky screenplay that feels like a straight Prometheus sequel hastily re-written into a more overt Alien prequel. The traditional facehuggers, chestbursters, and xenomorphs do eventually arrive, but only after a few rounds with Prometheus creatures that look increasingly like their more iconic big brothers. Admittedly, Scott still knows how to craft beautiful and affecting images like few other filmmakers. So Alien: Covenant is filled with stunning sequences and has a handful of stomach-churning set pieces that hit with a maximum impact. Oddly enough, the biggest thrills are all loaded into the first act, long before any of the beings promised in the title appear. In fact, the fanboy (and fangirl) friendly trot through Alien’s greatest hits have an oddly perfunctory remake feel to them, as if Scott wasn’t really that interested in strolling down memory lane or that the sequences were mandated by a studio who didn’t want any more blogs complaining about the fact that they’ve released another Alien movie without the beloved aliens.
Instead, Scott’s focus is more on weaving some sort of grand philosophical statement about death. What exactly he’s trying to say is unclear, but it’s a mean movie filled not just with blood-letting, but pained reactions of characters knowing that the only person they love has perished in a brutal manner (one can’t help but wonder if Ridley’s own recent personal tragedies infused that harsh and cruel nature of the script). Without going too much into spoiler details, this movie quickly becomes the Michael Fassbender show in the back half with Scott and the team of screenwriters clearly more interested in the horrifying implications of his character’s forced consciousness without conscience and psychotic obsession with the nature life. Fassbender is fantastic in some deeply bizarre sequences that must have been just as unsettling to act as they are to watch. Waterson is also strong in her Ripley-lite role and McBride provides some of the earthy character actor grounding from the original 1979 Alien. Sadly, none of the humans on screen have the depth of Fassbender’s synthetic character work and everyone other than Waterson and McBride are very clearly just lambs for the gut-spilling slaughter.
For a film so concerned with big questions related to life and death, there’s very little humanity in Alien: Covenant. Every human serves as little more than cynical constructed narrative puzzle piece, and it’s a shame the movie is so determined to talk its big ideas out through dialogue rather than elegantly layering themes in through imagery like the original Alien. For a guy so determined to revive the franchise that he created in his own image, it’s odd that Ridley Scott doesn’t quite seem to understand why the original movie worked so well. He desperately needs writers like Walter Hill and Dan O’Bannon (who gave the 1979’s Alien a terse narrative efficiency and symbolic horror resonance) so that he can focus entirely on the visualization and cinematic designs, leaving the actual story conception to others more gifted in that craft. Scott’s take on Alien mythology is oddly murky and pretentious, a far cry from the visceral intensity and simplicity that defined the series for so long.
Still, Alien: Covenant is very much worth seeing despite the faults. It’s a big, beautiful, and harshly horror show on a blockbuster scale. There aren’t many of those, and Scott still knows how to deliver space fantasy with a certain poetic realism. The fact that the movie is so thematically ambitious sets it apart from most summer franchise fair, and at least this one isn’t as dumb and disappointing as Prometheus. It’s certainly an improvement and perhaps the third time will be the charm for Scott if this prequel series stretches into a trilogy. It would be nice if some fresh blood could come in and spice up the Alien franchise, but for now at least Ridley Scott is getting better at academically rehashing the iconic film that kicked off his career.