Review: Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is a return to form for the franchise, offering satisfaction to Alien and Prometheus fans and anchored by the great Michael Fassbender, though it became a little too predictable, losing momentum and tension.

10 years after the events of Prometheus, the Covenant spaceship is travelling with colonists to a new planet and a new life. After progress is interrupted abruptly, the crew including Daniels (Katherine Waterston), android Walter (Fassbender) Oram (Billy Crudup) and Tennessee (Danny McBride) discover a nearer, perfect planet, and decide to investigate despite Daniels’ trepidation. You can more or less guess what happens next…

With Alien, Blade Runner and The Martian most recently, Ridley Scott is one of the best science-fiction directors of all time. The 78-year-old is a near guarantee of quality, and having begun the Alien franchise, he knits together that and the fledgling Prometheus storyline alongside a clever script from John Logan and Dante Harper. What works so well is the early, slow build-up of tension and foreboding – much like Alien and Prometheus – followed by a promising leap into horror and terror, both fittingly macabre and bloody (just how this gore fan likes it)!

The interesting moral and metaphysical questions posed by the Prometheus storyline in turn give this movie an extra degree of intellectual perspective that was quite surprising, some talky scenes during the middle part feeling more akin to Ex Machina than an Alien movie. The increasing doom meanwhile is supported by clear and skillful editing from Pietro Scalla and Jed Kurzel’s interesting score, which seamlessly wraps in Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien themes (though some of the themes, particularly in set pieces, were very reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed).

Scott is also a master at framing scenes and utilising both dingy, futuristic sets and stunning locations, embossed by the glossy and textured cinematography of Dariusz Wolski. The effects on show in space are – as usual for Scott – spectacular, and the creation of the planet is also excellently balanced between unintrusive effects and natural landscapes for a tangible environment. The two monsters on show include the original xenomorph, which at times feels a bit too unreal (thanks CGI), but the bizarre and nightmarish ‘neomorph’ offers a sickly and quite disturbing alternative that feels better than the older alien.

However, the aforementioned tension and dread dissipates after a given point, and the movie becomes a bit too “action-filmy CGI” in the latter stages, which was a disappointment. The script and plot in the early stages flows very well, but as the movie moves onward (and particularly in its last act), everything rushes and unfortunately becomes predictable. In a way, it’s fitting this follows Prometheus, one of the major examples of a movie that fell apart in the second half.

I enjoyed both, but that doesn’t mean that the plot holes and glaring issues don’t annoy me. Here, you can see what’s going to happen from miles away, though a last-act twist was notable for being one I was never sure was going to be true until it was revealed. I was impressed with that, and the film’s conclusion – it’s just a shame that a positive start crumples and takes this from excellent to good.

When it comes to the cast, one name is head and shoulders above the rest – Michael Fassbender. His dual role as androids Walter and David (from Prometheus) elevate him above it all, with the two performances complex – Walter is cold, methodical and dispassionate, but with a slowly melting heart (Pinocchio-like and a clear precursor to Aliens‘ Bishop), while David is impulsive, megalomaniacal and foppish alongside being a devious bastard.

Fassbender (thanks to camera trickery) plays against himself in some of the best and eeriest scenes, the androids’ very different drives and ambitions laid bare alongside some Fassbender-on-Fassbender homoeroticism that entertainingly vents the tension. David is the most fascinating (you could almost argue he is as integral to this series as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was to the Alien films), and it rarely crosses your mind that you’re watching the same actor twice, the performances are so different. The actor is also adept at that eerie stillness of poise and body, expertly providing further depth to the androids’ characterisations.

Katherine Waterston is fairly disappointing as Daniels (her first name, ridiculously), in all senses a Ripley cipher down to the clothes and being the lone voice of caution. She’s not given enough to do that sets her apart, though her emotional state influenced by events gives Waterston a chance to shade in some depth early on. I just felt like she was in the shadow of the Fassbender performances and the spectacle of Danny McBride (more on him later).

Billy Crudup plays man of faith Oram fairly well, as someone thrust into a position of responsibility and filled with doubt about his choices. However, he bears the brunt of the script’s inanity in the second half, consistently the fall guy for idiotic choices that make you groan. A large, poorly-defined cast have interesting connections hinted at then ignored in lieu of rushing to the violence, with the issue probably that the crew is too big and features few known faces.

Danny McBride is perhaps the most curious member of the cast as pilot Tennessee, the comedic actor reining in his braggart, egotistical stereotype and actually fitting into the mythos’ “space trucker” persona perfectly. He also gets a few chances to add some colour and humour to the proceedings in true McBride fashion, and to be honest is the second best actor on show. Who would have thought he’d seamlessly make an impression in an Alien film?

In essence, if you’re a fan of the Alien films and Prometheus, this is definitely worth seeing, as any Ridley Scott sci-fi movie is a must-see. It looks great, largely feels original and starts by sustaining tension very well, but it’s let down by the plot’s inanity. However, Fassbender and some good old Alien sci-fi horror make it a recommended watch.

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