Film Review: Ridley Scott tugs on existential threads with Alien: Covenant (USA, 2017)

2012’s Prometheus marked the beginning of a franchised prequel to Ridley Scott’s original Alien, not only taking fans back to the origins of this iconic sci-fi franchise, but diving deeper into the meaty philosophies such a concept brings, finding purpose with the motif of creation. The introduction of synthetic android David (Michael Fassbender) emerged as the vehicle for this great change in shift and tone; however, not granting this character believable motivations, and creating dynamics between him and the film’s human characters that felt contrived at best, spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing build-up to the Alien universe. Alien: Covenant could be seen as Scott attempting to correct the ills that weighed Prometheus down, while giving us the same enhanced visual experience the 2012 film became known for.

With Covenant, Scott brings us on an unsurprisingly dark and cynical journey to the home of the engineers, unveiled as the apparent creators of the human race by the Prometheus and its crew a decade before the events of this film. The planet, now a breeding ground for xenomorphs and one android’s hubris, looks spectacular and is navigated with an exceptional sense of impending doom, but getting down there comes after much plodding time spent on-board the film’s namesake ship.

Writers John Logan and Dante Harper have had the curious idea of marrying off each of these cast members, meaning that for every wife on-board, her husband is right alongside with her. It seems that this odd technique has been used in lieu of any actual character development, relying on the emotional weight of characters finding out that their significant others have been killed, or are in danger, to present the cast as anything more than a bevy of naive would-be colonists who provide the chests, throats and backs for muscular takes on the infamous chest-popper scene of the original. Other than ramp up the drama at times, this plan falls flat and instead of giving these characters distinctive traits, they are defined by their relationships. Even the vague lead of Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston) seems overwhelmed and underappreciated, presenting us with neither a Ripley nor a Shaw.

The one focus as far as the cast goes is Fassbender, Ridley’s great hope as he pulls double duty, reprising his role as David and introducing Walter, an advanced synthetic who earnestly serves the Covenant and its crew. The interplay between the two androids is fantastic, strongly portrayed by Fassbender as he shoulders the hard task of balancing this philosophical showdown, where questions of who gets to be a creator give the prequel a primary theme for which to colour David’s otherwise nonsensical actions. Though David’s obsession with creation doesn’t quite flesh out his motivations, it begins to contextualise much of what we saw in Prometheus and in turn strengthens both films, but not quite enough as Ridley must have hoped for.

After an unexpected event leads the Covenant into chaos and positions Chris (Billy Crudup) as the (hopeless and idiotic) captain, The Covenant ends up sidetracked from its original mission to colonise a scouted planet. A signal picked up by crew member Tennessee (a strong but underused performance from Danny McBride) is the catalyst for this sharp left turn, sparking the ship to track a human transmission to the same planet from which David creates, looming about from his incredibly designed gothic acropolis, playing flutes and memorising Ozymandias.

Violent tonal shifts between disorientating horror and existential sci-fi indicate that Ridley was unable to decide whether he wanted this to be more like Prometheus or more like Alien, instead settling for a middle that is exhausted from playing both sides of the fence. The fact that the ever-inquisitive Damon Lindelof, who was involved in Prometheus, doesn’t have anything to do with Covenant may be a possible factor for this confused tone; given the writer’s previous work (Lost, The Leftovers) it’s reasonable to assume that plenty of Prometheus’ heady philosophical debate was credited to him, and him not being able to follow through with that may be the reason for what we find here.

Still, Ridley handles both genres very well. There are plenty of scenes which will satisfy long-time fans of the franchise, playing on the terror that was largely absent from Prometheus and providing all the squirmy, visceral violence that comes with it. Though the director does stumble when it comes time to introduce the biggest and baddest xenomorph of the film, shooting a disorienting battle between human and alien that lacks the excitement and subtle horror of Ripley’s famous showdowns with the terrifying antagonist.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Runtime: 123 minutes

Alien: Covenant is now screening across Australia.