Alien: Covenant (2017) (Review)

I admire and respect Alien more than I like Alien, the ground-breaking sci-fi from 1979. Innovative to its core and still held as the standard for the genre today, the Ridley Scott-directed picture kick-started his career and is considered the driving force for the sustained interest and genre productions. People throw the word 'iconic' around far too much nowadays but it can absolutely be implied for Alien (and Aliens, its sequel). My general indifference towards science-fiction aside (unless you are Arrival) means that I didn't enjoy it as much as most - but even I cannot deny that it is a well-made, pioneering exercise in the possibilities of sci-fi and can understand why it has cemented itself as one of the most enduring films of the twentieth century. Covenant, the second instalment in the prequel trilogy that began in 2012 with Prometheus, has now been unleashed upon the world like a pod of alien spores - but how does the film stand up for a casual cinemagoer with little investment in the series?

Ten years after the events of Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is heading for a remote planet with colonists and embryos onboard, ready to start a new life. Walter (Michael Fassbender), an upgraded synthetic, is monitoring the ship when a sudden neutrino burst damages the ship, killing the captain and awakening the others. When a transmission signal is detected to a crashed Engineer ship the team decide to investigate the planet and determine whether or not it could be used as a planet to call home. When a deadly alien spore is triggered, the team must quickly launch a rescue mission to prevent further death and devastation to their fleeting numbers. Fassbender returns to the series, as both Walter and David, with Scott taking the directorial reigns once again. The likes of Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBridge join the cast of the franchises' sixth instalment which acts as the second Alien story chronologically.

Alien: Covenant is a difficult film to assess: you can try to look at it in isolation, away from the impact of the rest of the series, but the intricate web the series has spun is so carefully constructed that each film is viewed as a direct action-reaction-consequence to the others. It represents a blatant attempt to flesh out the franchises' mythology, intended to embroider the series' already complex narrative with further depth and scope, filling in the gaps and supplying answers to the burning questions. The problem with that is you have to be completely invested in the series to care and so passers-by (like myself) are likely to struggle mustering an interest for anything that unfolds - that, matched with a surprisingly minor amount of emotional stakes involved, makes this a for-the-fans picture that alienates general audience by ensnaring itself in its own trappings. Furthermore, the original Alien has been heralded for its effectiveness through its own decision to enshroud itself in a mystery and ambiguity that is very smartly infused into the main point; providing answers to those questions only seeks to undo its effectiveness. Sometimes less is more and by providing more Alien: Covenant is less successful.

On the performance side, it is only really Michael Fassbender that is served anything meaty enough to get his teeth into. Playing two synthetics, David and his upgrade Walter, Fassbender is reliably great, delivering a sharply nuanced performance that highlights both synthetics' similarities and differences, helping to feed into some marvellous plot developments later down the line. The flute scene is easily the standout moment of the entire film, mainly down to Fassbender's disconcerting and mesmerising performance, providing a moment that deserves to enter the franchises' highest realm. Nobody else really gets a chance, with the script failing to flesh out individuals well enough to deliver any satisfying character work; an opening moment that should be filled with devastation attempts to instil an emotional weight for the film to run on, but it only lasts so long and is largely forgotten until a last minute line-drop towards the end of the film. The talented Katherine Waterston thanklessly drags herself through Covenant with a solid performance, all things considered, and will hopefully use it as a platform to move on to bigger and better things, particularly after her terrific performance in last year's Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them. No one else really stands out, which is a shame considering the talent involved.

The one thing that convinced me to give Covenant a watch, despite my lacking interest in the series in general, was the beautiful marketing - the trailers were effective, the posters and artwork were outstanding and, helmed by Scott, it would likely impressive at the very least visually. It does, but it doesn't utilise its resources all that efficiently; the scenes are occasionally poorly lit and as beautiful as the production design is, they are not given the opportunity to impress as frequently as you would like. Act one captures most of the beauty, with the sequences of the planet's exploration finding both some excellent cinematography and genuine excitement, wrapped together with Scott's atmospheric direction and careful build-up; from then onwards, it doesn't collapse as such, just fades from notability, overpowered by the frustrating supporting characters and duller palettes and saturations. Scott is always attempting to heighten the intensity and draw audiences in but those on the outskirts will struggle with it, particularly when the CGI leaves a lot to be desired. While they are terrifically and undeniably well designed and conceptualised, the movements of the aliens do not always feel properly rendered or natural, causing stilted movements and a general underwhelming aftertaste.

Essentially, Covenant would work far better by dropping the 'Alien', acting as a standalone picture and focusing on the existential questions it attempts to place centre - rather than its often convoluted mythology. Striving for profound theme work, messages and concepts is all well and good but when the execution is disturbed by a need to self-reference and to fill in the gaps of films gone by, it removes both the mystery that allowed those films to excel and the interest of more casual cinemagoers. Surprisingly, Alien: Covenant alienates casual attendees, seeking to skirt by on the back of previous films; it feels almost wholly for-the-fans, offering little beyond an interesting premise, great marketing and a fantastic dual performance from Michael Fassbender to appreciate. Yes it can be beautiful and yes it can be thrilling (again, the flute scene is superb) but it all strikes you as forgettable and overly convoluted, undoing a lot of the mythology that made the first two films in the franchise so iconic and interesting by attempting to fill in the pieces. You might be entertained and you may be able to appreciate Covenant but unless you are already invested, it feels like a hollow that fails to convince you otherwise. In their marketing, Alien: Covenant declares that the path to paradise begins in hell; I've experienced neither in this franchise so far - and that upsets me.


Summary: Alien: Covenant is somewhat alienating for casual cinemagoers, producing a for-the-fans affair that attempts to get by on the back of what preceded it, which not only undoes some of the brilliance of Alien and Aliens, but creates an empty spectacle in the here and now too.