And so the struggle begins!
How do I remain objective when I’m reviewing a movie from my favourite film franchise? How do I stop myself from devolving into total ‘fan-boy’ territory – either gushing praise over or screaming bile about, a movie that is a direct prequel to a film (the 1979 original) that I consider an absolute masterpiece? Anyone who has read any of my previous Alien-related articles for Geek-Pride will know it’s going to be a difficult task – but I’m going to try…
Alien Covenant is the latest in Ridley Scott’s prequel series which began with the flawed but decent Prometheus (2012) and will apparently, over the course of a supposed three more movies, finally explain the secrets behind some of the biggest mysteries from Alien: such as how the ‘derelict’ space craft discovered by the Nostromo crew ended up on planet LV-426; the identity of the ‘Space Jockey’ pilot, and the circumstances of his/her chest-bursting death; and most importantly, the definitive evolutionary history of the iconic Xenomorph species themselves.
Set 10 years after the events of Prometheus, the new movie tells the story of the Covenant, a spacecraft carrying over 2000 colonists to a new life on a planet light-years from Earth. Mid way through its journey, the crew is alerted to a strange but somehow familiar signal from a nearby planetoid, and decide to deviate from their course to investigate, with disastrous results.
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself “Wait a minute…that sounds vaguely familiar to the plot of the original Alien”, then you’re not the only one. To put it in blunt terms, Alien Covenant feels like an attempt by Scott to create a ‘greatest hits’ of the Alien franchise in the guise of a new movie (very similar to what JJ Abrams did with The Force Awakens within the Star Wars universe) – with the horror elements and gore of Alien, meeting the bombastic action set-pieces of Aliens, to a generally positive effect.
This was almost certainly a conscious decision on the part of Scott – his reaction to the predominantly justified negative reviews that followed Prometheus. I myself have a love/hate relationship with that film – at the time I applauded Scott for trying something new, and for bringing some maturity and intelligence to a franchise that had been almost decimated by 20th Century Fox and their pathetic cash-grab Aliens Vs Predator movies. But as the years have gone on, and after multiple viewings, the flaws in Prometheus are easy to see: it’s overly long and suffers from a ponderous pace; it’s supposedly a horror movie, but has literally no real ‘horror’ moments in its plot; it has some disgraceful dialogue, and likes to think it’s more intelligent than it actually is; it was marketed on the fact that it would provide a definitive explanation on the backstory to Alien, but didn’t deliver and left viewers with more questions; and finally and possibly most importantly, there was no appearance of the Xenomorph itself.
Covenant goes a long way to righting these wrongs. The pace of the film is very good – after a breakneck opening, the film ticks along nicely, before rocketing into a slightly rushed series of action set-pieces to close. The typical Alien horror tropes are there in abundance, with faces hugged and chests burst in fantastically gory style (I was actually surprised that the movie only received a ‘15’ rating) – plus there are some new nasties to add to the body-horror uncomfortableness. There is definitely some more explanation this time around concerning the backstory and evolution of the creature (for better or worse, I’ll let you decide – but some of the continuity changes/errors did annoy me). Most importantly, the Xenomorph itself is back with a bang!
It’s fantastic to see the big guy in action again. For me, it really is the most iconic creature in sci-fi cinema history – and although it has been bastardised and misused since Alien 3, to see the creature back in the hands of Ridley Scott is a thrill. The fact that it is almost entirely produced with CGI was always going to be contentious, and there were fears that it would reduce the impact of the creature within the film. While I certainly wouldn’t say that the CGI Xenomorphs (and Neomorphs!) were as distracting and downright horrible as the CGI creatures in the woeful prequel to The Thing, they definitely lacked the perceived physical threat that the practical suits created by HR Giger/Carlo Rambaldi (Alien) and Stan Winston (Aliens), did in their respective films.
One advantage of CGI however, is that it allows the creatures to have a speed and insect-like quality that would be difficult for an actor in a suit to convey. Another positive is that at least these Xenomorphs look like the original big guy, and not the ‘walking turd’ brown versions found in the abysmal Alien Resurrection (God, I really hate that film!).
While the characterisation and dialogue between the crew of the Covenant is infinitely better than the stilted and awkward performances within Prometheus, it is still nowhere near the perfect chemistry that existed between the Nostromo or Sulaco crews. Both Katherine Waterson (Fantastic Beasts…) and Billy Crudrup (Almost Famous, Watchmen) give very commendable performances – with both of their characters having to contend with personal grief, the pressure and responsibility of leadership (protecting thousands of hibernating colonists), and an obvious dislike/mistrust for each other. It adds a purpose to these characters that was severely lacking with those in Prometheus – most of that crew were either just blandly anonymous scientists/security officers just hitching along for the ride until their inevitable forgettable deaths, or generally dislikeable/smug/idiotic characters that the audience spent the movie wishing they would die…horribly! (Vickers and Holloway, I’m looking at you).
But really this movie belongs to Michael Fassbender. While he previously stole the show in Prometheus as the decidedly creepy ‘Jeeves in space’ android David, Alien Covenant adds an abundance of new depth to the character, as well as his new ‘brother’ Walter. From David’s beautifully eerie meeting with his ‘creator’ in the film’s opening scene, up to possibly the creepiest music lesson in cinema history, Fassbender’s double turn manages to include just the right amount of subtly, menace and intelligence. There was a rumour going around that he was thinking about quitting acting due to his bad experiences on the recent X-Men: Apocalypse and Assassin’s Creed movies – on the strength of his performance here, I truly hope that’s not the case.
I can’t rightly review a Ridley Scott movie without discussing its visual style. As is normally the case, Covenant is simply stunning to look at – with Scott and frequent collaborator cinematographer Dariusz Wolski constructing shots of absolute beauty throughout – especially during the crew’s initial exploration of the ‘Paradise’ planet, the shots of the Covenant ship entering the planet’s upper atmosphere, and shadowy contents of David’s ‘laboratory’. It’s also a statement of Scott’s undoubted talent as a director that he could achieve a movie of such scale with a much lower budget of most typical Hollywood sci-fi movies (the budget was around $100million – compare this to $190million for the recently released Kong: Skull Island or $210million for Guardians Of The Galaxy 2).
In conclusion, whilst Alien Covenant is still a flawed film in comparison to the more celebrated entries in the Alien franchise, it is still a beautiful looking, generally exciting and fun sci-fi horror movie that improves much on the promise of Prometheus. Yes, I am quite cautious of the direction that Scott is determined to take the series in, and the fact that he has been given de-facto licence by 20th Century Fox to basically do whatever the hell he wants to do (including scrapping the proposed Neil Blomkamp directed Alien 5 – boooo!!!)…but no matter what he does, at least it won’t be as shit as Alien Resurrection.