Possibly the most anticipated sci-fi film of the year, Alien: Covenant hit screens last week. Director of the timeless classic Alien, Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator, The Martian), returns to the franchise after the opinion-dividing Prometheus (2012), and expectations were understandably always going to be high with such a prestigious auteur at the helm.
Alien redefined the sci-fi genre, and is considered a pioneer work in melding the themes of space and horror. Despite being a follow-up to Prometheus, the anticipation to Covenant has definitely positioned the film as more of a prequel to Alien rather than a sequel to the latter.
Even as the film opens with the title screen – accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic theme – the tone truly feels closer to Scott’s first film in the series. But does the newest instalment in the saga live up to the debut venture by Scott into the franchise?
Alien: Covenant follows the crew of the eponymous Covenant ship, who are on course for the planet Origae-6, with 2000 dormant colonists and 1400 embryos also on board. However, after a mysterious signal omitted from a nearby unknown planet following a magnetic storm, captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate. The Covenant lands, and very quickly the crew come to severely regret their impulsive foray into the unknown.
The first third or so of the film is slow-brewing and ripe with tension – features which gave Alien the sheer sense of horror it possessed. But, as the crew start dropping like flies, the suspense and foreboding is quickly usurped by gratuitous action set-pieces and self-indulgent CGI sequences.
One of the things which made Scott’s 1979 game-changer so formidable was the fact that you saw relatively little of the alien. As proved by films such as Jaws (1975) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), the unseen is often scarier than the seen, and the longer the director waits to reveal the monster, the greater the fright.
Yet in Covenant, by the end of the film the extra-terrestrial/s end up having probably just as much screen time as some of the human protagonists.
Covenant also suffers from a similar problem as Prometheus, in that there is very little sympathy created towards the characters aside from the female protagonist. This results in a complete lack of emotion during the majority of the characters’ gruesome ends, replacing affinity with revolt as characters are burnt, decapitated, and impregnated with other-worldly beasties.
There is also the issue of the CGI in the film. The computer-generated creatures in the film lack the physicality and heft of those of the originals, with certain sequences resembling scenes from video games rather than that of a film.
The shots where we see a desolate, ancient alien city, or where the Covenant ship crashes through colossal alien structures, just feel unnecessary, and it is frustrating as a fan of the originals, and of horror in general, to see a director with such a good back catalogue sacrificing substance for scale and CGI.
There are indeed positives of the film: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs, X-Men: Apocalypse) is excellently chilling in reprising his role as the robotic David, as well as playing another android named Walter.
Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) is heroic yet incredibly human as Daniels, and Danny McBride (Pineapple Express, This is the End) becomes the latest member of the Judd Apatow crew to make the successful transition from comedy into drama.
Yet ultimately, it all feels too familiar to the preceding films in the series. The scenario of a Weyland industries ship landing on an unknown planet has truly ran its course, and the final battle between Daniels and the ‘Xenomorph’ feels like a strange mash-up of the finales from both Alien and Aliens (1986). There’s a fine line between homage and mimicry, and sadly Scott has strayed into the latter in Covenant.
Viewers who wanted answers which were unexplained in Prometheus will be satisfied by this sequel-cum-prequel, yet fans of Alien and Aliens will find many scenes in the film all too familiar, whilst the narrative unfortunately fails to live up to the horror and ferocity which its trailers promised.