There are a great number of cruelly self-destructive lines in Alien: Covenant. ‘This is a monumental risk not worth taking’ says one character; ‘How did she end up here’ says another. Whereas Prometheus felt like an unnecessary, but successfully atmospheric, origins story to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, the problem with its first sequel is that it adds to the pointlessness only derivation and oddities. The visuals are still impressive, as is Michael Fassbender (the only returner from before) but here is a plot so messy that such a degree of scrutiny is required – to simply fathom what’s going on – that exposed is the plain fact that none of it actually makes any sense.
The film opens on Earth, pre-Prometheus, with Fassbender’s android David questioning his creator over the very nature of life, contemplating meaning, and playing Wagner on a piano. Cold and technotopic, it’s an effective opening, reiterating the existential themes that drive Scott’s prequel series whilst throwing in a couple of fun nods to the original’s contemporaries Blade Runner and Star Wars (‘I am your father’). Fast forward to December 5, 2104 and a crew of fifteen are in hyper sleep aboard the Covenant, a colony ship carrying 2000 colonists and 1140 embryos in the continued search for a new and distant paradise. However, with said utopia still seven years and four months away from its destination, the ship’s computer system – Mother – notifies Walter, the in situ synthetic (also Fassbender), of a solar wave approaching which ‘could trigger a destructive event’ a la Passengers. Once awoken, it is not long before the crew of fifteen become one of fourteen as a cameoing James Franco is promptly reduced to cinders by his malfunctioning pod.
In spite of this promising start, it is hard not to equate the opening thirty minutes of Alien: Covenant to the safety demonstration that must be sat through ahead of take off on a long haul flight – got to be done, but you’d rather they got on with it so you can get to the real entertainment. A miss mash of interchangeable characters, who are hard to care for given their evident fodder existences, have a series of dull, exposition-heavy conversations before deciding to spontaneously go off course in favour of following a rogue transmission coming from an Earth-like planet that seems ‘too good to be true’. This being the very same planet that the colony ship Prometheus landed on, albeit ten year’s later, it’s a sense of déjà vu that pervades the crew’s early exploratory mission, right down to the threat of an oncoming storm/metaphor.
Things start to go pear-shaped for the would-be Columbuses when their inadvertent disturbing of the local ecosystem brings about an all-too-familiar infection; the type that generally leads to blood-drenched aliens bursting from the sufferer’s back. Symptoms include: sweating, vomiting blood and staggering. Gross and disturbing in equal measure, it is here that Scott steps things up a gear, plunging the erstwhile acerbic exercise into the world of shaky cameras, gore and screaming that is modern horror. It’s properly effective too, bar only the fact that CGI baby xenomorphs are as unconvincing in 2017 as they were in 1992. For a bloodcurdling few minutes Scott channels the warfare excitement of James Cameron’s Aliens, in a chaotic and violent sequence of death, gunfire and maudlin darkness. It is unfortunate that the momentum then drops with alarming aplomb into another dreary and increasingly odd stretch in which Walter meets David and Fassbender is subjected to scenes in which the latter teaches his ‘brother’ how to do play a recorder, all encompassing a bizarre masturbatory oral sex metaphor: ‘I’ll do the fingering’.
Disjointedness of pace is hereon definitive of the film’s second half structural faults, one moment delivering deliciously gruesome shower scenes (Psycho eat your heart out) and the next bombing with endless Milton-esque debate. Whilst David’s proposal that humanity is ‘a dying species, grasping for reformation’ conceptually unsettles, his attempts to sway Walter (‘serve in heaven, reign in hell’) are repetitive and entirely futile, the android being established from the off to be without emotional intent by design. Most disappointing is that the whole plot, certainly with regard to David’s involvement, revolves around unlikely happenstance and a convoluted cacophony of confusion with regard to the android’s motivation for any of this. Him and Scott both. Suggestions that the legendary director may simply be trying his utmost to undermine the impeachable status of the franchise falters with the fact that Alien 3 did that so succinctly twenty-five years ago, so even in that regard the film’s purpose is mute.
To Scott’s credit, and particularly cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, it’s not all bad news. For one, Covenant’s visuals remain incredible, every bit as sublime as its predecessor. Stand out moments include various shots of the Covenant in both space and against the planet’s burgeoning storm, and a moment in which Scott’s camera enters the inner ear of first victim, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby). Likewise, the xeno- and neomorphs themselves are terrifically chilling in their realisation, recapturing the brilliance of H. R. Giger’s original design. If Prometheus was criticised for lacking in scares, it is with the return of the series’ principal selling point that Scott delivers more traditional frights.
Continuing the franchise’s penchant for strong female central characters, Katherine Waterston too offers a highly engaging central performance as, Ripley-successor, Daniels. Fassbender is similarly excellent here and is solely responsible for any of the film’s more substantial and less superficial chills. Jed Kurzel’s score may be sparsely utilised but a ricochet of strings at the peak of David’s malevolence is a high point for the film, which proves otherwise only momentarily frightening.
Unfortunately, whilst Alien: Covenant may look the part, the film is ultimately so high-minded in its aspirations that the overall effect is, ironically, alienating. In cherry picking scenes and themes from its predecessors, this is a film devoid of any great originality and all the weaker for it.