It’s 2109 and the ominously named USCSS Covenant is on its way to Origae-6 to start a new colony. The Covenant’s crew are woken from cryo-sleep after some sort of accident damages the ship. As luck would have it once the crew have been woken up they stumble across a weak signal and decide to investigate further, after all what could go wrong? The group stumble across a lone android, David (Michael Fassbender) the last survivor of the Prometheus mission, stranded on a green but lifeless planet. Aliens ensue.
The Alien films used to be some of my favourites. Alien is a perfectly pitched horror film that introduced the world to one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time as well of the great action heroines. The first film was an exercise in deep space tension that created a mysterious and intriguing universe. The follow up, Aliens, decides that it’s impossible to beat the original at its own game and instead opts to be an all out 80s action movie. The result is superb, it’s an iconic movie with memorable characters and brilliant action. By the time we hit Alien 3 the wheels have started to wobble a touch, but they’ve not come off. There are still enjoyable elements in Alien 3, particularly in the Director’s Cut. Alien: Resurrection is fine, but it’s not really an Alien film as such, it’s a ridiculous sci-fi film with a nice script by one Joss Whedon. It’s probably best that everyone just forgets about the Alien vs. Predator films.
That brings us pretty much up to date and to Prometheus which was Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise that he kicked off nearly 40 years ago. There are a lot of flaws to Prometheus, the scientists on a supposedly trillion dollar mission are by enlarge idiots, the monsters are weird and there are far more scenes of Michael Fassbender playing a flute than you might think. Prometheus had some big ideas, and it was absolutely beautifully shot so for all of its flaws I kind of prepared to give it some slack just because it aimed so high. Alien: Covenant is a direct follow on to Prometheus but not quite a direct prequel to Alien, we’re apparently still one or two films away from that. However, this time around we’re promised actual xenomorphs from the original series of films, apparently Scott has listened to the audience after the release of Prometheus. I think this is my first problem with Alien: Covenant. For all of its flaws Prometheus was bold, and it represented its creators vision, I’m not sure I want to see something designed by the fans. If I am going to watch Ridley Scott come back to Aliens I want to see him do it on his own terms and live out his artistic vision.
The biggest problem that I had with Alien: Covenant, right from the outset, was that the characters are in no way memorable. It’s been a few days since I saw the film and I am genuinely struggling to remember the names of any of the lead characters, beyond Fassbender’s David. There’s another Fassbender android called Walter who seems nicer than David and has an American accent. There’s a woman who looks a bit like Sigourney Weaver because she wears a vest and objects to deviating from the mission (Katherine Waterston). Billy Crudup is in there as the makeshift captain, after the original captain played by James Franco dies in the first few seconds on screen (no really). I remember Billy Crudup was quite religious but that’s about it. We have Billy Crudup’s wife, who I think was some sort of biologist because she spent most of her screen time looking at soil samples or something. Then there was Danny McBride as a man in a cowboy hat, the fact he wore a hat made him the most memorable and interesting member of the crew. There are a few other red shirts in the crew but they genuinely made so little impact I can barely remember them.
Ok so that’s fine. I’m sure if I had to name all of the crew of the Nostromo I’d struggle or all of the Colonial Marines but there were at least some memorable characters in there.
The plot itself is a little weird. Things just seem to happen but the motivations behind them is never entirely clear. David is nominally the baddie of the piece but it’s never really explained why he’s doing the things that he is. There is a really odd scene where Fassbender teaches himself to play the flute, with what was comfortably the best line of the whole thing (‘just leave the fingering to me’). I think part of the problem might be that Alien: Covenant tries to have its cake and eat it, it’s trying to simultaneously balance the weighty existential ideas of Prometheus while also aiming for some of the action beats of the original movie. Sadly it doesn’t seem to work and by trying to straddle the line between the two it seems to do nothing brilliantly. By the end of the film we’re not actually much further along than we were at the start in the grand scheme of things, and certainly only a small step away forwards from Prometheus. I think I’d have been happier with Alien: Covenant picking up where it actually finished.
The action scenes are ok but the aliens aren’t aliens in the traditional sense of the word. I’m not sure if that’s an intentional design choice and there are still a few more evolutionary iterations to go through before they are the xenomorphs we know and love or whether that’s just how they are now. The aliens seemed to lack a real sense of purpose or intelligence and were far too human (there’s one scene where an alien is working perfectly upright). It’s entirely possible that this is a conscious design choice for the sake of the story and I missed it entirely. There are some pretty decent action scenes but it doesn’t have the bonafide Alien movie feel. You could easily have replaced the aliens with velociraptors and it would work as a Jurassic Park film, there’s not really anything that marks this out as an Alien film.
I do wonder whether the Alien franchise is now suffering the same prequel fatigue as Star Wars. Sometimes the story that isn’t fully explained is the most interesting, our brains can fill in the gaps in a more exciting way than we’re likely to see on screen. We’ve had so long to think about where the xenomorphs might have come from, or what the Space Jockeys might look like that the answer on screen would always disappoint.
I was hugely disappointed with Alien: Covenant, as it had been touted as a return to form and a throwback to the glory days of the Aliens franchise. In reality it’s not a great Aliens film, and for the most part it doesn’t even feel like an Aliens film. The characters are forgettable and the motivations are all over the place. Viewed in isolation it’s not even a competent sci-fi film, if this didn’t have the Alien branding attached to it then it would have disappeared without a trace.