Directed by: Ridley Scott || Produced by: David Giler, Walter Hill, Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer
Screenplay by: John Logan, Dante Harper || Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez
Music by: Jed Kurzel || Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski || Edited by: Pietro Scalia || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 122 minutes
Few movie franchises are more of a mess or have more torrid, controversial histories than the Alien (1979, 1986, 1992, 1996, 2012, 2017) series. Aside from its formulaic fall from grace following its influential, dare I say classic original two films by Ridley Scott and James Cameron, each franchise installment (including the prequel-spinoff Prometheus ) repeats the identical narrative structure of the first Alien (1979), differing only in each auteur director’s stylistic execution of that same formula. The series’ official continuity has been bitterly contested since David Fincher’s reactionary Alien 3 (1992), which killed fan-favorite characters Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) off-screen, and whose nightmarish production troubles hobbled its theatrical release. The series has never fully recovered.
In this day and age of extended mega-franchises and interconnected filmic universes, this haphazard attention to overarching characterizations or brand continuity is out of style, but I would argue makes for more interesting and unpredictable individual films. The Alien franchise suffers from name-brand nostalgia as much as any successful Hollywood property that came of age in the ’60s, 70s, or 80s, and it will likely never regain its hallowed status (particularly if promising new blood like Neill Blomkamp is pushed aside for aging has-beens like Scott); but one thing the series is not is safe. It has formula, of course, but the property retains all the blood, grime, and violent edge it popularized in the late 70s and early to mid 80s.
Constructed in part as a sequel to his controversial prequel, Prometheus, as well as a crossover prequel to his original 1979 classic, Alien: Covenant is a hybridized sequel that melds the thematic, philosophical overtones of Prometheus with assorted franchise iconography from the first three films. Covenant neither sheds all the tonal weight of the spiritual Prometheus, nor does it reinvent the Alien wheel, but it does execute established series’ formula better than any film since the Assembly Cut of Alien 3. Whether anyone will notice or give credit for that is another question.
Perhaps the most amusing aspects of the Alien series are its fans; while fans of Marvel, DC, or various comic book adaptations verge on unadulterated adulation and confirmation bias, Alien(s) fans are notorious pessimists. Though it may be in keeping with their beloved saga, thematically speaking, Alien(s) fans are perhaps the most defensive cinephiles in pop culture, and it’s impossible to review any Alien sequel without discussing its borderline toxic hardcore fan environment. On the one hand, it’s hard not to be defensive as an Alien fan given the series’ roller coaster history, but on the other, you find more balanced emotional reasoning and positive reinforcement in a psychiatric ward. This may be the lone franchise where the diehard fans are harsher towards new films and more protective of the originals than the average film critic.
This explains much of the divisive audience reaction to Covenant, despite the positive reviews from high-profile critics. It’s impossible to predict how one will respond to this film, regardless of your affinity for Alien, Aliens, Alien vs Predator (2004), or Prometheus. Covenant is such a mix of previous entries of the series, for better and for worse, that fan reactions will be all over the map.
For the better, in my mind at least, Covenant sports the best screenplay and overall execution of its story structure of any Alien sequel in decades. The film bridges the tonal and thematic gap between Prometheus and Alien almost perfectly, balancing the Biblical symbolism of the former with the utilitarian, streamlined genre appeal of the latter. Unlike Prometheus, Resurrection (1996), and Alien 3, I could always follow what was going on, where all the characters were in relation to one another, and the narrative was paced accordingly. Its prologue and epilogue alone are benchmarks for how to start and end a science-fiction thriller. Covenant doesn’t take many, if any risks in terms of its screenplay, but I would argue that’s for the better given recent franchise installments, and yet it retains far more thematic weight and imagination than a similar franchise reboot like Predators (2010).
Much of that thematic weight is executed so well thanks to Ridley Scott’ stellar production design and cinematography, as well as bravado dual performances by Michael Fassbender. The gorgeous CGI cinematography in space rivals that of Alphonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), which is in turn surpassed by the outdoor location photography completed in New Zealand. To that end, the near Holocaust style of the Engineer city and Fassbender’s Dr. Frankenstein-esque lair add memorable flair to the series’ overarching biopunk aesthetic.
The most memorable part of the whole film, however, is Fassbender himself. While the German-born Irishman was the biggest selling point of Prometheus as well, he ups the ante here with not one, but two excellent roles as Walter, the obedient, matter-of-fact android teamed with our principle cast of human colonists, and his reprisal as David, Prometheus‘ fastidious, possibly sinister android. This Cain and Abel-dynamic is one of many Biblical overtones continued from Prometheus, and in my opinion represents some of Fassbender’s best work to date. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski builds on Fassbender’s dual performances, utilizing a terrific yet subtle dolly long-take during an idiosyncratic scene where David teaches Walter to play the recorder, as well as effective wide-angle cinematography during an even more memorable Fassbender-on-Fassbender fight sequence.
Some of Covenant’s biggest problems and most fans’ complaints have to do with its stereotypical horror movie cliches, including but not limited to lone characters breaking away from the main group to their doom, characters sticking their faces into ominous flora and fauna, and characters making rash decisions in the heat of fight or chase sequences. These elements are annoying, but don’t ruin the film for me, by any means, much like how I rolled my eyes at Charlize Theron’s comical death in Prometheus, but still enjoyed that film just fine.
My primary criticisms with Covenant have to do with its use of the titular xenomorph; one terrible scene involving an alien beating its computer generated head against a spaceship in mid takeoff is laughable, not to mention unnecessary with regards to the story. Moreover, the xenomorph’s CGI FX are serviceable during low-lit indoor scenes, but unconvincing in high-key lighting setups or whenever the beast moves quickly in wide shots. Scott’s depiction of his eponymous beast is surprisingly haphazard, and makes me wonder whether he was half-assing these sequences as protest against the negative reactions (and probable subsequent studio interference) to Prometheus.
Still, the human cast’s chemistry and strong dialogue compensate for their characters’ questionable decision making, while the fantastic, brutal gore FX assuage much of the lackluster xenomorph scenes. Much of one’s tolerance for the aforementioned problems depends on one’s patience for genre formula and suspension of disbelief, as well as one’s affection for the Alien series in general. Many fans are tired of the series’ lackluster modern reputation, and thus have little patience for uneven forays into franchise backstory like Prometheus or Covenant, while those who enjoyed the former may be upset how the latter attempts to “course-correct” back to the original franchise iconography. For my part, quick xenomorph gestations, panicked characters, and lone wolves are par for the course for this franchise, including those lauded original two films, so my hardcore affection for this series gives these later sequels the benefit of the doubt instead of holding them to a double standard. I also scoff at the borderline religious protectionism of those first two movies, my own love for them notwithstanding, given the series’ continuing wonderful imagery, body horror, and classical biopunk style. My few gripes with the film have to do with the unacceptable digital FX of the alien itself, and one very bad scene. Other than that, I have little energy to waste ranting on Covenant.
Alien fans are a cynical, spiteful bunch, and though I am proud to count myself among them, I neither fanboy at every property released a la Marvel nor do I view every subsequent sequel as heresy. With this latest movie, the franchise brand remains as much a burden as it is a blessing for a story indulging in its own mythology. This infatuation with all things Alien costs its attention to character logic and multilayered protagonists, but it guarantees wonderful biopunk visuals, effective cinematic violence, and an unforgettable antagonist who will never be appreciated as much as he should. Much like the Mad Max (1979, 1981, 1985, 2015) series, I judge each installment on its own merits rather than its franchise continuity or stylistic innovation, which is what I believe all fans should do.
Besides, if embracing the artificial intelligence plot device of its franchise diegesis over its actual extraterrestrial namesake isn’t an ambitious risk, I don’t know what is — particularly if it has Fassbender doing Fassbender. Ha… ha… ha…
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Alien: Covenant sports the best script of the franchise since Cameron’s 1986 space-marine epic, whether people realize it or not, armed to the teeth with ferocious monsters, beautiful production design, and not one, but two Michael Fassbender roles that do the series proud. Starring human castmembers Katherine Waterston, Billy Krudup, Danny McBride, and Demian Bichir are more side helpings than main course, but they have solid chemistry and great dialogue.
— However… if the franchise’s clusterfuck of narrative continuity irritates you, Covenant won’t help things, nor will it insist its space-faring civilians use scientific instruments or environmental suits to explore unknown — and possibly quite fucking dangerous — lifeforms and unknown planets, respectively. Also, Ridley Scott needs to explain to me why every xenomorph had to be created with digital, not practical, FX. The takeoff sequence with the alien bashing itself into a spaceship is awful.
—> RECOMMENDED, nonetheless, though if you hated everything that’s come after Aliens (or Alien, for that matter), or if you wanted a complete sequel to Prometheus, this film probably isn’t for you. All other genre aficionados and creature-feature lovers, dive in.
? Don’t let the bedbugs bite! I’ll tuck in the children…