When Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was released back in 2012, audiences were (to put in mildly) split. Some felt this ‘prequel’ to the Alien franchise didn’t feature enough connection to the earlier films in the franchise. Many complained it didn’t provide enough (any?) answers to the questions it raised. Others just found it silly.
I thought it was brilliant. While the first two Alien films were rousing successes as horror and action movies, this was the first in the series to succeed as haughty science fiction: it’s lofty ambition was no less than to discover the creators of mankind, and to contrast them with mankind’s own great creation, artificial intelligence.
Prometheus was confusing and confounding and hugely unconventional for a major studio film, and yes, even silly at times. But it was also fascinating. These kinds of themes haven’t been explored in this level of Hollywood entertainment – making great use of the industry’s best visual artists and effects technicians – since, well, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Alien: Covenant is half a great sequel to Prometheus, continuing the story of the android David and his unlikely journey with who may be mankind’s creators – call them the ancient astronauts – which also involves the titular creatures, biological weapons that here take on their more familiar H.R. Giger design.
But the other half of Covenant feels like a corporate-dictated response to Prometheus: no loose ends, all questions answered, and a lot more familiar Alien action. It skews more towards the second Aliens movie, directed by James Cameron, with a group of machine gun-toting colonists settling down on a potentially habitable planet and then getting picked off one-by-one by the familiar threat.
If that’s you’re thing, you might dig this prequel/sequel. But Scott’s heart clearly isn’t in the monster movie plot mechanics, which unfold with surprisingly mundane manner and don’t even offer the director’s usual sense of visual flair. The creatures and many of the backgrounds are all accomplished via CGI effects, and most of the action takes place at night; the result is a murky-looking thing that stands in stark contrast to the previous movie.
Still, when Covenant becomes the Michael Fassbender show, it comes close to soaring. He plays both David and Walter, an ‘upgraded’ android travelling with the colonists, and it’s fascinating to watch the actor not only create two wholly distinct personalities, but to also carry both of them through credible character arcs. And these are robots, mind you.
There are fascinating scenes between the two of them – each, we think, trying to manipulate or outsmart the other – and I think everyone will agree that the best scene in this $100-million Alien blockbuster is Fassbender teaching himself how to play a flute.
If there’s any debate as to who’s the real focus of these Alien prequels, Fassbender’s character appears in both closing and opening scenes; the prologue, featuring Guy Pearce’s Weyland, is an especially good tone-setter. And if it seems odd that these Alien movie are suddenly all about artificial intelligence, well, androids played a significant role in the other four movies, too.
And then there are the human characters in Covenant.
Over the course of the first four Alien movies, Sigourney Weaver came to define one of the greatest heroines ever to grace the sci-fi/action/horror genres. In Prometheus, I thought Noomi Rapace was up to challenge of replacing Weaver, but her character isn’t treated with much reverence here.
Covenant gives us Daniels, a heroine who is initially portrayed as weak and even pathetic, then thrust into the unlikely role of action star with no explanation other than this worked in the previous films. The lovely Katherine Waterston, who made a splash in Inherent Vice and carried last year’s Harry Potter blockbuster Fantastic Things and Where to Find Them, isn’t able to make much of this underwritten character.
More interesting, I felt, was Billy Crudup’s Oram: a man of God tasked with commanding the crew after the death of their captain, though he might not have their confidence. But the fascinating religious angle… well, suffice it to say it doesn’t really pay off.
There are other characters here played by Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, and others, but I could not tell you anything about them, save that there are at least four romantic pairings among the crew. Alien fodder, all.
While there’s half of an interesting science fiction movie going on Covenant, the other half is a resolutely uninteresting retread of Alien and Aliens. And if that’s your thing, 2017 already already seen a good Alien ripoff come and go in March’s Life. In that movie, director Daniel Espinosa generates the kind of B-movie tension that the same scenes in Covenant are sorely lacking.