Alien has been one of cinema’s more enduring sci-fi/horror franchises, and with the exception of the two Alien vs. Predator spin-offs, it has remained a somewhat reliable series. Each instalment has been different from the other, both stylistically and narratively, and despite the tepid reception of the third and fourth films, they still progressed the story and delivered unadulterated space action. The character arc of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley gave those films an emotional core, as well as a hero to cheer for.
Ridley Scott’s attempt to provide subtext to the series, so far, seems to have been a misguided ego trip, one that has steered the series far from its original concept. His obsession with exploring the origins of the Xenomorph species (the Aliens) has ultimately tarnished the franchise and proven to be an exercise in style over substance. Needless to say, I did not enjoy his latest entry, the second Alien prequel, Alien: Covenant.
Continuing the story set up in Prometheus, albeit 10 years later, we’re introduced to the Covenant, a large colony ship carrying 2000 colonists. When the spacecraft suffers a catastrophic impact mid-way through its course to colonise a distant planet, some of the crew are woken from their cryogenic sleep. Upon receiving a humanoid transmission, the decision is made to digress from their mission and investigate the mysterious signal. They discover an Earth-like, potentially inhabitable planet. Of course, this being an Alien movie, the planet is not quite as tranquil as first perceived. Before long the crew is stranded, facing an insidious airborne infection (serves them right for strolling off the ship without helmets and no pre-emptive atmospheric gauge) in a hostile environment.
Now, I am not one to serve spoilers, so I will leave the synopsis there. What I will say is that despite it sounding like a retread of the original Alien, this new chapter strays much further and migrates to an ill-conceived, convoluted and existential arena – even in comparison to Prometheus. I gave Scott a lot of leniency when he made his first Alien prequel, and I was nowhere near as savage as many of its critics. Regardless of the many scattered clues, that film was mostly a stand-alone entry, allowing for uninhibited mystery and intrigue since the significant ties to Alien were reserved for the final act.
So, now Scott has officially woven that origin story with the legacy that is beloved by legions of fans, and as I mentioned earlier, has replaced the emotional crux of the story with a messy metaphysical pretext. The most notable flaw in this new entry is the lack of a central character. Where Ellen Ripley was revealed to be the heroine and thus the focal point of the original series, Covenant (and Prometheus, to a lesser extent) fails to attach humanity to its story. There is no character to rally behind, no personal plight to care about. What we’re left with is a film that looks incredible, but is ultimately disjointed and uninspired.
The cast – including Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Katherine Waterston and Michael Fassbender – can’t be faulted; they each give reliable performances. The ensemble suits the series’ overall aesthetic nicely. In fact, their introduction recaptures the mood and texture of the original film, right before it pits them against a vapid plot. For a while we’re teased with the prospect of Waterston’s character becoming a Ripley-esque heroine, but Scott’s unfocused direction ignores that opportunity.
Covenant is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the series, and while it does provide an understandable progression from Prometheus, it also ignores logic. There are too many conveniences that Scott has taken in order to tell his story, and his narrative is sloppy for it. I fear that his tenure with Alien has passed its due-date, and his persistent mixed messages leading up to each film suggests that he may lack a solid enough vision for this franchise’s future. Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Chappie) was at one point being mentioned for an Alien film, before reportedly being disposed of in favour of Scott’s plan for more prequels leading to his ’79 classic. Blomkamp even had Sigourney Weaver circling! With Covenant, it’s become clear that it might be time for Scott to hand on the reins.
Covenant could have been great; it’s just not. In fact, it’s down there among the franchise’s weakest links.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10