Review: 'Alien: Covenant' Is Complex, but Too Ambitious

Sam Reynolds ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus has proved to be one of the most divisive films of the last decade. Some claim it is a quintessential world-building piece that dares to challenge fans and take the genre of sci-fi more to a more serious place in cinema. Others will argue it is an incomplete and confused mess of a picture that offers little more than cool visuals and classic jump scares.

The division is understandable, as Prometheus is an undoubtedly difficult film to categorize. The picture dangles several plot threads and ideas that are never fully answered, and many outside of Alien fanbase may hardly even realize it’s loose tie-ins to the franchise because of the film’s lofty ambitions and focus on human origins. Prometheus presented itself as a semi-prequel to the world of Alien, yet wanted so badly to be its own story. The struggle of trying to balance several identities at once could be felt.

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

However, whatever critiques one may have of Prometheus and Ridley Scott’s recent films in general, it is near-impossible to say that the director lacks ambition.

That same ambition can be found in spades in Alien: Covenant: Scott’s latest edition to the franchise. Though the film will undoubtedly be met with the same divisive response among fans as it continues Prometheus’ philosophical musings, it simply offers too much fascinating and downright strange ideas and imagery to not be marveled at for trying as hard as it does.

As its title suggests, Covenant is much more direct in its connection to the original Alien films and offers much more clarity to unfamiliar audiences. It removes some of Prometheus’s vague world-building in favor of classic Alien horror, which will undoubtedly be appreciated by general moviegoers. In this sense, it is not hard to predict that the last third of Covenant alone will leave both fans and weary Prometheus critics buzzing for more Alien films in the future.

Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The film starts the same way as any other of its predecessors: a crew of space travelers is on a mission in search of life in the unknown. In this case, the crew belongs to the space vessel Covenant, and are en route to a distant planet with 2000 unborn colonists to start human life anew. Among the crew are Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a resilient scientist who is grieving the unexpected loss of her husband and captain of the ship—a bizarre and momentary cameo by none other than James Franco—Oram (Billy Crudup) an insecure man of faith, Tennessee, an enjoyable dramatic turn from Danny McBride, and Walter, a rigid android played to perfection by Michael Fassbender, who acts circles around the rest of the cast. When the crew detects a nearby planet that seemingly contains the ideal conditions for human life, they forgo their original destination to investigate, only to find that it is hardly the paradise they expected to find.

One of the biggest problems ingrained in Covenant’s DNA is that the plot relies heavily on the stupidity of the crew, which in this film would be near intolerable even if it was the first of the franchise, let alone the sixth installment. The crew of Covenant is all so unprepared to make any sort of trying decision, are so naive in their willingness to enter an unknown planet without helmets of any kind and are so ready to flee in the face of something terrifying that one has to wonder what they are doing on this mission in the first place. The humans of the film are truly the cause of their own demise, and even if that is part of the point of the picture, it is done in ways so infuriating that the actions of the characters are often cringe-inducing more than anything else.

Billy Crudup in Alien: Covenant. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Aside from a few characters, Covenant also falls victim to a few tired horror tropes, such as most of the characters lacking any personality other than a single, defining quirk that makes them little more than an excuse to use as alien bait. For such a seasoned veteran, one would think that Scott would be able to overcome such tropes, but the urge for more alien violence and horror appears to be far too great.

That’s not to say that the horror isn’t a blast. Once the aliens begin to fully form, that film becomes a thrilling horror-action piece that takes elements from both the first and second Alien pictures in the best ways. The fully formed Xenomorphs are a true sight to see when brought to life with modern special effect and makes one realize how much their horrifying presence has been missed. However, regardless of some successful horror and action sequences, the third act obstacle is completed a little too easily to feel like anything more than familiar and makes one hope that the aliens are utilized more effectively in future installments.

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

But Covenant is so much more than an Alien film, and that is for better and for worse.

For starters, the film’s second act focuses the Frankenstein-like creation complex of Michael Fassbender’s David, the mysterious android who returns from Prometheus. Fassbender plays the role of two different versions of the same robot and rides the line of thoughtful human and rigid machine to perfection. However, his performance is often overshadowed by what is without a doubt the strangest plot line in the Alien franchise, which involves David’s quest for perfection in creation and a bizarre, Fassbender-on-Fassbender erotica scene that is even stranger than it reads on paper.

Scott’s previously noted ambition is on full display in the film’s middle portion, which plays much more as a sequel to Prometheus than a prequel to Alien. His ideas of human existentialism are often so grand in scope that they cannot help but come off angsty instead of profound, and ultimately leave behind more questions than answers. This should honestly be expected in some sense because the questions Scott is asking leave no room for any sort of tangible explanation, and at its best Covenant challenges the audience to draw their own conclusions on the films true meaning.

Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

However, because most expect movies to function as stand-alone stories, all of the loose plot threads and challenging ideas of Covenant can make the story feel incomplete and lacking in structure, which often damages the grand intent of Scott’s ambitions—whatever they may be. Like Prometheus before it, Covenant‘s more fascinating and stranger instincts can cause the movie to feel intangible, yet are probably loaded with so many easter eggs and mundane details that they are truly meant for the obsessed Reddit user rather than the casual moviegoer. It is a fascinating dilemma that much of entertainment faces in the Internet Age, but Scott’s ambitions are something that most will only be able to admire from a distance instead of taking the time to fully appreciate.

Ultimately, Alien: Covenant is a balancing act between classic blockbuster and ambitious world builder, which feels representative of a generational gap in what to expect from entertainment today. It is a fascinating case study of a detail-oriented director with full freedom to experiment as he pleases, and is, at the very least, always intriguing in its scope and ambition. Unfortunately, that same scope usually results in a mess.

Overall Grade: B

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