Director Ridley Scott returns to the franchise he created, and boy howdy has he forgotten how to build suspense.
The colony ship Covenant, housing over 2,000 people in suspended animation, experiences technical difficulties in its long voyage and at the same time, detects another habitable world and a strange signal originating from it. Looking at a longer time in stasis or an immediate colony, they go towards the newly discovered world.
Things… don’t go well for them.
However you slice it, Alien: Covenant is not a great movie. There’s a lot to unpack (this is the sixth movie in a franchise after all) and whether this film is better or worse than 2012’s heavily divisive Prometheus is actually difficult to say.
But one thing defensible about Prometheus is Scott’s own admission that it had little to do with Alien, in fact a lot of audiences who like that film say its best enjoyed without expectations. Alien: Covenant, evidently, wears the Alien brand with pride, and since Prometheus Scott has said he wasn’t entirely happy with how it turned out. So, the new film is a return to the successful franchise, Scott is refocusing and redoubling his efforts?
A lot of the problems of Prometheus still exist in Alien: Covenant. Principally of which is script. We still have incredibly reckless and stupid characters to contend with. A lot of the mess they get into is simply because they land on a planet they know nothing about without any protective gear beyond caps and jackets. The characters are a dime a dozen; we have fifteen of them and honestly you catch maybe three of their names. Which is sad considering these are meant to be “couples”, who have strong emotional bonds between them. Scott has clearly taken the criticism of the xenomorph-less Prometheus to heart and in response created a 1980s slasher movie of the worst kind.
There’s a lot of cliche, which would make the film’s ancestor – a testimony to original writing – cringe. Come to an alien world, immediately put your face against a weird spore-releasing fungus. You should be utterly traumatised, but nah, let’s have shower sex before being murdered instead.
The tone of the movie is bizarre. Throughout the second and third acts we are accosted by philosophical waffling and intense body horror, literally edited side-by-side. This kills any kind of suspense, making a lot of what’s in the script feel comical, despite our earnest characters. Strange, strange creative and directorial decisions that… frankly… aren’t welcome.
If you are hoping for answers (like we all did with Prometheus) you don’t get them, in fact this “only raises further questions”, and the film remains coy with specific details. Is the film going to tell us how someone just acquires alien eggs? No, instead here’s an extensive flute-playing scene with some of the most awkward dialogue ever written. Are our characters going to show an iota of concern about a colossal plaza full of incinerated corpses, numbering in the millions, beyond just saying “This is strange, ain’t it”? Nope, here’s more flute playing and ill-conceived exposition.
Then there’s the special effects. Yes, this hole keeps getting bigger. 1986’s Aliens won awards for special effects, and Covenant is a massive step backwards. Which is deeply upsetting to say about a Ridley Scott movie; who’s trademark is exceptional visuals. Possibly the most gutting, depressing moment was this film’s rendition of 1979’s chestbuster sequence. Wow. Did they just forget how they did it before? Are they retconning Alien now?
Whether it is a case of “the devil you know over the devil you don’t”, I am not sure, but I am struggling to defend Covenant whereas Prometheus had some merit. Here, Ridley Scott gave the audiences what they wanted, the xenomorph, and yet killed any tension or suspense that it should invoke with its mere presence.
With Alien in the title, Covenant must be compared to the legacy it is extending, and by that measure it is a trashy, bizarre, off-kilter experience made in response to another discredited movie.
I guess if I had to direct towards positives, I would say the gore was suitably gory; in fact it pushes the boundaries of a UK 15 certificate.
A director generally has a style: Spielberg, Scorsese, Abrams, Blomkamp… It is hard to believe the man behind this comedy of errors also made Alien.
Additional marshmallows: Hm. Seven years in the company of friends and loved ones to an idyllic home that has been predetermined by months-if-not-years of scientific research, the perfect plan… or land on a planet that no one knows anything about, it just appeared out of nowhere and has a creepy signal coming from it? Oh, and you are carrying over 2,000 sleeping souls on board your ship and they could possibly be the only hope for humanity. Tough choice.
Additional, additional marshmallows: If you think I enjoy writing a negative review for Alien: Covenant, I really, really don’t. In fact writing this makes me sad and puts me in a state of disbelief.