Instead of targeting the mystery and intrigue of the marketing campaign for Prometheus, which tried to obscure any links to Ridley Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece Alien, the publicity machine for Alien: Covenant hasn’t allowed you to forget its origins. While there are star names in the cast, most notably Michael Fassbender, the real attractions here are clearly the ‘aliens’ themselves. And while drooling Xenomorphs may be what the audience pays to see, they’re likely to disappoint since the film that has been constructed around them is, to put it kindly, a limp effort.
The film opens well by introducing us to the sole conscious inhabitant of the Covenant, a colony ship on its way to a new planet: the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, who also plays David). Fassbender is easily the best part of the film, with his dual roles allowing him to play both a dutiful slave to human commands in Walter and the unsettlingly intelligent and defiant David. Faced with an emergency, Walter quickly resurrects the other crew members from cryosleep, including Covenant’s mandatory Ripley homage, Daniels (Katherine Waterston). While promoted as the film’s main heroine, Waterston is sadly underused, with some powerful character moments early on quickly becoming forgotten as the film chases opportunities for exposition delivery and gory set-pieces.
After receiving a scrambled distress signal from a planet somewhat off the ship’s course, the acting captain of the Covenant, Christopher (Billy Crudup), decides to go and investigate. This marks the point where the film’s quality goes into rapid decline, as it precipitates a rapid-fire series of baffling decisions: the colony ship is needlessly sent off course for no particular reason; the crew members step out into an alien atmosphere with no helmets or breathing apparatus; people split up from each other so they can be terrorised and imperiled in novel ways. When David shows up, cloaked and looking like he just escaped from a LARPing group, the crew members obediently and unsuspectingly follow him to his sanctuary, clearly thinking little of the petrified corpses littering the steps approaching the gate. While characters can be forgiven for making one or two stupid decisions, it’s difficult to accept consistently idiotic behaviour from people who are meant to be well-trained, intelligent, and responsible.
The stupidity of the characters is essentially what kills the film. Instead of feeling their terror when they are isolated with an alien threat, you roll your eyes as you think about how easily virtually every terrible event in the film could have been avoided with some intelligent decision-making. As the music builds and the characters step closer and closer to danger, you’re almost tempted to yawn because the impending frenzy of violence is so clearly telegraphed.
While it might be easy to read this and think the film is a complete disaster, there are some saving graces, most notably in the film’s visuals. The production design, particularly of David’s laboratory, is fascinatingly twisted and macabre, filled with imaginative flourishes and details that suggest a backstory that is clearly much more interesting than the film itself.
Although it was promoted as a return to the spirit of the original Alien film, Covenant is really a pale shadow of its originator. Covenant combines the surface elements of the original film (Xenomorphs, sinister androids, an action-oriented heroine with a sensible haircut and a grubby tank-top) with the pseudo-philosophising of Prometheus, and this, as it turns out, makes for a heavily diluted cocktail. To watch Alien: Covenant is to realise that Scott really just wanted to make Prometheus 2, but made concessions to satisfy the fans’ craving for facehuggers and chestbursters.
If it teaches anything, Covenant demonstrates that pandering is an impulse to be resisted just as rigorously as the urge to walk down the corridor clearly labelled ‘CERTAIN DEATH AWAITS’ (which is, alas, advice that the characters in this film had clearly never been made aware of).
by Rachael Grant (University of Exeter graduate, 2010)