Alien: Covenant returns to its horror roots
Ridley’s elegant use of suspense is what sustains your interest and keeps you invested in staying on for the next scene.
Deciding to make a movie that tries to tell the story before the story of a wildly successful movie is most usually motivated by the potential for its commercial rewards, rather than one driven by narrative reward. This is why Hollywood has disasters like the Star Wars prequels, 2007’s Hannibal Rising, and Psycho IV.
This is the same narrative that birthed the idea of an Alien prequel when the original franchise couldn’t think of anywhere narratively-sensible to go anymore after four movies.
Prometheus was the first in that planned prequel series and the movie got a lot of backlash for the messy storyline that went into overdrive with its philosophical musings. Ridley Scott has followed up that story with Alien: Covenant.
Covenant is set ten years after the events of Prometheus. The crew of the USCSS Covenant, in cryo-sleep, journey to Origae-6 to start a new human colony. The team is tended to by Walter (Michael Fassbender), an android that’s an exact copy of David, the android on the Prometheus expedition.
An unfortunate accident jolts some of the crew awake, and after a couple of bad decisions, they alter course for a mysterious new planet that shows up on their radar, rather than go back to sleep, which is a rather silly motivation to drive the plot.
Anyone familiar with the Alien franchise knows what this means. For those that don’t, bad stuff happen, people die, you get the stuff of nightmares. Basically, horror movie stuff.
You know what has to happen, and you eagerly await it, but the director bides his time, almost flirtatiously, to delay the inevitable, stirring your tense nerves and dragging you to the edge of your seat with each passing second.
When the killings finally start, you can’t get enough of it.
It’s reasonable to be well-advised that people are going to die in an Alien movie, and most of these moronic characters do, in visually-stunning ways.
The most rewarding pleasure you get from Covenant is the visual gorefest that Ridley weaves with such ingenuity. Everything else, like the characters and their motivations, is just background noise.
The most you know about any of the characters is that they are married to each other, or having ill-fated shower sex with each other. They possess bare identities that sort of foreshadows the impending doom in their immediate future.
This is why it’s hard to care about the fact that most of them are about to be killed. The only thing you care about here is all the kind of ugly ways they’ll get murdered. And Ridley does not disappoint here.
He does the commendable job of making sure that despite your knowledge of what’s coming, the spark of excitement and dread you feel doesn’t diminish when it finally happens. He sets up traps for the characters in very obvious ways that fail to detract from the impact of the result.
As the team gets cut down, one after the other, in creatively grotesque ways, Ridley treats the audience to the kind of spectacle that made the original Alien movie a classic sci-fi horror story.
Even though this works for the movie in an entertaining way, it also drags it down a little as it has a feel of déjà vu to it. The movie treads old grounds and rehashes the same true and tested Alien format, down to execution. You’ve seen it all before. Unless maybe you haven’t.
The only human character that emerges from the movie with any sort of dignified presence is Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston) who immediately has a meaningful character arc by experiencing the loss of her husband, Jacob Branson (James Franco), in the opening sequence of the movie.
Ridley clearly props her up as the Ellen Ripley-like kind of character that made the original movie what it was. She isn’t quite Ripley, but she holds her own in a world where all the other characters make one questionable decision after another.
Danny McBride's Tennessee Faris is the only other character that comes close to being significant in any form.
The idea behind an Alien franchise prequel is to answer the question that no one really wanted an answer to: What is the origin story of the xenomorph monsters?
Hollywood has a knack for demystifying its best mysteries; so, much like in the way the Star Wars prequels unnecessarily demystify Darth Vader, the mess that was Prometheus tried to do the same with its aliens. The only trouble with it is that it sets up an air of mystery that it falls short of landing excellently.
To its credit, Covenant does a better job of this through its android characters David and Walter.
Walter is an advanced copy of David from Prometheus, but other than sharing the likeness of Fassbender, the differences between the two synthetic beings couldn’t be any more stark.
While Walter is quite the programmed humanist, David is more disdainful of the race that created him and is more than than ready to make sure that humans don’t survive for much longer because they do not deserve it. He’s almost like a Satan-type character who has grown weary of creation’s most-prized asset.
The clash of ideas between the two characters is the most interesting thing the movie has to offer in the way of personality, and Fassbender plays both with assured ease.
This is very pivotal to the conclusion of the movie when the dust starts to settle and Ridley opts for a surprising conclusion to their story that, no doubt, sets the movie up for its own sequel that's still a prequel to the original movie.
Alien: Covenant has very little to offer in the way of authenticity, but it serves up just enough for the audience to enjoy.
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