In 1979, a young director named Ridley Scott that burst into the cultural and cinematic zeitgeist, right through the chest cavity of the legendary John Hurt; propelling both himself and the relatively-unknown called Sigourney Weaver to movie stardom; while fundamentally changing the nature of both the sci-fi and horror movie genres in one hit.
38 years, 3 sequels, one prequel, 2 cross-overs and numerous books, video games and various other mediums later; the Alien franchise has become one of the most successful and best-loved horror science fiction franchises in cinematic history… but not without its bumps in the road. Alien vs. Predator is generally seen as being the worst cross-over of all time (a claim backed up bu its 21% score on Rotten Tomatoes); and I appear to be the only person on the planet who has anything good to say about Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (but that’s a story for another time). When Scott declared he was returning to the franchise with a quasi-prequel in the shape of 2012’s Prometheus, many fans were tentatively optimistic (after all, Scott had very little to do with the disasterous cross-overs); but when it hit theatres, there was a mixed response, with many of the more die-hard Alien fans rejecting it despite it (and possibly due to it) daring to explore the story in a new way, its re-establishment of the haunting, gothic feeling that permeated the original instalments and sterling performances from Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace.
The upside of Prometheus is that it inspired Scott to return to the franchise properly; and with Neill Blomkamp’s sequel to the original quadrilogy officially dead, many fans were still eager to see where Ridley would move with the series. This excitement was enhanced when the Prometheus name was dropped in favour of Alien: Covenant; heralding for many that there would be a further return to the tone, style and design, not only of the series – but also of the xenomorphs themselves. That excitement was further enhanced when it was confirmed that Fassbender would be returning to the series to reprise his Prometheus role. Well… sort of, but more that later.
In some regards, Alien: Covenant lays the fears of the masses to rest – this entry to the Alien continuity continues with the wonderful design created by the late H.R. Giger for the original series instalments. Scott’s design team have worked hard to bring the feel of the originals to the new instalment, both in the classic cold, harsh and impersonal design of the Covenant; and of the chilling design of the distant planet which the crew find themselves exploring. Despite returning the name back to that of the original series; Scott builds on some of the design elements from Prometheus as well (after all, this is still a sequel), and the blending of these artistic styles helps bring the whole series together – not least because of the evolution of the xenomorphs themselves as the film progresses.
Scott used Prometheus to play with the designs of the titular alien; expanding on the how the xenomorphs adapt their bodies to the DNA of the host organism and showing them in a form established before their contact with the human race. Alien: Covenant explores this further; with Scott playing not only with the design of the “completed” aliens, but also with the parasitical form of the xenomorphs. What Scott does here, however, is play with the evolution of the xenomorphs in an interesting way; using them to bridge the divide between Prometheus and the original alien films; not only in terms of design, but also by taking the origin story explored in Prometheus and bringing it in line with the canon story established by the original films.
Unfortunately; the Promethean story line is not the only departure from the original Alien series in the new entry to the series, as Alien: Covenant lacks a lot of the tension that made the series so great. As with so many sci-fi film series of the modern-era, Covenant adopts more from the action genre than the horror genre for the majority of the run time; with the crew of the Covenant responding to the alien threats with ammunition more in the style of the Vs. films than the originals (which is not to say, of course, that the originals were afraid of using gunfire for effect – just that when they did, it had a more positive effect on the overall tension). The detachment of tension is felt all the more substantially during the moments when that tone is hit, which does happen at a number of pivotal points throughout the the film; only to fall back on the higher-octane action tone soon after.
The film is at its strongest when it’s leaning on its cast, and it’s an excellent cast of household names and up-and-comers who all put in a strong showing when given the opportunity. James Franco (127 Hours) puts in a particularly fiery performance as Captain Branson; and plays a pivotal role in establishing the character of the team at the beginning of the film. Billy Crudup (Jackie) puts in a similar turn as Oram, the first mate; and does a lot to hold together the fabric of the team when they descend to the alien world. The rest of the supporting cast all have their moments and make the best of their time on screen to varying degrees, with some particularly impressive moments and performances from Danny McBride (This Is The End), Callie Hernandez (La La Land) and Carmen Ejogo (Selma). There are 2 performances in particular that stand-out – Michael Fassbender, and Katherine Waterstone (Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them)
Waterstone plays Daniels; the plucky engineer who was obviously written to fulfill the Ripley/Shaw role for this film and, for the most part, Waterstone steps up to the plate. She moves effortlessly from the same tense curiosity, blind panic and level-headed badassery that Sigourney Weaver displayed in the originals, and blends it nicely with the more scientific composure and emotional depth that Noomi Rapace brought to Prometheus, when she’s given the opportunity to display it. All too often, however, she finds herself either drowned out in the noise of the group scenes or caught up alone in silent scenes designed to reveal clues to the viewer, despite rarely being at the centre of the actual revelations being made. When her time to shine finally arrives, she takes the ball and runs with it; finding herself front and centre for both the most high-octane action scenes and for the best use of the classic horror tension. Her contribution to the story should’ve felt like more than it ended up being, and I can’t help but wonder if there are earlier scenes on the cutting room floor that fleshed out her potential earlier in the story but didn’t make it to the final cut.
Fassbender, on the other hand, builds on his star turn as David in Prometheus with another stellar performance. Here he plays Walter; another Synthetic android who has been assigned to keep the colony ship Covenant on course while the human crew and colonists are in suspended animation. Walter is a later model of Synthetic and Scott makes a point of informing the audience that some of the design flaws that seem to have led to some of David’s more questionable decisions have been removed; but the sense of unease that Fassbender manages to create through his AI avatar remains nonetheless. However, this incarnation of the Synthetic comes across as much more well-intentioned and rational throughout the piece, and the differences Fassbender manages to bring to Walter are impressive given the time between the two films. Fassbender doesn’t let you forget that Walter isn’t human at any point; everything from his slightly over-the-top robotic actions to his considered, soft spoken deliveries keep the distinction between him and the human crew fresh in the minds of the audience. The only question that Fassbender’s return to the role raises for me is wondering why Weyland-Yutani would drop his pleasant design in favour of the arguably less-aesthetically pleasing facade of young Ian Holm… but that’s picking a hole where a hole doesn’t need to exist, really. Especially because, as with Prometheus, Fassbender readily establishes himself as the shining star of Alien: Covenant; and inspires hope that he may get one more run as a Synthetic in the series.
In summary; Alien: Covenant is not a bad film, by any stretch of the imagination. Scott successfully manages to blend the interesting story line direction he took the series in with Prometheus with a lot of the concepts and principles that made the original Alien series great. There are those who will probably say that this isn’t a great Alien film and, with the heavier reliance on action over the tension found in the fear of the xenomorph they may have a point; but this is still a film that blends action, tension and intrigue beautiful, it’s definitely a film worth seeing; and it’s absolutely worth seeing on the big screen.