Alien: Covenant is deliberately titled, as its predecessor Prometheus was, to alert us to the supposedly deep ideas contained within. A chilly, pretentious, dangerously snooze-inducing prologue sees Bad Android David (Michael Fassbender, reprising his role from the previous film), and his creator (Guy Pearce, looking a bit embarrassed) discussing creation – if you created me, who created you, etc. – before the Synthetic noodles out a portentous tune on the piano and the title card, and tinglingly ominous score, looms into view to alert us to the fact this is an all-CAPS ALIEN FILM.
Except, it’s not. Returning director Ridley Scott trots out practically every Alien nod and reference he can think of (face-huggers! Xenomorphs! Acid blood! An ending ripped straight from a previous film, maybe two!) in an effort to distract from the central conceit, which is so unbelievably dumb it made me want to sacrifice myself to a goddamn Xenomorph right there in the theatre.
Scott is primarily concerned with where the aliens came from, as he made abundantly, detrimentally clear in Prometheus. Thing is, the explanation isn’t particularly interesting, and building upon it, as he does here along with screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper (working from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green – phew!), just exposes the many, many, many holes in the logic.
More pertinently, who cares where the bloody things came from? Similarly to Rob Zombie’s ambitious, but ultimately fruitless, Halloween prequel/reboot hybrid the big bad is scarier when we don’t know why the hell it’s coming after these characters in the first place. With horror, less is more, and the further we delve into this particular mythology, the clearer it becomes that the Xenomorph (or, rather, Neomorph in this case) is running around wearing no clothes while we’re all expected to stand there and coo over its lovely trousers.
The story, such as it is, focuses on the titular ship, which is blasting through the cosmos housing a couple thousand colonists and a crew who are woken up early due to some sort of Passengers-esque fault. Watching over them is Good Android Walter (also Fassbender). We know he’s good because he’s American, whereas David is bad because he sounds like Richard O’Brien doing Riff Raff (during a rain-soaked sequence I half expected David to suggest certain characters “better…come inside”).
Second in command, previously third, because of the same ol’ gender politics is Daniels (a simpering Katherine Waterston, making a case for herself as the best actor in terrible movies, following Fantastic Beasts earlier this year), who has a dreadful haircut and is sad her husband is dead. There’s also Tennessee (a lively Danny Mc Bride–Halloween is in safe hands, guys! He wears a cowboy hat and makes pithy remarks from the cockpit!), Karine (Carmen Ejogo), Lope (Demián Bichir) and Upworth (Blair Witch‘s Callie Hernandez, a Final Girl in training for sure) and a smattering of others.
The cast is populated by recognisable faces, which makes it all the more baffling that we don’t get to know any of them much beyond “this one is married to this one” (there is a gay couple, but good luck guessing which it is–their relationship is buried in buddy-buddy bullshit). They land on the mysterious planet, in spite of Daniels’ objections, nobody wears their helmet and eventually things start bursting out of other things. People die, in fairly bloody fashion, and in quick succession, but it’s hard to care who or why.
The issue is that Scott, and his many writers, are too enamoured with David/Walter than any of the humans on-board this ill-fated vessel. As a result, they all get shoved to the back while the androids stand front and centre, discussing the meaning of life for twenty goddamn minutes in a cave so obviously laid out like the lair of an evil mastermind it very closely resembles the set dressing of John Doe’s place in Se7en.
Fassbender is a gifted performer, but the dialogue he’s tasked with delivering here is laughable. Scott is only as good as his scripts (see: The Martian, the original Alien) and he struggles to fill the quieter moments here, or to compensate for the drivel. There are a couple of overly earnest exchanges where even the most dedicated Alien fan will go “Really?” because the path he’s decided to take is just that ludicrous.
The flick is dull, plodding, saggy and not at all in keeping with the series’ highest frights and concepts. Worse still, there are zero scares in Alien: Covenant. None. There isn’t even any real sense of impending doom. People get infected and then aliens bust out (all of the most gruesome moments, shockingly, were spoiled by the trailers) and that’s about it. There’s no buildup. Once it happens, it happens. And, although waiting it out in the original Alien was a stroke of genius, here it feels like treading water.
There is some decent gore, but the computer-generated aliens lose much of their scare appeal thanks to being far too shiny-looking (the much-hyped practical FX are not obvious here.) The original’s creations were nightmare-inducing primarily because of their tactility. Ripley’s fear was palpable because we knew that massive thing was really stood there next to her. It might have been being controlled by fifty people, but it sure as hell wasn’t a ball on a stick and, sadly, most of Alien: Covenant‘s creatures are far too unconvincing to provoke any real fear.
This is especially odd considering the spaceship itself was built for real, on a massive set in Sydney, while New Zealand stood in for the planet on which the crew finds themselves stranded, giving a similar sense of realism to Rogue One and Kong: Skull Island. But it begs the question, if so much effort went into making the locations feel real, why not the creatures themselves? After all, if they don’t work, there’s no reason to invest in the rest of the movie’s increasingly outlandish concepts.
It’s a real shame, because there are visually striking moments in Alien: Covenant that stick in the mind (most of which, again, featured in the movie’s trailers). The initial descent onto the planet is stunning, and the geography of the ship itself is well-established. Every scene that takes place on-board is shot with a weird, blue hue that’s hugely disconcerting. But we rush through both places so quickly, the movie eager to get to its next exposition-dump (if you didn’t catch Prometheus, or have blocked it out of your memory, don’t worry because there is someone on hand to rehash the whole story for you), that it all becomes a bit samey.
That’s the key word here: samey. There’s nothing in Alien: Covenant we haven’t seen before, and done considerably better. The much-hyped back-burster sequence (bafflingly released online prior to the movie dropping later this week) doesn’t carry the same weight as its predecessor because we know exactly what’s coming. And, as with many of the movie’s big money shots, the camera doesn’t linger long enough for us to be properly disturbed by it.
Scott reportedly has two more movies to go before he lines up with Alien‘s original timeline, and has even suggested there may be another four installments after that point. On the strength of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, he might be better off leaving well enough alone, lest we over-explain these creatures to the point of complete and utter boredom. A dull, pretentious and utterly pointless greatest hits compilation that, even more unfortunately, pales in comparison to the recently-released Life, itself a fairly blatant Alien ripoff, when it comes to scares.
Alien completists only need apply, but really, collectively we should all be demanding better than this.
WICKED RATING: 2/10
Director(s): Ridley Scott
Writer(s): John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen, Michael Green
Stars: Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Callie Hernandez
Release: May 19, 2017 (US), May 12, 2017 (UK)
Studio/ Production Co: Scott Free
Length: 122 minutes