GETTING RIDLEY WITH IT
ALIEN: COVENANT (15)
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Review: David Stephens
So … “Prometheus”. Ridley Scott’s return to the “Alien” franchise wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea was it? It remains a divisive film for several reasons. Whether it’s the convoluted universal story-arc that never really comes to any resolution, or Charlize Theron’s inability to move sideways, many people have a lot of issues with it. But it also has its supporters, and is a hell of a good looking flick nonetheless, with some damned effective scenes, and a couple of excellent performances from Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender. The follow-up has had a fairly rocky path to the screen, and with a variety of title changes (including “Paradise Lost”). But the eventual inclusion of “Alien” in the title confirmed that Scott was definitively adding the Xenomorph warrior to the forefront of the plot instead of the mysterious “Engineers”. This was further confirmed by the inclusion of the actual monster attempting to head-butt Danny McBride in the face during a surprise Christmas trailer! With the pre-sequel (if that’s the right term) now in cinemas across the UK, YGROY gets a chance to shout “It’s Xeno-morphing time!” and catches the film…
A during-credits sequence re-introduces us to the coldly intelligent android David (a returning Fassbender), who chats to his creator Peter Weyland (a momentarily returning Guy Pierce) about his existence. After that flashback we find ourselves in the confines of the massive spaceship “Covenant”. It’s been 10 years since the mysterious disappearance of the “Prometheus”, and this ship is journeying to a distant Earth-type planet, holding over 2,000 hibernating colonists, as well as a wealth of frozen embryos. With all the humans in sleep-mode, the efficient android Walter (Fassbender again) is in charge of maintaining the ship and removing the odd spoiled embryo (Eew!) Unfortunately a freak solar flare affects the “Covenant”, and results in the death of several colonists and one crew member (which may surprise viewers of the online prequel teasers). With the crew awakened, they immediately affect repairs and subsequently discover a glitchy transmission from a nearby planet. Against all the odds, this seems to be even more “Earthy” than their original destination, so they investigate. But this leads to the discovery of a strangely familiar vessel, and some extremely hostile lifeforms. Eventually the true origin of a creature destined to haunt mankind forever is gradually revealed…
From the start, it’s pretty obvious that “Covenant” has an objective to tie in the big metaphysical ideas of “Prometheus”, with the sheer terror vibe of the first “Alien”. And that’s not a criticism. There’s always room for scary sci-fi that makes you think. In all honesty though, it is very much closer in spirit to the “P” movie rather than the “A” one. It does have some major plus points, and often veils itself in a sheer nightmarish quality that is hard to shake off. But … it also has some big “buts” and we cannot lie…
To start with, the film looks magnificent for long stretches of footage. Scott powers through many scenes of sci-fi wondrousness that drips beauty and awe; a drop-ship skimming water amidst the (natural, non-CG) landscape of towering lush mountains and valleys, a space-craft hanging over a city (looking like a scorpion tail ready to sting), the “energy-sails” of “Covenant” unfurling in space, an ashen necropolis … we could go on.
The quality of horror is also upped from the most recent entries in the franchise (although we still dig the “caesarean” sequence from “Prometheus”). Here though, the new “Neomorph” and the proto-version of “yer actual” Xenomorph are genuinely frightening creatures and superbly realised with practical effects and CG. The “Neomorph” is like a frenetic albino monkey, which is hideously vicious. One scene shows it crouching on a victim a’ la Henry Fuseli’s classic painting “The Nightmare”, followed by an intense and disturbing face-off with a character. Its birthing process is also messier than its brother’s. Speaking of which, the classic flavour of the Alien returns to its sinuous and brutal roots here, owning a real heft and menace that previous incarnations seem to have lost.
The plot does suffer with many of the cast just not making a real impression. But the central trio of Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Danny McBride all work very well in the narrative. McBride avoids his normally abrasive screen persona, and affects a nicely rounded performance of a likeable character. Waterston matures effectively during the film, and makes all the right calls (like Ripley did in the original). But as good as she is she’s not allowed to dominate the story in the same way that Ripley does, which is a bit of shame really. Fassbender of course is tonally perfect in both his roles (NB: To prevent spoilers, we’re not saying if “David” appears in anything other than flashbacks). If “David” was comparable to “Ash” from “Alien”, then his “Walter” is more of a “Bishop” from “Aliens” and subsequently rather appealing. Nobody else could give the simple phrase “You’re such a disappointment to me” as much depth as he does.
And yet for all that, “Covenant” still disappoints to some extent. There are massively predictable plot developments, which are so glaringly obvious that it would be insulting to call them “plot-twists”. There are also several annoying plot-holes or inconsistencies, which we can’t elaborate on for obvious reasons, but they can have an effect on an appreciation of the story.
It’s like Scott becomes so enamoured with a particular character, that it has a skewing effect on the whole Alien-verse. We do get “answers” of sorts (more so than “Prometheus” at least), but there’s still a lot of elements that make it feel like a work-in-progress before we get to poor old Kane’s demise at least.
There’s also an inherent “harshness” to some events that seems a little unnecessary, especially with the occasional infuriating off-screen death (NB: Did “Alien 3” teach us nothing?). The health and safety protocols of the crew of the “Covenant” beggars belief as well, making the “Prometheus” cast seem positively paranoid in comparison! Unexplored planet? Hell, yeah! Sniff that mushroom y’all!
Your own opinion may differ on however you take to those particular issues. But there’s no denying that Scott still plays a good game on many levels and is capable of making your brain and eyes hum. (NB: It boggles the mind that he turned 79 this year). There are a number of very tense and disturbing sequences that remain unique to the franchise. Some critics have sniffed and compared a couple of action sequences to a Marvel film, but they work in context and are quite thrilling (even though there’s not an equivalent of Ripley’s power-loader suit). It remains a solid, entertaining ride for much of its running time, and the moments of out-and-out horror are genuinely … horrific. But the laboured machinations around the Machiavellian aspects and resulting developments just drain the adrenaline a little too much and disappoint with their predictability. Maybe future instalments will zero-in on the pure Xenomorphic terror.
We shall see…