By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
After the misstep that was PROMETHEUS, an initially ambitious but ultimately vacuous return to the Alien universe, director Ridley Scott once again returns to the outer-space horror that put him on the cinematic map, but the results for prequel number two are staggeringly inept.
Starting ten years after the events of Prometheus (following a flashback sequence involving a younger Peter Weyland, played this time sans make-up by Guy Pearce), we are introduced to the crew of the spaceship Covenant, who are unexpectedly awakened from hyper-sleep by a solar flare that damages sections of their craft. Once the situation is assessed, which tragically includes deaths among both staff and the 2000 colonists being transported to an earth-like paradise planet, the shaken crew members intercept a distress signal from an unknown origin. Newly-appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate the signal, particularly when it is discovered that the world it is coming from has the same inhabitable atmosphere as earth.
More wary of the situation is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who is consumed by grief from the death of her husband and the Covenant’s original captain, Branson (James Franco), who perished in the earlier incident. Oram, a self-described man of faith, ignores her warnings, and putting together a search group, which includes a new-and-improved synthetic, called Walter (Michael Fassbender), man a drop ship to the mysterious planet’s all-too-familiar surface, and encounter alien spacecraft, ruins, and nightmarish xenomorphs, while also confronting someone who was deemed inoperative from the previous story.
Everything about Alien: Covenant feels addle-brained, half-finished, and exploitatively disposable. It also seems to go out of its way to try and destroy the mystique and unique mythology that made the original Alien such an involving, imaginative masterpiece. There is a major plot revelation that is simply ludicrous, one that unravels the very foundation of the series, cheapening a one-of-a-kind creation that made an audience feel that the universe was truly infinite and filled with the unknown. After Alien: Covenant, one now has to disconnect this film’s idiotic concepts from those of the 1979 classic, to properly preserve the simple yet hugely effective world created.
The screenplay by John Logan (who penned Scott’s Oscar-winning hit, Gladiator) and Dante Harper is vague and patchy at best, raising ideas and themes that are never satisfactorily explored. The religion-versus-science aspect is especially perfunctory, failing to provoke any kind of intelligent discussion amongst screen characters or audience members. We are only made aware that Oram is a man of faith because he bluntly states it, rather than the way he acts or deals with the people or situations around him. It is the same for the two duelling synthetics (both played by Fassbender, via seamless CGI technology), who overtly quote various poets and authors, while the incidents that surround them are frustratingly empty-headed.
The casting is eclectic to say the least, but many of the better actors are completely wasted. Carmen Ejogo, who was excellent in Selma and Born To Be Blue, tries to make something out of her thankless role, while Demian Bichir, who was part of the impressive ensemble in Quentin Tarantino’s intimate epic The Hateful 8 (and was the one shining light in Robert Rodriquez’s execrable Machete Kills), is nothing more than background decoration, and seems to last longer than other crew members by simply being ignored most of the time. Crudup (Almost Famous, 20th Century Women), a wonderful actor who has delivered outstanding performances in the past, is left stranded with a character that is one-dimensional and dull. Amy Seimetz is also short-changed, having to react to crude dialogue supplied by Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), a Seth Rogen/James Franco regular who conversely is given way too much screen time. To see what Seimetz is actually capable of, please watch Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die (2010) and Shane Carruth’s mind-bending Upstream Color (2013). Thankfully Franco’s screen time is brief, but even by his standards, this cameo is astonishingly short.
Fassbender, who was the highlight of Prometheus, tries valiantly, but the material thwarts his admittedly assured efforts. Waterston attempts to create someone worth caring about, but unfortunately she does not have the genuine screen presence of Sigourney Weaver, and is further undercut by her woefully underwritten part. It is also distracting that the film-makers have deliberately made Daniels look almost exactly like Ripley from Aliens. The lack of any interest in the characters supplied here or in Prometheus once more amplifies two of the most successful aspects of Alien; the well-written gallery of crew members and the superb cast chosen to bring them to life. It’s this basic foundation that seems to defeat so many film-makers today.
A further hindrance is how the entire film copies Alien in so many ways, while adding other homages from films such as Aliens, Blade Runner, 2001, and Frankenstein. The set-up to the story even recalls the recent Jennifer Lawrence effort Passengers. With numerous plot elements, camera shots, title design, musical cues, and sound effects lifted from Alien, one begins to wonder if this is a reboot rather than a prequel. The finale is also painfully predictable.
Overall, production values are strong, with impressive production design by Chris Seagers, and moody cinematography by the always reliable Dariusz Wolski (who shot Prometheus and Scott’s hugely under-rated The Counsellor). The music by Jed Kurzel is just too reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful score, while the CGI employed for the aliens themselves is surprisingly sub-standard. The whole approach to these memorable creatures this time is that of a masked killer from a slasher film, relying on the stupidity of the victims rather than the cleverness of the hunters stalking them.
Ridley Scott may feel he is expanding the Alien universe in an exciting, thought-provoking manner, but what he is doing instead is the complete opposite, slowly causing a once wondrous world to implode, turning the bizarre and inexplicable into something feeble, generic and forgettable, and I find it incomprehensible that Scott cannot see the damage he is inflicting upon his brilliant original. One hopes he sees the error of his ways before the next instalment.