Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demian Bichir, Nathaniel Dean, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Carmen Ejogo, Guy Pearce, James Franco.
With 2012’s Prometheus, director Ridley Scott returned to the Alien universe that he created way back in 1979 with the claustrophobic and terrifying Alien. The concept has undergone a number of permutations with various sequels and different directors stamping their mark on the series over forty years. Prometheus was a prequel to Alien and was an ambitious film thematically, but for many die-hard fans of the franchise it was a disappointment. It was too theological and philosophical in nature, it lacked the iconic and rapacious xenomorph creatures, and was a tad slow and boring. So it was with a sense of trepidation rather than anticipation that I entered the cinema for Alien Covenant, the second film in Scott’s trilogy of Alien prequels. This latest film is supposed to act as a bridge between Prometheus and Alien.
Set a decade after the events depicted in Prometheus, Alien Covenant is set aboard a space ship named Covenant, which is on a seven-year voyage to a distant planet known as Origae-6, which has a similar atmosphere to Earth. On board the ship are a small crew in suspended animation pods, 2000 passengers in a state of suspended animation and thousands of frozen human embryos, which will be used to colonise the planet. While the crew is sleeping, the android Walter (Michael Fassbender) keeps watch. He is a twin clone of the android David who we met in Prometheus.
When a solar flare hits the ship and short circuits the electrical system, Walter wakes up the crew to help effect repairs. All except for the captain (an uncredited James Franco), who is dead in his cryochamber. After the crew manage to repair the ship they pick up a distress signal from an unexplored planet. The new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate. When they land on the planet they soon find themselves under threat from the deadly xenomorphs. They also encounter the android David (also played by Fassbender), who is now something of a megalomaniac ruling over this largely deserted planet and its otherworldly entities.
Anyone who saw the recent Passengers about a space ship carrying colonials to a new planet will know that on a long journey through space anything can go wrong.
With Alien Covenant, Scott has tried to reposition the franchise and move it closer to the primal terror of the original film. But it replicates many of the iconic moments that made the original film so memorable – the creature bursting out of a human body, etc – and much of the action here will feel familiar. Scott does deliver the gore here and there is plenty of blood splattered, as if to make up for the lack of it in Prometheus.
The screenplay from Oscar nominated playwright John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, etc) muddles the alien mythology even further and twists the history of the xenomorphs. This is the first Alien movie to have lots of exterior scenes, and much of these scenes were shot in New Zealand. But by moving the setting to the outdoors and the exterior setting of the planet’s surface the film loses much of that claustrophobic feeling and nail biting suspense. Scott has usually been a visual stylist, but here he is let down by some dubious looking CGI effects. H R Giger’s creature design is still quite effective, and the motion capture performance work from Javier Botet gives the creatures a fluidity of movement, and they are seamlessly incorporated into the action. And the cinematography from regular collaborator the great Dariusz Wolski is rather dark and moody, and he gives us some bleakly beautiful imagery.
Scott has assembled a solid ensemble cast here but doesn’t give them much to do. A standout is Fassbender, who does double duty here as the twin androids, and he manages to flesh out their separate and distinct personalities. He brings a subtle air of menace to his David, who is obsessed with the concept of creation, although his one-liners become a bit of a cliché. His Walter is a much quieter and erudite character who is loyal to his crew members. And there is a rather obscure prologue that serves up a philosophical discussion about life, humanity and artificial intelligence that takes place between David and his creator Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce). There is also a rather strange and somewhat homoerotic sequence in which David and Walter bond while playing the recorder.
One of the hallmarks of the Alien franchise has been the strong female characters, most personified by Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley, who was the last line of defence against the alien creatures. Here Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice, etc) plays Daniels, one of the ship’s officers who is a strong, feisty and intelligent female who handles most of the action sequences. But she is not a patch on Ripley, who set the bar for female action heroes. The cast also includes Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Nathaniel Dean, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez and Carmen Ejogo. But we don’t really care about the characters. Apart Daniels and McBride, most of the crew here are dispensable and serve as fodder for the creatures as they cut a swathe through them.
In attempting to reposition the Alien franchise closer to its origins, Scott has done a reasonable job, but Alien Covenant is still something of a disappointment.