Alien: Covenant Film Review
Apparently Prometheus wasn’t bewildering enough.
Early editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) were produced in a surprisingly chaotic setting. A scribe sat at a typewriter in a small conference room while surrounding researchers competed in a shouting match over how many psychological disorders they could cram into the manual.
Replace psychological disorders with plot redirections and lofty philosophical ideas, imagine that the DSM is a movie script, and you have a likely scenario of how Alien: Covenant was conceived.
In theory, the plot of director Ridley Scott’s follow up to the lukewarmly received Prometheus (2012) sounds simple, like a throwback to the very well-received Alien (1979): After a fatal solar flare hits the colony ship Covenant, killing its captain (James Franco), the crew are reluctant to go back into their sleeping pods. Newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup), suggests they follow a potential distress signal from an unknown planet nearby. Second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), disagrees, but they land anyway. Pretty soon, they’re being terrorised by vaguely familiar aliens while they seek refuge in a cave with David (Michael Fassbender) the synth from Prometheus, who is a primitive version of the Covenant’s own Walter (also Fassbender). The ship’s pilot, Tennesee (Danny McBride), circles above in a storm cloud and can’t communicate with the crew.
Initially set up as a game of cat and mouse on an alien planet with an untrustworthy synth, the film turns into a jumbled mess of genres juggling a plot about eradicating the human race while two Fassbenders engage in cringeworthy philosophical debates over the purpose of existence.
Ridley Scott can direct, but he never writes. It’s why his lengthy resume is split between masterpieces and incoherent rubbish. With a good script he can elevate a straightforward genre piece to something great (Alien, The Martian) or assist in delivering a brilliant script to the screen (Bladerunner). When burdened with a poor script like the barely cohesive Prometheus or the widely panned The Counsellor (2013), Scott might manage to inject a few impressive sequences but ultimately delivers something drowning in exposition and confusing plot details. Such is the case with Covenant.
Working with a script by John Logan and Dante Harper, plus story credits from Jack Paglen and Michael Green, Scott manages to give audiences one arresting sequence in the whole film: After they crashes on the planet, two members of the exploring crew are infected by spore-things which soon turn them into pallid, convulsing alien-convoys. Karin (Carmen Ejogo) escorts the infected Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) back to the ship’s medical bay and is soon trapped with him as an alien rips its way out of his back and gets loose on the ship. Scott ramps up the tension in the sequence, playing to the rhythm of Jed Kurzel’s otherwise forgettable score. He makes sure to spill buckets of blood and caps off the sequence with an explosion that isolates the crew and seals their fate. Similar to Elizabeth Shaw’s caesarean in Prometheus, this is a fine bit of filmmaking made useless by everything else around it.
Dariusz Wolski’s drab cinematography swathes the whole thing in a steely shade of blue while the supposed alien planet is simply a mountainous range on our own planet. The only saving grace becomes Fassbender’s increasingly over-the-top performance. David emerges as a Frankenstein-esque supervillain whose campy quips give the film some much needed levity from its painfully earnest self-seriousness. Through him, and through some of the bloodier moments, a B-movie picture in the spirit of John Carpenter is trying to emerge. This is what Alien: Covenant ought to have been—a silly, ultraviolent picture that doesn’t try to blow its audiences’ minds. Instead, what you get is something floundering between a sci-fi epic and a Dune-level flop. The iconic xenomorph shows up somewhere near the end, but by that point you’ll be too confounded to care.