It’s depressing to think that the Alien franchise has become a movie series with more bad entries in it than good. The series kicked off with two seminal offerings, the haunting and suspenseful horror of the first film and the bigger, bolder and more action packed Aliens. All good so far but then things went downhill with Alien 3, a mess of a film marred by executive meddling which was a bad first time film for David Fincher (though, as we saw, he got better). Alien: Resurrection was even worse and the franchise’s name was sullied even further by the absolutely embarrassing Alien vs. Predator movies. Even the return of Ridley Scott to the franchise couldn’t salvage things as his pseudo-prequel Prometheus proved to be a muddled mess with a stupid story with stupid characters trying to masquerade as being clever and mistaking vagueness for mysteriousness.
Ridley Scott isn’t giving up so easily on the franchise though as he’s made a return with Alien: Covenant. Though his recent career has been resoundingly weak (The Counselor, Exodus: Gods and Kings) he did make a strong comeback with 2015’s The Martian, which restored some hope for me with this film. This time we focus on the titular ship Covenant, a vessel set for a brand new planet as part of a colonialization mission. When things go wrong and the crew wake up early from hyper sleep they decide to land their ship upon a planet where they pick up a strange radio transmission. This ultimately leads to their undoing as on that planet is a lifeform that spells doom for the crew of the Covenant.
As soon as the movie starts we are greeted with the sight of Michael Fassbender’s David, the android who stole the show in the poor Prometheus. Despite the fact that Fassbender is excellent in the role this got me worried; I feared that Covenant was going to get bogged down in the same paths as that dud. Following an opening scene with him and Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) my fears were averted for a while as we meet the crew of the Covenant in space, setting out a slow build up not too dissimilar to the first Alien. Unfortunately, barely any of the crew mates have any sort of character. Walter, the ship’s android medic who’s also played by Fassbender, fares the best but he’s still not as good as David. Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is a far cry from the power of Ellen Ripley, Billy Crudup is trying as newly promoted captain Oram but the script doesn’t give him too much time and development, and the rest of the crew are all absolutely forgettable, only really being there in order to get killed off one by one. When the inevitable killings start happening there’s no sense of fear or danger because you don’t care about these characters and can’t even remember their names, so much so that you might as well call them Victim 4 and Piece of Meat 9 they mean that little.
But the film really begins to fall in quality once the Covenant lands on the planet. Beats start to get recycled from previous Alien films, most notably with the first film and its over-reliance on the same sort of deaths – facehuggers and chestbursters make appearances in this film and they’re bringing absolutely nothing new and exciting to the table. This also doesn’t help with the action being a mixed bag, with some scenes including the climax up in space being very well done and other moments, such as a fist fight between Walter and David, being very poorly shot, relying on an abundance of shaky cam and fast cuts. The designs of the aliens meanwhile are essentially carbon copies of the classic H.R. Giger models, some of which are realised with dreadful CGI. This is before the fact that the two worst elements of Prometheus return with a vengeance here. The vague pseudo-philosophy rears its head once David makes his return and there’s much moping around about the nature of artificial intelligence and creating of man that tries to be smart but falls flat due to the film’s seeming lack of desire to properly develop these ideas.
More damning though is the return of the absolute idiocy of the characters who really ought to know better – it’s not quite as facepalm worthy as Prometheus but it’s still a consistent theme. For starters, why go on an unchartered planet without wearing spacesuits? Even if the air’s safe you don’t know what’s out there. And this ends up doing them in as the whole sordid affair begins by one hapless crew member accidently stepping upon a plant and freeing neomorph toxins that cause the aliens to explode out of him – this could have all been avoided had you worn sodding spacesuits! And sure, Oram, go ahead and trust that suspicious and creepy android who's obsessed with these dangerous aliens and look right into the top of the alien’s egg – that can’t backfire on you right? (Spoiler alert – it does!) And sure, Red Shirts 6 and 11, have loud sex in the shower whilst there’s a potential chance of an alien aboard the ship and have loud music play so that you can’t hear warnings from the ship – you won’t die from that, right? (Spoiler alert – they do!) And furthermore the whole scene where the neomorph is birthed is an absolute comedy of errors, with the ship’s doctor blundering around, screwing over her crewmate, slipping on blood, breaking her ankle, shooting at the alien with the precision of a Stormtrooper and hitting the explosions, causing the Covenant’s boarding shuttle to blow up and letting the alien escape – this is a scene that’s intended to be horrifying but becomes completely hilarious. Ultimately, these examples show how once again Alien: Covenant is bogged down by the sheer stupidity of its main characters. Daniels as a leading protagonist is at least smarter than Shaw from Prometheus (she at least points out how bad an idea going onto the new planet is) but that’s little consolation.
Alien: Covenant plays out like a poor cover version of the greatest hits from the Alien series all meshed together with no real creativity or enjoyment. It cribs the plot practically wholesale from Alien and Prometheus and is a significant step down from the former classic with next to no characters to care about (Fassbender is trying hard as Walter and David but he can’t carry the whole movie on his shoulders) and a plot that’s pushed ahead by idiotic decisions that will have you facepalming all the way through. It’s sad to say but the Alien franchise really needs to be put out of its misery and fast – all the times it’s been dragged through the dirt since Aliens has been utterly disheartening. Maybe bring back James Cameron if he’s not too busy pissing around with Avatar sequels – he could help restore some of the franchise glory? But if he can’t then the franchise just ought to end before it becomes an even greater shell of the first two films.
Alien: Covenant – directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper, story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, produced by Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, David Giler and Walter Hill, starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride and Demián Bechair. A Scott Free/Brandywine/TSG Entertainment production, a 20th Century Fox film