Alien: Covenant (2017)
In 1979, Ridley Scott’s sweeping cinematic vision, Dan O’Bannon’s impeccable screenplay & H.R. Giger’s exceptional imagination of a monster gave birth to one of the most original, suspenseful & groundbreaking works of horror & science-fiction. Alien was a distillation of everything that scares us in the movies, and it didn’t just influence cinema over the next few decades but also became a staple of pop-culture. Today, it is considered a landmark of motion picture filmmaking and is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made. And deservingly so.
Seven years later, James Cameron expanded upon the original in ways most sequels never dare to. He could’ve rehashed the same formula to make a cash-grab sequel but chose to make something more meaningful instead. While Alien was a slow-building masterpiece of atmospheric horror, Aliens replaced the survival horror premise of the original with a highly intense, bombastic & violent war between the two species, and it wasn’t just bigger & more action-packed than its predecessor but also redefined action filmmaking and made Ripley the first real female action figure in cinema.
Fans have since been divided over which is a better picture but there is no denying that both films are immortal for their contribution to their genre(s). The characters inhabiting the two classics were perfectly defined, a key aspect that made those films so engrossing but it’s also the very element that the subsequent chapters repeatedly struggled with. Alien³ followed next but it was no match to its predecessors. Alien: Resurrection made things even worse. And then the studio killed the validity of not one but two franchises in a single attempt by opting for a crossover film that pitted two iconic alien species against each other.
The interest in the franchise didn’t revive until Ridley Scott decided to return to the very universe that garnered him a spot in the annals of cinema. Wanting to explore the origin of life, Scott aimed for a standalone story set within the same universe yet sharing only strands of DNA with it. Prometheus made its premiere in 2012 amidst massive hype & expectations and was no doubt an ambitious effort that posed some interesting questions yet answered none of it. Add to that, it was further marred by its uninspiring characters, insipid plot, lazy treatment & stupid creative decisions. It wasn’t what anyone wanted and was heavily derided for that.
Alien: Covenant, the second instalment in the Alien prequel series and sixth overall, finds Ridley Scott caving in to audience expectations by doing away with most of the philosophical elements of its predecessor and focusing more on the horror aspect to create a traditional scary movie. The resulting feature is quite an improvement over Prometheus that corrects some of the mistakes made in the previous film and brings back the tension, suspense & gore in all its unadulterated glory. In addition to that, it also validates the existence of Prometheus and takes inspiration from all the existing instalments to carve its own path. And yet, it isn’t without its shortcomings.
Set 10 years after the events that transpired in Prometheus, the story of Alien: Covenant follows the crew of a colonisation ship that is headed to a remote planet with thousands of colonists & embryos onboard. But when a neutrino burst damages their ship, the crew is awoken from cryosleep and pick up a radio transmission from a nearby planet that appears even better suited for colonisation than their original destination. As the crew heads down to investigate, they learn that what appeared to be an uncharted paradise at first is actually a sinister & dangerous world whose sole inhabitant is David, the android & survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien: Covenant marks his third stint with the franchise and opens with a prologue that establishes the theme of birth & creation which the story later returns to. First half of the film is absolutely brilliant as the esteemed director maintains a firm grip on pacing & tension to build up suspense and encapsulates the picture with a foreboding aura. The next half is where things begin to dwindle as the plot heads into a familiar domain before culminating on a predictable note. Another drawback that makes its way from Prometheus to this feature is that the characters are once again poorly scripted, and remain just as dumb & uninteresting as before.
When it comes to the technical side of filmmaking, a Ridley Scott film rarely leaves anything to complain about. Nearly everything in the movie is derived from every Alien instalment that came before it and exhibits a similar tone & feel. Be it the set pieces or the alien species, everything that shows up in the movie is refined to the minutest of details. Cinematography envelops the images with a dark, ominous & eerie ambience, thanks to its smart camerawork, cold colour palette & apt lighting. Editing is brilliant in the first half but tumbles in the remaining half. And Jed Kurzel contributes with an excellent score that also incorporates themes from both Alien & Prometheus.
Coming to the performances, the film packs a fine ensemble in Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride & others, with only Fassbender leaving a positive impression. Utilising his silent yet piercing gaze to near perfection, this remarkable actor delivers a controlled performance that carries an uneasy vibe throughout and gets more unnerving as the plot progresses. Waterston plays Daniels in a straight-forward fashion but there’s nothing about her character that’s remotely interesting. Crudup & McBride chip in with mediocre inputs, and same goes for the rest of the cast who are just as forgettable. In short, there are only two fascinating characters in the film, and Fassbender excels at playing both of them.
On an overall scale, Alien: Covenant is simply a dumbed-down version of the original 1979 masterpiece with a final twist that’s absurdly obvious. It discards the existential ambition of Prometheus and picks up all the gruesome moments from the preceding chapters to cater to the masses. And, in a wicked way, it implants a belief that Scott was probably on to something profound with Prometheus and now we will never get to see his original vision. Filled with plenty of fan-service segments, Alien: Covenant is a deep-space terror that delivers a thrilling, entertaining & satisfying experience despite weaknesses in storytelling aspects yet feels wholly insignificant in the end. Neither adding anything vital to the saga nor taking it in new directions but after the disaster that was Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is just what the doctor ordered.