If you have to explain a joke to somebody, it’s not funny. The same could be said for horror films. The more you know about the perpetrator of said horror, the less threatening and terrifying they become. This is equally true no matter the origin of the antagonist, even if it’s a ferocious, super-predatory beast from beyond the stars as is the case with Alien: Covenant, the sixth entry in the long-running Alien franchise.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Set approximately 10 years after the events of Prometheus, A:C focuses on a ship called the Covenant, which carries a couple thousand space colonists in cryosleep, as well as a crew of 15 and a single android named Walter (Michael Fassbender). En route to their destination, the crew intercepts a distress signal coming from a nearby planet and takes a detour to investigate. There, they find a downed ship containing David (also Fassbender), the android from the Prometheus and the sole survivor of that ship’s voyage. They also discover, of course, a nasty, acid-blooded monster whose hobbies include running, hissing, and tearing humans into little bitty pieces.
While ostensibly a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to the original Alien film, A:C is effectively neither. The events from the previous film exist merely as a plot device. That film’s central motivation, the quest to discover the origin of human life, is completely forgotten. And as it’s the first part of a prequel trilogy leading up to the events of Alien, there are huge narrative gaps in-between the end of this film and the beginning of that one that will presumably be filled in by two more entries. It seems more like a soft reboot, erasing a disliked or weak link in the franchise, much like how Days of Future Past ended up removing The Last Stand from the X-Men film canon.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper have created a film that’s more horror and less science-fiction, and it’s clear that they’re making a concerted effort to fit A:C into the same palette and structure as the previous films. For certain, this film feels much more like Alien than Prometheus ever did. The opening act begins promisingly enough, with composer Jed Kurzel borrowing heavily from Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant, evocative score from the first film. Likewise, the narrative begins with the calm and serenity of space being replaced by an ominous uncertainty when a wrench is thrown into the best laid plans of the ship’s human crew.
Soon after that, however, the film ends up rehashing literally everything that’s come before it in the most mercenary of ways. The climax of the film shamelessly borrows from the end of all four of the original Quadrilogy. It plays more like a greatest hits collection that was created by an artist’s label and not the artist themselves, with a previously unreleased track or two slapped on for good measure. A:C does almost nothing new and nothing truly innovative unless you count the multiple ways that the new alien “neomorphs” burst out of their human hosts. By this point, though, the body horror that made the first film so effective has become a pop culture trope, and it fails to have the impact it should. In a similar vein, A:C seems to be intent on over-explaining the origin of the aliens themselves, and in doing so, threatens to remove the menace and mystery that makes them so terrifying.
The neomorphs themselves are something of a disappointment and a symptom of the film’s lack of ingenuity. This is the first film in the Alien franchise not to benefit from the creative input of the late H. R. Giger, and it’s painfully apparent. The neomorphs look like less like the xenomorphs we’ve all come to know and love and more like a mutated Slender Man with a big forehead. There is also a distinct lack of visual flair in the film, with almost none of Giger’s trademark macabre/erotic bio-mechanic design to serve as nightmare fuel. Most of the film takes place not in space or on the Covenant but in a cave system on the planet’s surface that feels painfully generic, almost like a placeholder that became the final product.
It takes quite a long time for the xenomorph itself to appear, which is unfortunate because once it arrives, the film finally begins to feel at least a little exciting. This is the first time in decades we’ve seen a proper, classic xenomorph on screen, and there’s a distinct, primal thrill in seeing it stalk, chase, and ravage everything in its path. Ridley Scott masterfully knows how to deploy the creature to its proper effectiveness. If the film was a symphony, the xenomorph is the featured soloist.
As for the xenomorph’s buffet of victims, all that can be said is that you shouldn’t bother learning most of their names. Half the cast is gone by the middle of the film, and of those that remain, only a few seem to have much of a personality of their own. Terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is positioned as A:C’s equivalent to Sigourney Weaver’s iconic bad-ass Ellen Ripley, if only because of how she’s the most active female character and the one with the least glamorous haircut. It’s an unfair comparison, since Waterston does a fine job on her own and is easily one of the most expressive people in the cast, but she’s no Ripley mainly because nobody is. The only other human character to match her is Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram, who wrestles with both his religious faith and his duty to his crew. Its one of Crudup’s best performances in a long time, and he nails the righteousness that Oram uses to cover up his self-doubt and vulnerability.
But this film belongs completely and totally to Michael Fassbender, who is brilliant as both Walter and David in equal but very different measures. Even without knowing about the events in Prometheus, David gives off a sinister and uncanny vibe right from the first scenes, where Peter Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) asks the newly-operative David to play a piece of his choice on the piano. That David chooses to play an entry from Wagner’s Das Rheingold is a heavy bit of metatextual foreshadowing, but it works like a charm. By the time we encounter him in A:C, David has evolved to believe himself above his creators, possessed of a cold intellect that’s colored by desires and schemes that seem all too human.
Walter, on the other hand, has a desire to serve humanity literally built into his source code. If David seems more human than human, Walter swings the pendulum the other way. David has the Received Pronunciation voice of a sinister, Hammer Studios villain, but Walter has a flat, American accent that leads him to over-pronounce his R’s almost as a defense mechanism. David’s movements are quick and almost bestial, while Walter has a more utilitarian and brute-strength way about him. The best scenes in the film are when Fassbender plays against himself as both characters as David tries to mentor Walter in the personal expression and creativity Walter lacks in his programming. It brings to mind the tense, hypnotic, smoldering and unapologetically homoerotic intensity of Fassbender’s rapport with James McAvoy in X-Men: First Class if Magneto and Xavier’s roles were reversed.
If the first Alien film was a slasher film set in space, and Aliens a zombie survival film set in space, Alien: Covenant is a mad scientist/haunted house film. Set in space. The characters act just as illogically, the plot twists just as predictable, and the dramatic moments often just as ridiculous. It eventually does make with the xenomorph mayhem that is the franchise’s hallmark, but it takes forever to get there, and the journey is often as muted and desaturated as the skies of the setting’s unnamed planet. While buoyed by the strong performances of the lead actors and brilliantly framed by Scott’s impeccable eye for composition, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. Instead of exploring strange, horrifying new worlds, Scott seems intent on revisiting the past.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C