One of the most anticipated movies of 2017 stands as a sequel to the critically divisive #Prometheus and also a prequel to the sci-fi masterpiece #Alien. #AlienCovenant has a lot to answer and a lot to deliver to please long-time Alien fans as well as general moviegoers, after many were left unsatisfied by Prometheus. Ridley Scott is back on directing duties, the Xenomorphs return as does Michael Fassbender’s David, a fastidious yet creepy android, but the real question on everyone's mind: Is Alien Covenant any good?
Let me get one thing out in the open, I love Prometheus. I really disliked it when I first saw it in cinemas back in 2012, but watching it at home it grew on me viewing after viewing and strangely it’s one of my favourites now. Visually stunning with a wonderful cast, creepy images and gorgeous cinematography, there’s an awful lot to love about it as well as its risk to leave so many questions unanswered, therefore paving the way for Covenant after a five year wait. Was the wait worth it and do we get the answers about who created us, who the engineers are and what happened to them?
Thankfully, there are a lot of answers given in Covenant as well as some shocking reveals that wink at you with a dirty smile, the ending of this prequel/sequel is savage and has me thinking about the direction of this franchise from here already.
I simply cannot write this review without mentioning some of the revelations in this film. It turns out David and Elizabeth Shaw crash landed on this seemingly idyllic planetary paradise, and for ten years David has been here alone, his mind is now idiosyncratic and unpredictable, as its revealed he killed Shaw and all the engineers upon this planet by releasing the deadly virus found in the jars in Prometheus, wiping out the entire colony and experimenting with the alien offspring, interspecies breeding and experimentation. Scott has clearly thought about weaving sequels and prequels without diving into heavy fan service.
David's motivations are clear yet brilliantly twisted, he has become a Creator himself, he basically is a God, creating life in his image. Humans are weak, dying species and he believes these aliens are the new way forward. It's spectacular to see new types of Xenomorph, as well as the infamous Face-huggers returning to lay dormant spores inside human hosts. So much is tied up and answered, those pondering after viewing Prometheus and wanting to know more about the Alien universe will get a full meal here, there's plenty to chew on and Scott has these satisfying answers built around the usual narrative arc of a deep-space crew waking up and finding hostile life on an foreign planet and fighting for survival.
This is also where Ridley Scott struggles, he seems to have lost a step in setting-up his characters and making the familiar story device enjoyable. The crew are immediately woken up and thrust into a crisis as a rogue Neutrino energy burst screws the on-board electrics, destroying a sleep pod and killing James Franco’s character in the process. The crew mourn, and then stumble upon a signal emitted from Elizabeth Shaw from a nearby planet, drawing the crew towards the planet despite their course being set for another habitable planet seven years away.
What others liked about the character setups is the banter and chemistry they share, from Alien, Aliens to Prometheus, there's a cheeky interplay and witty nature to the conversations the characters have, you feel they are a family and not just a crew. They each have distinct traits that you can remember, even if some of these characters don't have a lot of screen time, like Milburn and Fyfield in Prometheus, but these two are memorable for their personality clashes and unprofessionally. In Covenant, you only really find out a few interesting things about Daniels and Tennessee, or more traits and quirks than anyone else. When you have stars like Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, James Franco and Callie Hernandez, you give them something to work with, these stars aren't entirely wasted but they don't have the screen time or depth in the script to do something wicked with, considering their talent.
The cinematography and composition during the first fifteen minutes is also off, it's as if Ridley Scott and his crew were struggling to find their feet early on. Camera shots pan from character to character but there are very long gaps where the camera pans but the ship's interior is out of focus. The lighting isn't moody or atmospheric compared to the Prometheus vessel or the Nostromo, the placement of characters is poor as some are shrouded in dim, ugly lighting, some talking, and the shot choices are all over the place when another character is talking, say Billy Crudup's captain, the camera is focusing on other things when really we should be seeing how Crudup is feeling considering the rocky start to his character's story.
Finishing off with some of the negatives, Michael Fassbender's American accent is wobbly and unconvincing, it's more of a impression your friend would do when drunk trying to impersonate a movie trailer voice. Speaking of Fassbender, despite his nuanced performance as both David and Walter, there is a highly unnecessary and lengthy scene where the two assess one another whilst playing the flute, it saps the mood immediately as it aims for innuendo and barely progresses the story or relationship between these two droids, apart from the fact we find out how these two are built differently and their abilities. Granted you get a few chuckles out of these two droids talk about fingering and blowing holes, but this slows down the pace significantly.
My last slight niggle with Covenant is the look of the Xenomorphs themselves. Such a critical key player of this entire franchise you expect these alien nasties to look and sound terrifying. They sound great in this film, mixed to sound as aggressive and vicious as possible, but their movement is so CGI heavy and almost too fluid it takes away the menace of these creatures. For segments of the film I just felt like the characters were running away from CGI, whereas back in Alien and Aliens, films made over 30 years ago, I genuinely felt these characters were fleeing from a believable and bloodthirsty creature. Their movements had heft and a certain slimy demeanour, as their talons and arms coiled and slithered across surfaces. It's thrilling to see the Xenomorphs in full size after their absence from Prometheus, their appearances here make for some wicked cat and mouse scenes but their aesthetic could've been much more powerful and unnerving.
It may seem like I have a lot of problems with Alien: Covenant, but that's not the case. Every film has its issues (Except Kill Bill, Black Swan, Mad Max: Fury Road, and more of my favourites, haha) but Covenant has an awful lot of good. I couldn't get enough of all the links to Prometheus and Alien. The religious undertones are surprisingly deep and sinister, with a black swarm sequence awash with imagery harkening to one of the Biblical plagues with the Locusts.
The Neomorphs are a nasty and merciless addition to the Alien killing machine breed, providing great opposition for the Covenant crew, but let's get started on the gore. Ridley Scott upped himself with the caesarian scene in Prometheus, and whilst he doesn't necessarily top that here there are some brutal deaths that despite no emotional impact, the visual and audio aspects are punchy, capturing every bone-breaking, lung puncturing stab and crunch. Spines snap and backs break open oozing puddles of blood, faces are slashed apart, heads are torn off and bodies are blown to bits.
Katherine Waterson is bloody brilliant! It's clear that Ridley Scott is trying to emulate Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ellen Ripley with characters like Waterson's Daniels and Noomi Rapace's Shaw, and whilst they don't come close, each actress has made an entrance and gone out with a bang in this series, and Waterson is no exception! She starts off broken, after the loss of her partner right in front of her. Despite this, she still puts up a fight and a challenge when faced with David's evil plan and the Xenomorph outbreak. It's great to see Waterson in more roles lately, I find her immensely enjoyable even in weaker films like #FantasticBeastsAndWhereToFindThem. Again, she portrays that badass edge and resourcefulness that we all loved about Ripley and Shaw.
Danny McBride is a standout, turning down the raunchy nature of previous roles to play someone far more reserved and also broken after losing his wife. Together, McBride and Waterson own the screen, I'd love to see another adventure with these two. Amy Seimetz plays a rather innocent character, someone who loses the plot when faced with danger, and despite the part being small, Seimetz is wicked when she has to lose the plot completely, breaking down in fear and making bad decisions leading to a highlight moment of the film where her character blindly open fires and runs away from a growing Xenomorph.
Carmen Ejogo makes the most of her screen-time, I can only think how intense she could've got had she been given more to do given her impact in films like Selma and The Purge: Anarchy. James Franco is but a blip in this film, sadly. Ridley Scott should've cut down the character numbers, kept a select few, built them up more so when they become meat for the grinder the death scenes would be more meaningful and shocking.
If there's one thing we can all agree on it's the visuals and cinematography. Stellar set design and green screen work go hand in hand to create a really lived-in setting, an eerie one at that. Detail on crashed ships and mass graveyards are astounding, you have to admire Scott for his emphasis on practicality. The Covenant itself wows from the light bouncing off its surface right down to the minuscule landing lights and structure. The film may not be as beautiful and haunting as Prometheus or as memorable as Aliens but it feels part of the universe, creating its own look whilst echoing things we've seen before, even the soundtrack takes chunks from Prometheus, something I really appreciated.
Featuring a wickedly disturbing shower scene that may well be the most grotesque and satisfying moment of the movie, Alien: Covenant gets a lot right and a few things wrong. The performances are strong, some less than others but that's due to a lack of material. Answers and reveals come and go and its refreshing to find out those nagging details you wanted from Prometheus. The visuals, energy and excitement go hand in hand for a rollercoaster experience despite a rocky beginning, and the ending is one hell of a shocker, an ending that will more than get you amped for the next Alien instalment, just as long as Tennessee and Daniels return. And maybe Ripley!