John Logan, Dante Harper
Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bechir, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, Lorelei King
R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Almost forty years since one of the most frightening and popular science fiction franchises in history premiered, Alien: Covenant adopts the header that its predecessor avoided and which barely acts as a covenant to the series’ myriad fans.
Following several years after where Prometheus left off, we’re back in space with a colonization ship named “Covenant.” When a stellar accident forces the early wake-up of the crew, they intercept a distress call that leads them off course and towards a destiny none of them anticipate. It isn’t difficult to see where the film is going. It telegraphs its incidents with grim satisfaction. You’ve seen the series, so you must know what to expect, right? Well, that lack of suspense hinders audience enjoyment, but director Ridley Scott doesn’t seem too concerned about that.
When Alien premiered in 1979, Scott had something to prove: that he could make a sci-fi/horror film on a limited budget and in the tight confines of a starship. The resultant film was a tense, terrifying excursion into deep space where no one can hear you scream. It also introduced us to one of the strongest female protagonists in cinema history. In the guise of Ellen Ripley, Sigourney Weaver turned in an iconic performance.
Today, that inventivness is but a memory. What each of the first four films understood was that terror comes in small packages, cramped cooridors, and in compartments from which there is no escape. Here, the terror is in the open across vast spaces and with copious special effects that are a far cry from the imagination of anyone associated with the original production.
With unlimited funds at his disposal, Scott has chosen not just to overdesign his most recent films (Prometheus and Covenant), but that expansion has somehow emboldened him to erase any mystery that audiences craved from the originals. As any fan of the quadrilogy can tell you, knowing where the aliens come from, how they came to be a threat, and other concerns were background details that no one needed in order to enjoy the productions. Now, everything must be explained away, each mystery being resolved by a writer and director hell-bent on explaining his mythology rather than allowing its organic exploration.
We’ll get to Michael Fassbender in a moment, but the rest of the cast from chief protagomist Katherine Waterston to her human foil Billy Crudup to the periphery characters played by Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Callie Hernandez, Jussie Smollett, and Nethanial Dean, all feel like they’re trapped in a different movie than they anticipated. They are modestly relatable characters, but ultimately feel more like they are sitting in the waiting room unconcerned about when their number will come up. None of this comes off as subtlety that strong actors must work around, it calls to memory the cheap way nubile young women (and men) simply awaited their slaughter in 1980s slasher films. Those individuals had no purpose other than being served up for brutal murder. The only difference here is that these actors have talent, they just don’t get how useless it feels.
Fassbender, on the other hand, feels as if he’s appearing in a work of great art that demands his utmost capability. In the dual role as the android David from Prometheus and the newer model Walter, Fassbender conveys a certain humanity that androids are seldom imbued with. Whereas David’s model was given too much control over its own emotions, Walter’s was treated as an object for use. This dichotomy is well conveyed, though it doesn’t quite exemplify the struggle for humanity we all go through. As it’s employed in the film, it’s a dodge, a way to move the plot forward with the most superficial philosophical necessity. It also sets up the horrendously predictable final act of the film, which is probably the film’s most egregious plot device.
Alien: Covenant is a film with a great deal of technological beauty, but like its android focus lacks the foresight, or the wisdom to avoid the disillusionment of the audience. What the franchise needed was more tension, more unpredictable excitement, and less world building. As it stands now, the mystery is all but written out of the franchise and future films seem like they’ll be unable to ignore the weighty philosophical conceits forced upon them. The covenant, Scott has presented to his audience is that he’s not going to play by their expectations and will give them what he wants, not what they need. While such matters are hardly worth castigating, in a franchise like this, less backstroy and more mystery is definitely better.
Probables: Visual Effects
Potentials: Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
August 15, 2017