Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: John Logan and Dante Harper
Released: May 2017
All aboard the toned-down hype train. Prometheus may be remembered (/lamented) for many things, but its legacy is a current buzzkill for Alien: Covenant. Gone is the thrill of Ridley Scott returning for another Alien, gone is the adolescent nerd-gasm of replaying 80s youth. The irony is, Covenant is far better than Prometheus. If it came first, it may have proved to be a Force Awakens instead of the Phantom Menace Alien fanboys were served in 2012.
It’s a little bizarre to climb aboard an 80s spaceship in the sleek-shine days of Interstellar and The Martian. But what Guardians of the Galaxy does for nostalgia through its soundtrack, Covenant does through set design. The ship’s interface looks like NightRider meets Tron on neon-steroids. The block-iness of the ship’s corridors remind us of a simpler time. And the delightfully uncool trapper hats the crew wear on-planet lend the film a lo-fi charm.
Which is a weird coupling, as there is some decidedly hi-fidelity SFX on show too. We get to see at least three different incarnations of the least-zen xenomorph in the galaxy. From long-grass velociraptor version, to chest-burster’s long-lost cousin – aka spine exploder. It’s a creative feat that this much Alien is allowed on screen and it still be this scary – perhaps achieved by doing the exact opposite of everything in Alien3.
What’s impressive about Alien: Covenant is its physicality. For locations based in the 22nd century, there’s a down-to-earth quality here that’s missing from much modern sci-fi. The incessant rain on Planet Alien helps this no end. Computers and high-tech gadgets are water-spattered, cloaked in permanent shower, which minimises their potentially ethereal body-lessness. The excellent quality of sound design is due big thanks too: every Alien screech, lander explosion and deep-ship mossy drip populates a dynamic and earthy soundscape.
While it blows recent Alien incarnations out of the water, Covenant is far from perfect. Perhaps the film’s biggest strength and weakness is the same thing: it looks the part.
While the charm of Scott’s vision holds sway for the first half, it starts to drag as we realise we’re supposed to care about the characters being picked off. The fact is, most of them are completely disposable. The only way we know they’re part of the same crew from the start is because there’s only one group of humans in the entire film. Katherine Waterston (as Daniels) does a great job at looking like the next independent-female-Ripley-re-tread, but is given precious little to build on in terms of actual character. Most of her emotional expression comes from crying – it’s not five minutes in that we see her partner die, and it seems like she doesn’t get to leave this grieving, shattered state of consciousness all movie. We aren’t even given enough time to get annoyed by Kevin McBride, which says something about how well we know these characters.
An exception might be made for synthetic tag-along Walter, played by Michael Fassbender. He pulls double time here, as we reunite with Prometheus’ sole-interesting crew member, android David. Seeing Fassbender compete with himself – first using a gruff, unrelenting American brogue, before switching to the Lawrence of Arabia aping, clipped-syllable candour of the late great Peter O’Toole – is sure to set ovaries alight across the universe.
It’s in these Fassbender-doppelgänger sequences that Covenant touches on its most interesting themes. The well-trodden Frankenstein model (man vs creator) checks in, but so does a discussion of Artificial Intelligence’s relation to creativity (not to mention the morals of species expansion). There’s points when one wonders if the AI argument might’ve made better subject matter for a Blade Runner sequel: strangely, the upcoming Blade Runner: 2049 instead sees Scott take a producer’s backseat.
All in all, it’s a satisfying outing. There’s glorious gore in the xenomorph’s ritual-picking-off of this turn’s motley crew. And Scott revels in reigniting his sci-fi roots in Walter/David’s internal battle. It’s just a shame the humans don’t get the same depth of treatment. It might not be a surprise to hear criticism levelled at Scott in the future, in the mould of misanthropic-master Stanley Kubrik, claiming that his direction neglects a story’s Human factor. Once again, it’s aliens and robots that stand out here.
Other films mentioned:
Lawrence of Arabia / 1962 / Lean
Tron / 1982 / Lisberger
Blade Runner / 1982 / Scott
Alien3 / 1992 / Fincher
The Lost World: Jurassic Park II / 1997 / Spielberg
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace / 1999 / Lucas
Prometheus / 2012 / Scott
Guardians of the Galaxy / 2014 / Gunn
Interstellar / 2014 / Nolan
Star Wars: The Force Awakens / 2015 / Abrams
The Martian / 2015 / Scott
Blade Runner: 2049 / 2017 / Villeneuve