The Alien franchise has been limping along since the early ‘90s, and a covenant with God herself can’t save it from the paucity of original thought on display in Ridley Scott’s latest shade of a film. Alien: Covenant builds a great starting point, but squanders everything near the end of the first act, and it simply isn’t cohesive or confident enough to recover. Faint echoes suggest that the terrifying magic of the xenomorph may still be alive, but they never stand out above the background noise.
Alien: Covenant takes place roughly 10 years after the events of Prometheus. The Covenant is a colonization ship bound for an attractive little planet somewhere. Along the way, a neutron flare forces the crew to wake up, and they discover a signal drawing them to a strange world that also seems perfectly habitable – maybe even more so than their destination! So, off they go.
This introduction and the crew’s initial investigation of this planet is the best that Alien: Covenant will ever be. The characterization is reasonable, there’s no break-neck plot twists trying to be too clever, and the tone consistently allows a feeling of dread to creep up on the audience. Scott has a nice command of scope and space here with the camera frame, generating solid elements of horror throughout the first 30 minutes or so. The initial eruption of terror is doubly-effective due to this glacial pacing and constrained framing, a lesson epitomized by the original Alien.
Then it all goes to hell.
The first monsters (called neomorphs) emerge from the initial infections, kind of like what happens in Prometheus except it isn’t because fuck you that’s why. These pinkish weirdos look lifted from Pan’s Labyrinth except Guierllmo del Toro knows better than to craft a believable flesh-toned monster from dogshit CGI. Despite looking absolutely terrible and distracting, they don’t seem to die very easily, even though I am sure they are being shot over and over. It does not fit with the atmosphere that has developed up until this point. In about five minutes, all of Scott’s hard work is spent. The scares will return in short bursts, but as a complete piece Alien: Covenant is doomed from here on out.
David, the not-so-secret asshole from the first film shows up to save everyone from the very small pink things like it’s a cut scene from a video game, and then starts lying about anything and everything. His exposition skills are strong. People die, none more ridiculously than the captain who sticks his face into an alien egg that David somehow designed and somehow created somehow. The scene is absurd to the point that I originally read it as tongue-in-cheek. If that’s true, then the tone misses horribly. I guess it is supposed to be at least a little funny, because David wakes up the captain he just impregnated by throwing stuff at him. Who knows, by now Scott’s shooting from the hip.
The plot relies too heavily on twists to ratchet up the excitement. There’s always something wrong or a funny feeling that David is an evil liar. I picked up on it the instant he asked how many colonists were aboard Covenant. It took the characters far longer. After the first 30 minutes, every plot beat was telegraphed well ahead of time, up to and including a switcheroo that I was sure they weren’t foolish enough to actually go through with. So, of course they did. It was like Life, but worse! Is it bad when a movie from outside the franchise rips off your movie better than you do, plus you both have the exact same ending? This is a stupid, flashy plot that relies on regular slasher deaths and alien attacks to generate any forward momentum, and then plot twists to capitalize on all that ersatz energy and distract the viewer from the fact that nothing really happens in the entire film.
The xenomorph that emerges in minutes and grows to full size even faster also looks terrible, because it is revealed in all its CGI inglory in full body, full light, and full awkwardness. There’s actually two xenomorphs in this movie because we always need the 4th act in Alien movies, though it isn’t exactly clear to me where xenomorph #2 came from (meaning, when did it’s host get impregnated?).
Perhaps the most annoying quality of Alien: Covenant was one of the main things that bugged me about its direct predecessor: awkward and incomplete quotations of the better films in this franchise. Prometheus insisted upon allusion and quotation of Alien, but in such an obtuse and stepwise fashion that it entirely distracted from anything that was original and interesting. There were like twelve evolutionary steps in Prometheus before we got to whatever monster emerged from the Engineer at the end – and that still wasn’t a xenomorph.
At least in Alien: Covenant we get to the xenomorph for real. Sadly, this just encourages Scott to recycle imagery from past films. The tail murder in the shower (spoiled in the trailer, but appearing in the last 10 minutes of the film – thanks marketing!) is an egregious example, but there are others, including the same confusing infectious agent from Prometheus (which somehow makes even less sense in this film), and alien POV shots plucked from David Fincher’s Alien 3, along with that film’s “let’s trap the xenomorph” climax.
Alien: Covenant is a muddled mess of jump-scares, body horror, God complexes, and high-concept science fiction like genetic engineering and human experimentation. There’s no consistency, and no real understanding of theme at all. In a particularly odd decision, Scott bookends Covenant with aural references to the Valhalla leitmotif from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The key idea from the opera is that Valhalla is built on a fundamentally flawed foundation that will ultimately doom its denizens (the Gods), but that is painfully absent from Scott’s reference. It’s like he thought, “David wants to be a God. What’s a God-type piece of classical music I can use? Valhalla? That works!”
It clear that Scott still has the talent to put together a film that looks aesthetically pleasing and technically functions as a movie, but he simply can’t be bothered to make any thematic sense. Alien: Covenant is Phineas Gage after his traumatic brain injury – what once was glimmers faintly in his eye, but now he’s prone to unpredictable outbursts and nonsensical ramblings.
Sometimes, the echo of what was stings more than silence.