Ambition can only get you so far. That’s the problem with Alien: Covenant. Ridley Scott continues his one-man war to revive the legendary but flailing franchise, and despite some genuine scares and deep lore-building with sights set on material grander than itself, it’s a losing battle. It’s too muddled to be anything but that.
Perhaps most interesting is that it has no qualms about bisecting the viewing audience: either you’ve seen its predecessor Prometheus or you haven’t. If you fall into the latter, you’re kind of out of luck, and worse than that, if you don’t have any affection towards the Alien films, something close to zero percent of this movie will make any amount of sense.
Anything that does make sense, however, is likely to carry little dramatic weight. More than anything, this film serves to connect the origin story of Prometheus with Alien. It even opens with a scene that dips further back than Prometheus with synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) talking with his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) about searching for mankind’s creator.
That, more than anything else, sets the stage for the film’s themes, which bear a striking resemblance to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Hardly a shocker considering the original title for Covenant was “Alien: Paradise Lost.” Then you throw in the parallels with the biblical covenant, and you’ve got a stew going, baby. You see, by following the crew of the USCSS Covenant—and the thousands of frozen colonists and human embryos aboard—on its way to a distant, supposedly habitable planet, we also follow the threads laid out by Prometheus.
The structure is almost as if Scott just wanted to take his own shot at Aliens where a dropship containing crew, scientists, and security land on a planet ripe for terraforming. Perhaps it’s more like any film of the Alien franchise where a group of people go somewhere and touch things they shouldn’t touch and then they drop one by one, but the bursts of action interspersed with horror are distinctly Aliens.
It tries, however, to do too much at once. Rather than becoming too big to fail, it becomes too big to succeed. Some parts just fall completely to the wayside like with husband and wife Daniels and Jake Branson (Katherine Waterston and James Franco), a burning relationship that is set up only to be forgotten. A few go the other way where they emerge from nothing, and then other parts simply miss their mark by a mile like the question of duty versus choice.
When there’s that much going on and all of it has an equal chance of being unresolved or unimportant, it’s hard to figure out where you should be invested. It’s like that movie-long setup in Suicide Squad where Captain Boomerang carries that unicorn the entire time but his life is saved by a wad of money rather than a stuffed mythical creature. But now that’s the entire movie and that lack of payoff happens about a dozen or so times.
But so much of what stands on its own falls somewhere between great and stellar. Fassbender’s dual performances as David of the prologue (and the “Prologue: The Crossing” short) and Covenant’s synthetic Walter are stupendous. He alone, in fact, is what makes the portions of the thematic contrast of a heroic Satan fighting a villainous God (definitely Miltonian) work within this movie. These are two identical but unique characters that move, think, and speak differently despite starting from the same state of being. It’s truly divine.
This is also a visually impeccable film. The shots early on of David first gaining awareness of his lot in life is rife with a sort of grotesquely sharp and clean beauty. That carries forward to the film where proto Xenomorphs (Neomorph, apparently, though I prefer Protomorph) slither onto the scene in almost a Sam Raimi sort of way or where a lost city looks immense but feels so claustrophobic. This is a film that nails its look and atmosphere from top to bottom.
None of it is in service of anything, though. The juxtaposition of Heaven and Hell is worthless when none of the characters particularly care that either one exist. And the quandary of agency that is given rather than taken is aimless since we are once again on the endless Alien expedition to seek the ultimate creator. The only devout character in Billy Crudup’s Christopher Oram, in fact, isn’t even built around his faith; his boils down to being sour about not being captain from the get-go with light Christian reasons sprinkled in.
It perhaps does a fine job of setting up whatever inevitable sequel comes after. The parallels of Noah’s Ark are hard to miss. The crew seems entirely paired up as married or fooling around, not to mention the fact that they are on a literal ship full of animals seeking refuge. This is where God’s covenant with Noah would enter, folding in with a Miltonian Satan, and whammy, you’ve got yourself the foundation to an interesting sequel unburdened by establishing motivations.
Even then, the actual sequence of immediate events end up being predictable, if enjoyable to watch. That’s the problem with fighting your way into a corner between prequels and sequels. It all has to end cleaner and more neatly as the start of the original films creep closer.
And to do that, you need time. And to get more time, you cut stuff. Stuff like, say, allegorical comparisons between Egyptian and Norse lore and imagery with “Ozymandias” and “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla”. No one is well developed save for David and Walter, and Daniels only feels fleshed out because Waterston just, like, good at acting.
And once you cut all that, you end up with a good-looking film with great performances shoving along hollow characters to a hurried and haphazard finish line of half-assed themes and threads. Alien: Covenant is not bad by any means, but good god is it far from great.
Final Score: 6 out of 10