MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Alien: Covenant’ is an exceedingly comfortable, if polarizing middle ground franchise binder

Even if it is dopey at times, Ridley Scott's sequel-to-a-prequel finds more of a middle ground between the philosophical elements of 'Prometheus' and the slam-bang horror of 'Alien'

| May 11, 2017

“Alien: Covenant” has been getting me through my life as of late. Recently, with the unexpected passing of my grandfather, who acted as a father-figure in my life, I’ve been working toward the payoff of seeing “Alien: Covenant” following my exams. I didn’t care whether it was good or bad, I just needed the release of something I was excited for coming to full fruition. Though, if my experience with “Alien: Covenant” taught me anything, it’s that 1. an experience is everything when it comes to film, and 2. not everything always works out how you plan it to in your head. To keep it vague, it was a tough, but necessary lesson for me to learn after going all-in on it.

But what about the film itself? I’m a self-professed “Prometheus” fanboy that really appreciates everything that the film does as a whole. I attribute much of this to being able to separate “Prometheus” from that of the “Alien” series, which was Ridley Scott’s intention from the start. Now, with its sequel “Alien: Covenant,” I guess Scott has backtracked on the film’s distance from the original Alien series, looping it back into the mainline series, while also continuing its prequel status. With Scott returning to the helm of the series for a third time, “Alien: Covenant” seeks to return the series back to its horror roots after “Prometheus” was faced with criticism over its tame, thriller-like feel, rather than that of a straight-up horror film. With Scott’s recent successes of “The Martian” and other successful production ventures, does “Alien: Covenant” hold its own as a solid “Prometheus” sequel, and more importantly, as a part of the overall “Alien” franchise?

I would say yes, for separate reasons on both questions.

The Covenant is a large-scale colonization mission carrying 15 crew members and over 2000 colonists to a remote planet suitable for human life. After an energy surge from a nearby planet, unable to be stopped by the ship’s synthetic organism, Walter (Michael Fassbender), damages the ship, the computer system awakens the crew, but a malfunction causes the accidental death of the ship’s captain (James Franco). Dealing with their loss, the newly appointed ship captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) adjusts to his new position as the ship intercepts a radio transmission from the nearby planet, identifying it as human. Despite the dissent of the ship’s second hand, Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the crew descends to the surface of the planet, where they are met by a violent, destructive pathogen and a grueseomely terrifying alien species that looks to wipe out the entire crew and their mission.

So let’s approach “Alien: Covenant” from the angle of the sequel to “Prometheus” first. It should be worth noting that we get quite a few answers from “Prometheus” answered, but not in the way of a typical sequel. Many of the answers we get from the gap between “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” aren’t as satisfying in a thematic sense than we are used to as filmgoers, but I somehow wasn’t angry at it. If you want a clean-cut answer from “Prometheus,” you’re not going to get it from “Alien: Covenant.” While “Alien: Covenant” does pose its own questions, it exists much as an “Alien” film that focuses on survival more than that of philosophical questions on life. One major similarity that “Alien: Covenant” has brought from “Prometheus” is the occasional idiocy of its characters. While it’s more than believable that a group of scientists would be curious about a planet, we’re once again treated to that of overly curious scientists who get completely fucked up from their curiosity.

As a new installment to the “Alien” franchise, the bar is set both low and high for “Alien: Covenant” to clear. While it’s almost exceedingly simple to clear the standard of being better than “Alien³” and god forbid better than “Alien: Resurrection,” but it has a lot to live up to being even anywhere nearly as good as “Alien” or “Aliens.” In that sense, “Alien: Covenant” does exactly what you expect it to: it clears the low bar of being better than “Alien³” and “Alien: Resurrection,” but never gets anywhere near the same level as the original two films in the series. Quality wise, “Alien: Covenant” is still very much aligned with that of “Prometheus,” even if that film left a stronger impression on me than “Alien: Covenant” did.

And then there’s the point where “Alien” and “Prometheus” meet in the second act where the film gets strangely off-putting, which I struggled to grasp whether I liked or not. It’s in these sequences where you finally see how truly different the “Alien” series and “Prometheus” both are. While I’m still grappling with some scenes that felt more hokey than powerful, I found some of these tonal mixtures quite compelling, while I found others a bit ham-fisted, which really is my biggest issue with “Alien: Covenant.” The film doesn’t really ever mesh quite as well as it should, and when the film is trying to convey both tones at once, the film does falter a bit, but when they handle their own tones separately, it works.

Another element of “Alien: Covenant” I wasn’t crazy about wasn’t in anything in the actual film, but what Fox chose to leave out of the film. Online, Fox released two “prequels” to the film (to which you can find here and here) that contained quite a decent amount of character development and story to it. Unfortunately, much of the depth gained from these prologues are lost in the film due to their absence, which is why I really wish Fox had been smart and simply included them in the film itself, which would’ve made for a more cohesive gap between “Prometheus” and this film.

As for the cast, while they are more of a horror cast than a sci-fi one (meaning their existence is completely disposable most of the time), the cast at hand do a great job in finding spaces of depth for these characters to exist in. While Waterson is no Sigourney Weaver, I found her drive in Daniels to be compelling. Danny McBride’s surprisingly dramatic turn as the ship’s pilot, Tennessee, might be his best performance to date, and one of the best performances in the film. But it’s Fassbender who once again shines through as the fascinating, occasionally terrifying synthetic organisms. The dichotomy between Fassbender’s Walter and David are a fascinating mixture of two seemingly similar tropes being played wonderfully distanced from one another, creating a really cool rift between performances. Sure, occasionally it might get a bit weird, or even a bit hammy, but for what it all achieves, it’s fabulous to watch.

“Alien: Covenant” is an absolutely gorgeous film that really continues Scott’s streak as one of the more visually spectacular directors working today, even if not all of his movies work. This is a stark, beautiful and decidedly empty film (in a good way) that really combines everything that a good horror film has mixed with an R-rated summer spectacle that hasn’t really been seen in a while. I will say that I’m a bit disappointed that “Alien: Covenant” wasn’t shot in 3D like Ridley Scott’s previous three blockbusters have been. “Prometheus” was a milestone in the realm of 3D, standing out as one of the most effective uses of the genre to date, so to up the ante in “Alien: Covenant” and then ditch the 3D format for 2D only felt a little disappointing, even though it changed nothing of the film overall. The film still will be stunning in the IMAX format.

Does “Alien: Covenant” do anything particularly new? Not really. Does “Alien: Covenant” mix the two tones of “Prometheus” and “Alien” together successfully? Most, but not all of the time. Does “Alien: Covenant” work overall? Hell yeah. Whatever imperfections this film might have are soothed by the film’s giddy fun it supplies. It’s not quite the true return to the “Alien” franchise some fans wanted, and it’s not the direct “Prometheus” sequel other fans wanted, which is going to create an even more polar shift in people’s opinion of the film. From my screening alone I could sense a vast range of emotions on the film. Some loved the film, others despised every second of it, and that’s why “Alien: Covenant” has to be seen to be believed. There’s a good chance you might disagree (quite heavily) with me on the film, but what’s the fun in having a film that everyone is bound to either love or hate? The prequel “Alien” series is sparking a debate in the film community that hasn’t been felt in a while. And while I might not agree with much that I hear, I welcome it with open, if still reflexively hesitant arms, the same way I welcome “Alien: Covenant” itself.

4/5

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo.
Runtime: 122 minutes
Rating: R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Also available in IMAX and premium large format theaters.

Twentieth Century Fox presents, a Scott Free/Brandywine production, a Ridley Scott film, “Alien: Covenant”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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