For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
— Ancient Proverb
One of the attractions of director Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film Alien was that it reveled in suspense while expounding upon primal themes of sexuality and survival. The film took its time in treating the viewer to slow, agonizing sequences of the Nostromo’s crew being systematically and efficiently stalked and executed by a feral, biomechanical terror from an unknown origin. It was a watershed film for its time and still holds its own against modern-day films, being a touchstone for both the science-fiction and horror genres.
Scott returns 38 years later to helm the second of the Alien prequel trilogy, Alien: Covenant, bringing with him his visionary prowess and meticulous attention to detail. However, the final product shows a lost a step or two in trying to make the film sit well with modern-day audiences. Gone are the slow-burning suspense sequences and the originality which made the first two Alien films and Prometheus landmark films (hey, man – I loved Prometheus right from the get-go) in this franchise. What’s left is a gorgeous-looking, well-acted (this is one of two films in which Danny McBride doesn’t annoy me, the other being Hot Rod: The Movie), yet wholly predictable stalk-and-slash version of an Alien film, where the characters rank as mere fodder for what’s to come during this film’s running time.
To fully understand Alien: Covenant, one must – must – watch this internet-only prologue which helps detail the dynamic of the crew of the U.S.S. Covenant, a spaceship carrying thousands of off-world colonists and hundreds of human embryos. Alien: Covenant starts right in the middle of the Covenant’s journey, with android Walter (Michael Fassbender) monitoring the ship’s progress and the health statuses of everyone aboard in a visual callback to the opening scenes of Prometheus.
And much like Alien, the Covenant’s crew is given an early wake-up call from their cryosleep by circumstances leading to some kind of beacon on a nearby planet. Finding the planet possibly habitable, acting Ship’s Captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides that instead of enduring a seven-year trip in cryosleep to their destination, they might be able to start their colony there instead. However, this planet has more surprises than they’re prepared for, all of which culminate (as it must) in a fight for the crew’s survival.
Without having viewed the prologue, there’s little the film gives us in the way of character development, opting for a more bare-bones treatment, ‘cause why care about them? They might be dead in a matter of minutes; after all, wasn’t this the approach Scott took with Alien? Here’s the difference: Alien at least took a little time to give their seven characters personalities, defining them as a roughneck family of sorts. Here, the Covenant’s crew is merely functional, each member serving a purpose at the flight deck’s computers or in the cargo hold, with minimal stabs at defining how we should take them.
For instance, Oram is said to be a religiously-guided man, but it doesn’t really factor into his decisions, making his ruminations on “faith” nothing more than lip service in an effort to disguise how woefully unprepared he is for the job. He seems to be driven more by vanity and the mere appearance of control rather than genuine control itself, which is laid bare when his decision is protested by the more level-headed Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the ship’s terraforming engineer. Having just lost her risk-taking husband, she carries on to be the rational mind of the bunch; she and the film benefit from screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper giving her something resembling more than an actor paid to speak lines. She is given a personality and purpose, all backed up by Waterston giving one of the two strongest performances of the film as she takes Daniels from grieving widow to take-charge survivor.
Michael Fassbender provides the film’s other asset as android prototype David (seen taking his first steps in a flashback which takes place before the events of Prometheus) and the newer mass-production model, Walter. Fassbender plays the two androids with such a marked difference – the least of which is a slight southwest-American drawl he gives Walter – and truly gives them their own soul, with Walter being a stalwart, almost eagerly helpful sidekick and protector. However, as David, you can see the (figurative) machinations turning in his head, no matter how innocuous or innocent he tries to appear. In the opening credits, you can see him trying to figure his way around the logic and philosophies which he and creator Charles Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) share, making Fassbender’s performance one of the most agilely unpredictable of the film.
If you pay attention during this opening credit sequence, a lot of Alien: Covenant’s themes are given away; it’s almost like watching John Carpenter’s The Thing and being able to understand Norwegian during that film’s first scenes. This scene fills in a certain few blanks which eluded us from Prometheus – namely, what drove David to be both subservient and pathologically devious to his human companions. Alien: Covenant tries a little too hard to be on-the-nose with its thematic material, especially when it comes to a creator being upstaged or killed by his/her creation; it also highlights man’s propensity towards going with what is easy instead of what is right, a theme all too common in today’s political society. The “For Want of a Nail” proverb at the beginning of this review is a huge hint as to how the dominoes fall in this film.
What Alien: Covenant gets right is its horror factor, but it still doesn’t match the suspenseful intensity of Dallas (Tom Skerritt) being lost in the Nostromo’s ventilation ducts in the 1979 original. Here, excruciating dread is spirited out in limited doses with easily-telegraphed punches, but that doesn’t change how much we cringe as a protomorph makes its way out of one of the Covenant‘s crewmembers, or the sickening feeling we get as a facehugger pod opens and seeing its occupant gearing up to face-rape an unwilling host. The film’s final scene may also be a little predictable, but its execution is flawless and horrifying as you can imagine, and without a hint of blood spilled; the way this scene plays out almost instantly makes up for the rushed, incomplete feeling of all which comes before.
Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski offer up rich images, unforgettable in their artistry and vitality. From the near-monochrome starkness of the film’s opening to the desaturated, grimy look of the planet and the mysterious palace in which the Covenant survivors find themselves, Wolski captures it all with an unflinchingly curious and dedicated eye. Whether it’s submerging the audience into the dim gloom of the caverns they find on the planet or putting us under clinical white lights in the middle of a full-blown alien evisceration, Wolski makes plain the slow degradation of the Covenant’s crew from hopeful explorers to twitchy victims.
However it’s sliced, Alien: Covenant still can’t hold a candle to its 1979 and 1986 predecessors. While a huge sight better than 1992’s Alien³ (which I *do* enjoy from time to time) and 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, it still aims to capture the claustrophobia of the original while attempting new tricks. But Alien: Covenant is a wholly different animal than the rest by having a very dark heart and soul, and one wishes the screenwriters would have gone fully down this dark path instead of trying to rip scenes almost wholesale from Alien and Aliens. Hints of how wonderfully fiendish this film might have been are glimpsed toward the last half, but its attempt at originality is buried for the sake of over-familiar action. Thankfully, the confident hands of Ridley Scott keep this franchise churning at a quick clip with this down-and-dirty installment.