Review: ALIEN: COVENANT Uses Horror to Mask Its Shortcomings

Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Michael Fassbender star in Ridley Scott's horror prequel.

Editor, Australia; Melbourne, Australia (@Kwenton)
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Review: ALIEN: COVENANT Uses Horror to Mask Its Shortcomings

Ridley Scott returns to fill in the blanks of the maligned horrors of space, with plenty of screaming and more than enough people around to hear it in Alien: Covenant.

His familiar fated take on the Alien genesis, however, sticks more in-line with the A.I. powered philosophy of the first prequel Prometheus. Despite trying to return to the uncanny feminist allegory / creature-feature roots of the action-horror original, the results are instead long-winded diatribes about what it means to create monsters, and the same type of illogical reasoning of the living crew that dented the first film. Thankfully there are aliens this time around, and not the lame hybrid creature type, either, as these are drawn straight from Giger’s masterful creations and provide visceral and unexpected violence as they hunt and stalk the crew.

Ten years after the events of the fated research exploration in Prometheus, this new journey is one of colonization, imbued with the lives of over two thousand souls in solitary sleeping pods on the spaceship called The Covenant. The word covenant actually describes a restrictive law; further to this and keeping with the film’s haughty rhetoric it is also a formal agreement between God (the creator) and a community or humanity in general.

The sci-fi trappings of space danger are inherent from the film’s opening moments. At first it echoes Prometheus as the android Walter (played by Michael Fassbender) potters about the ship ensuring everything is running smoothly and the humans are safe. He constantly reports to ‘Mother’, the ship's AI.

Moments later, however, and The Covenant is put into immediate danger. The Captain, who is bizarrely played by James Franco with next to no screen-time, perishes in his hibernation pod as a fire breaks out. The actual crew then awakens early. Overcome by grief and confusion they patch up the ship quickly.

The Captain’s partner is the new Ripley; Daniels (Katherine Waterson). She is logical, quick-thinking and forms a strong and logical argument about what they have just found. After the disaster and loss, the sensors detect a completely hospitable planet, and although their destination is a lot further away, the former adjunct crew member, now Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the rash decision to land there and set up the new world. Daniels argues with Oram that maybe something that is too good to be true actually isn’t, but she is drowned out by faith as their quasi-religious, unconfident leader makes the decision anyway.

What follows is a crescendo of really bad decisions and genuinely appalling logic when they do land, ranging from poor quarantine measures, literally pissing on the flora and fauna of a brand-new planet, trusting something found milling about near the severed head of your fallen comrade, risking two thousand lives to help a few, and looking directly into a sinister overly-large and familiar egg. It's the kind of painful Deus Ex Machina decisions that echo the insipid script of the first prequel and the way the “scientists” in that film handled their first contact.

Amidst these decisions are the remaining crew trying to piece together how to survive and leave as an android outsmarts and outclasses them with unknown intent and purpose. The writing is literally on the wall, though, as Daniels and company discover a grotto filled with answers, and admittedly their startled responses and ill-timed excursion make way for some fantastic and thrilling horror sequences.

The alien is animated perfectly, moving swiftly and stealthily, each time it is on-screen it is genuinely terrifying in the way it uses its speed and brutality. Another certain horror element stems from the incubation, as fan favourite face-huggers return to impregnate relentless terror through chest and spine bursting scenes that hold nothing back.

This gore immediately recalls the uncanny horror that made the original Alien so powerful. These scenes ground the hopelessness in the survivors and pervades the screen with dread, leaving no time to ponder what has happened as the next victim is immediately sought. The action scenes also provide a fresh tempo as the wit and desperation of Daniels in particular provide the same exciting ingenuity and pacing of James Cameron’s sequel effort with Aliens. Ultimately, both the horrific violence and impactful action scenes feel far too brief amidst the android ramblings.

Alien: Covenant is an at-times cliché sci-fi and horror effort burdened by its unnecessary over-explanation of what the aliens actually are, where they came from and the purpose of this horrible madness. Relentlessly nihilistic in its approach, Alien: Covenant actually dims the uncanny horror and thought-provoking feminist slant of ‘the other’ that defined the franchise. In trying to ask and answer the big questions, both this and the disappointing prequel Prometheus dilute the genuine unknown and terrifying horror that drives it.

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More about Alien: Covenant

KurtMay 15, 2017 1:19 PM

As a pretty rabid PROMETHEUS fan (dumb scientists and all), I'm happy the be hearing that COVENANT continues more with the ethos and execution of PROMETHEUS over the lame-looking ALIEN retread promised by the first trailer.

One-EyeMay 15, 2017 1:30 PM

I enioyed this. But it's definitely Ridley going "Okay, so THIS is what you want? Here' s a whole bunch of it..."

I do wish they had had the guts to continue the Shaw storyline and made that more substantial.

YojimboMay 15, 2017 1:37 PM

Somebody needs to vet the scripts that Ridley films.
I'm not entirely convinced that if someone slapped a telephone book down in front of him with the words script written on the cover that he wouldn't film it.

Todd BrownMay 15, 2017 1:39 PM

A HUNDRED TIMES THIS.

Ridley is amazing in execution, very often severely lacking in conception. And I very frequently am left wondering if he can tell the difference between his good ones and his bad ones.

ManateeAdvocateMay 15, 2017 2:14 PM

Jesus. What a shocker. Would have preferred the fan fic film over this tripe. Loved the first three. Everything thereafter has been shit. So many wonderful stories to cull from and yet we get this shit. Yeah, I'm mad.

Niels MatthijsMay 15, 2017 2:17 PM

Sometimes yes, but the execution here mirrored the poor script. Horrible action sequences, terrible timing and an android tribal flute scene that puts the tribal rave scene in the Matrix to shame. It's a complete snoozefest from start to finish.

Time to retire.

Niels MatthijsMay 15, 2017 2:19 PM

Kwenton: bit surprised you were happy with the xenomorph exposition. The entire half of the film is filled with design reject, only during the final 15 minutes to we get to see a real Alien and half of that time is spent wasted on same lame action scene. I came for the xenomorphs but found it extremely lacking.

Kwenton BelletteMay 15, 2017 7:01 PM

I think it is because I found a lot of it lacking, so when the alien did finally show up and chase everyone around, flinging body parts left and righ, it was quite thrilling!

Kwenton BelletteMay 15, 2017 7:02 PM

Couldn't agree more with this, thankfully the script is not a lead bar like Prometheus but it needs a lot of work to reach the highs the franchise already nailed all those years back

Kwenton BelletteMay 15, 2017 7:03 PM

The timing was freaky weird, I hoped it was intentional to give the sense of constant danger but maybe not...

ToryKMay 15, 2017 9:49 PM

I enjoyed Prometheus visually, but, as is the concesus, I felt like the script just wasn't there at all. I was totally down with the Engineers and the exploration of Creation, so I was hoping for more of that this time around (just, ya know, with some thought put into it). From trailer 1 on, that hasn't seemed like what we were going to get, though. A happy medium between the new mythology and some old-school killin' would've been ideal. I guess what I'm trying to say is...I just want my Blomkamp movie, dude.

KurtMay 15, 2017 11:05 PM

Please. Please. Please. NEVER let that Blomkamp movie be made. I mean, I really like the director, but would like to see more like D9 and Chappie than his Alien movie that nullifies Alien3.

Unflinching_EyeMay 15, 2017 11:44 PM

Hated Prometheus, loved Covenant. It's a big, beautiful, gory B-movie. GALAXY OF TERROR with a budget. And there's a super on the nose Blade Runner reference in it that almost made me cheer. I'm going again tonight!

Unflinching_EyeMay 15, 2017 11:46 PM

Elysium, not Chappie please! Yuck! :)

Unflinching_EyeMay 15, 2017 11:50 PM

Oh, you're going to be disappointed then. This movie very much takes the same soft remake path as The Force Awakens. Several scenes correspond quite blatantly to scenes in Alien.

Unflinching_EyeMay 16, 2017 12:00 AM

Totally agree. That's why the Martian is so good, Drew Goddard's terrific adaptation of Andy Weir's solid source material, combined with Scott's impeccable visual style. A winner.

There's one thing I'd like to point out though. Go see Covenant, and then ponder for a minute that its director is 79 yo. When I look at my 82 yo father I'm absolutely staggered that Scott has as much drive and energy as he does. Scott, George Miller and William Friedkin are all incredible.

rantingsw3deMay 16, 2017 8:55 AM

I found it more entertaining than Prometheus, but it felt like nothing more than a badly scripted fan flick, full of clichees and stupid decisions. I completely agree that these prequels 'dilute the genuine' unknown, which is one of the elements that made the originals so effective and memorable. I really loved that mythology, even though that mythology went completely unexplained. Still, it was a fun horror space movie and it was great to see the xenomorph again (although I do miss the old man-in-suit and animatronic takes on the design, not this seamless CGI).

MehliensMay 16, 2017 6:42 PM

Neither

MehliensMay 16, 2017 6:44 PM

Prometheus had a script. The Spaiths version was pretty much Covenant with Weyland on board.

FinnfangfoomMay 20, 2017 10:52 AM

I was really looking forward to this one, but boy was I disappointed. The biggest shock for me was the complete lack of tension this movie suffered. None of the, admittedly ferocious, Xenomorph attacks had any impact on me. And don't even get me started about the predictability of the script. It's like someone decided to clutter every imaginable movie cliché together in this movie with the assurance they could get away with it. 'Oh, I'll wander off here, on my OWN, and grab a smoke'. 'Yeez, my armpits smell, I guess I take some ALONE time and wash up.' It's not all bad though. There's some pretty pictures and I liked Danny McBride's Tennessee character. I thought this year's Life was a nice Alien rip-off, not knowing I would feel ripped-of by it's original creator a few months later.

KurtMay 25, 2017 3:44 PM

I was pretty happy with this. Yes I could have left out all of the xenomorph stuff that panders and repeats, but this is far from the level of do-over that THE FORCE AWAKENS suffers from. On the whole, I really did like COVENANT. I have more to say on how I view the franchise in the SCREEN ANARCHISTS... post coming this Friday.