So the sixth film in the Alien franchise, second chronologically, has finally hit our screens. It is a step up from previous installments, but not quite a return to form.
Alien: Covenant follows the crew of the eponymous spacecraft as they commandeer a colonizing mission, heading for a new planet. After a forceful and tragic early awakening from hypersleep due to a disaster, they receive a new signal from a planet unnoticed by them before which, at first glance, seems poised to perfectly sustain human life. Deciding to abandon their previous plans, the crew (consisting of all humans with the addition of robot Walter) head towards the planet. As I’m sure you have guessed, it turns out not to have been a good idea.
This film feels very much more like a sequel to Prometheus than a prequel to Alien. It continues the same tone of Prometheus in its focus more on existential philosophy than the horrors of the alien creatures. Despite the return of ‘Alien’ to the title, going in expecting something returning to the quality or tone of Scott and Cameron’s initial visions will inevitably lead to some disappointment, although this does move a lot closer to the core of the franchise than its predecessor. There are some fantastically tense sequences as those infected begin to give life to the new aliens, and the fearful chaos that erupts subsequently shows Scott certainly still has it. Where these moments, and a lot of the film, fall down is due to their predictability due to our familiarity with what is going to happen. The build up feels slow because you know exactly where it’s going, and while some of the aliens may not burst out of chests, the fact that we have previously seen the process by which the aliens come alive removes all fear of the unknown.
The fear-factor is also lost as we no longer simply see glimpses of the eponymous evil creatures, but are given lingering close-ups and full body shots of them. Part of what made the first Alien so effective was the fact that you rarely saw much of the alien, leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps – a method that often produces more frightening outcomes than seeing a full scale CGI creature in detail. However, as aforementioned, the film follows less of that horror-based plot and atmosphere, even though at times it dips its toes into those waters to good effect, it almost feels like a different franchise entirely. Scott also utilizes the audience’s knowledge of the aliens to great effect, using dramatic irony to amp up the dread.
The film does bring new elements into the mix though that make this installment different. The antagonist is no longer just the aliens, leading to more complexity in the storyline – I’ll say no more for fear of spoiling it. The fact that the ship is a colonizing mission also brings a new type of crew relationships – married couples. Unfortunately, whilst this is an intriguing change, it is never really fully followed through to its full potential, with grief and protective instinct being skimmed over the majority of the time. The characters are mostly underdeveloped too, with many of them appearing as little more than expendable alien bait. However, Scott maintains his great track record of strong central female characters in Katherine Waterston’s Daniels…a new female character that she ensures is not just a Ripley clone. Michael Fassbender’s dual performances as David and Walter are also well calculated and executed, even if he dually stars in one of the weirdest scenes so far this year (it involves a panpipe and some strange innuendos).
As always with Scott there are some beautiful sci-fi visuals on display, right from the opening frame. However, they aren’t quite as consistently present as you may wish them to be, neither are they quite as immersive, on the whole, as some of his classics. There are also other science-fiction influences hinted at here, from a certain Stanley Kubrick feature that you would never have guessed would be influencing other sci-fis (sarcasm, of course) through to more recent films such as Interstellar that seem to be at play too.
Overall, this is a sequel to Prometheus (and thus you may get more out of it if you make yourself watch Prometheus again), but it does move closer to the original Alien providing more of the thrills but also the philosophy introduced in the last film. Some of the plot beats may feel too familiar, but there is enough to make this an entertaining feature, although it is still nowhere near the brilliance of the original Alien, and, for a prequel, asks more questions than it answers.