‘Alien: Covenant’ Review: An Exquisite, Infuriating Epic from a Sci-Fi Master

     May 6, 2017

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From the start of his filmmaking career, Ridley Scott has been fascinated by the beginning and the end; themes of birth and death, sex and bloodshed, god and man. Bitter children meeting their makers. Creation myth. It’s in Alien, it’s definitely in Blade Runner, and with Prometheus, the essential sci-fi director took his philosophical musings to the next level, expanding and explaining his world of extraterrestrial creature and creations with the divisive Alien prequel no one expected. In Alien: Covenant, Scott finds himself stuck between two constructs — the action-horror beats of an Alien film, and the weighty, ponderous themes of a Prometheus movie — and by indulging both, he never fully satisfies either. The result is a messy film that is at turns, exquisite and infuriating.

Scott essentially begins Covenant with a dissertation of intent, which accordingly feels a bit like having to sit through the final minutes of class before getting to recess. We witness the birth of David, Michael Fassbender‘s synthetic Prometheus standout. Seated across from a young Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, sans age makeup), who feels out his new creation with a series of tests and instructions delivered as icy, clipped demands. This is David’s first encounter with humanity; art and beauty juxtaposed with the haughty insolence of man. “Big things have small beginnings.” Indeed, Scott shows us exactly what triggered David’s twisted worldview and obsessions. The scene is no doubt something of a shorthand for those who may have missed or forgotten David’s arc in the last film, but for those who remember, it’s a reductive, too on-the-nose sparknotes of a character we knew to be much more complex.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Fortunately, the film rights course when we cut to the Covenant, a spaceship transporting some 2000 souls in the first ever massive scale colonization mission. Things gets exciting in a hurry when the crew awakens from cryosleep in a state of emergency, seven years ahead of schedule. The captain is killed in the chaos, and after patching up the ship, the Covenant crew soon discovers a mysterious beacon pointing them in the direction of an idyllic planet that just happens to be perfect for the needs of their mission. Freshly minted captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) begins his tenure with a tricky decision. Do they investigate the newfound planet and save themselves from the possibility of another deadly space-travel emergency, or do they stick with the plan? Daniels (Katherine Waterson), chief terraformer and Covenant’s second-in-command, establishes herself as the only crewmember with a lick of scientific sense when she vehemently protests Oram’s decision to touch down on unknown terrain, wanting to follow through their well-vetted destination rather than chase something that’s “too good to be true”.

Daniels is a no-bullshit professional in the proud tradition of Ellen Ripley; competent and confident but not without her vulnerability. Scott embeds several subtle (and some not-so-subtle) allusions to Sigourney Weaver‘s iconic character throughout the film (though he doesn’t seem interested in indulging that big fan theory), and Waterson runs with the torch gracefully. She’s an excellent working class heroine defined by intelligence and instinct that are matched by empathy and an honest good nature.

That integrity and earnestness (though sadly not the intelligence) runs through the entire crew, which is made up entirely of married couples, presumably so they can get straight to the baby-making when they colonize the new planet. Also aboard the Covenant are Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Faris (Amy Seimetz), a down-to-earth pair of pilots with a good sense of humor; Sergeant Lope (Demian Bichir) and Hallet (Nathaniel Dean), a gay military couple whose relationship sadly gets the short shrift; Ricks (Jussie Smollet) and Upworth (Callie Hernandez), a sensible, quiet pair; Karine (Carmen Ejogo), Oram’s wife and the team biologist; and Walter (Fassbender), a reliable next-generation android without the dangerous humanity of his David-8 predecessor. The rest of the crew is filled out with ill-defined, underwritten characters who don’t even get coupled up, and Scott wastes no time making it clear that they are beautiful meat for the slaughter.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

When they touch down on the newfound planet, Alien: Covenant starts to shine. Scott’s films always have at least a flourish of the exceptional, and Covenant has more than that. It’s a stunning movie to look at. Like Alien, Prometheus and The Martian before it, Alien: Covenant reinforces how gifted Scott is at science fiction imagery, the bright lights and symmetrical lines contrasting with the irregular, unknowable beauty and terror of nature. He frames shots like each one could be a poster, every image telling a story that holds the promise of adventure. He’s one of cinema’s great visual craftsmen, and Alien: Covenant benefits from that production value at every turn with staggering sets and landscapes playing host to one stunning image after the next.

Scott also knows how to shoot the hell out of a set-piece and when the paradise planet reveals its deadly secrets, he ratchets up the tension with breathless intensity. In Scott’s hands, chaos unfurls as a gorgeous nightmare. These sequences are the highlight of the film, a tease of something that could be truly special in a simpler, character-driven horror piece. But Scott’s interests obviously lie elsewhere, and instead of letting his characters drive the action, he sets them up as pawns in David’s unwieldy agenda. When Fassbender’s eerie android catches up with the crew, the film rapidly spins off in a new direction, relegating the Covenant crew to secondary players and wedging a tonal divide that makes Alien: Covenant feel like two films crammed into one.

David’s entry also marks the beginning of big spoiler territory, so I’ll tread lightly here, but suffice it to say, David’s god complex and deviant curiosity have only grown in the time he’s spent alone on his planet, his systems unchecked for a decade. His fascinations remain the same; artistry, perfection, and by god, creation. The creation myth is drilled into the audience with groan-inducing repetition from the very first scene, and David’s droning insistence on the subject matter with no deeper analysis or meaning to offer is maddening. 

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Image via 20th Century Fox

That said, Fassbender is as splendid as ever, tasked with two characters that must be unique but also innately similar. Fortunately, he’s a prodigiously talented and detailed actor, more than up to the task, and you will probably love Walter almost as much as you loved David in Prometheus. Fassbender and Scott also play with themes of madness in David’s character, and while the idea of perverted synthetic psychology is certainly intriguing, it is, like so many of the film’s best ideas, touched on but scarcely explored. Worse yet, David’s machinations feel like a distraction from the much more enjoyable survival story and character drama happening with the Covenant crew, whose arcs are rushed and sacrificed in favor of David’s creations and ill-defined madness.

Which is egregiously frustrating because the characters themselves and the intricacies of their relationships are compelling, complex, and fantastically acted all around. Crudup, in particular, will break your heart as the beleaguered new Captain, a man of faith desperate to earn the respect of his inherited, science-minded crew in an impossible situation. It works because Crudup is the kind of actor that can turn a single word into a soliloquy, and he delivers a phenomenal performance in an underwritten and underserved role. These characters are easy to love, and in a better movie, they could have become unforgettable classics. Ejogo, Seimetz, and the rest of the supporting cast inhabit this crew with a rounded sense of character and community despite largely being pushed aside as an afterthought.

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