The Alien franchise is one of the most divisive in history. Yes, the first two films are nearly universally beloved. And Alien: Resurrection is widely hated. But Alien 3 and Prometheus stand as hotly debated pieces in the franchise. Prometheus represented Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise in nearly forty years. Rather than make a down the line horror film, Scott opted for a metaphysical narrative focused on re-imagining the creation myth and questioning our perception of higher powers. The end result sparked heated debates, with some attesting that it’s an ambitious picture with lofty ideals, while others came away disappointed at the minimal connection to the larger Alien universe. However, Scott made it very clear he was not done with the Alien story. Enter Alien: Covenant, a film determined to appease fans wanting the horrors of the xenomorph and those craving more of Prometheus’ philosophical themes. But does the blending of these films cohese into a satisfying narrative?
Alien: Covenant is a movie where opinions may vary. Those looking for the navel gazing of Prometheus can find some heady themes to latch onto. And those looking for the body horror and xenomorph action can expect it as well. But, because the film rides the line between Prometheus and Alien so gingerly, neither aesthetic is fully served. Thus, this writer thought the film was much better than Prometheus, but it never quite reaches the heights of the first two Alien films.
The long and short of it is that the story follows a group of colonists traveling to populate a new world. When they intercept a distress signal from a nearby planet they find inhabitable, the crew decide to investigate. And everything goes downhill from there. The less said about what happens on the planet, the better. Not because it’s all bad (some of it is), but because the story is a labyrinthine mystery whose best secrets be reserved for the viewing experience. The plot is robust and takes many detours to explore the larger philosophical themes. It pokes around the nooks and crannies of those themes without landing on a definite “right answer” but encourages post-watch discussion. Though, the film constantly sets up Biblical allusions without doing a deep dive into how faith plays in a world full of killer aliens. But, since Scott wants to do six more Alien films, that could be him playing the long game.
The cast is uniformly solid in Alien: Covenant. Yes, the script plagues them with the same poor decision making skills that made Prometheus worthy of eternal eye rolls. However, they are much easier to root for than the crew of the Prometheus. Billy Crudup gets a bigger role in a major film than he’s had for some time, and that is a-ok. He’s an underrated talent that does a lot of heavy lifting for the aforementioned biblical themes in the film. He also must act as the de facto captain following an accident on the ship. This small detail provides some interesting group dynamics and colors in the world in a great way. Katherine Waterson’s Daniels is as organic a character as you’ll find in the world of Alien and she handles it with ease. You feel her victories and her defeats, and she wears them all on her face. The standout of the cast is Danny McBride. He brings some humor to the cast, but not in his usual way, and he gets a couple of moments to swing for the fences dramatically as well. It doesn’t always come together, but he goes for it fearlessly.
What makes Alien: Covenant more of a mixed bag than the previous praises in this review would make it seem is the blending of all these moving parts. Ridley Scott has crafted a hulking, complex machine in this film. And while it’s a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship, he didn’t do enough factory floor testing. The horror elements are not up to snuff with the original film at all. Scott’s knack for creating a sense of dread seems lost in the shuffle of the metaphysical elements. And the CGI Neomorph/Xenomorph looked great in the trailers, but simply are not scary enough in their longer sequences. The CGI is very obvious, and the creatures seem almost weightless when taking hits or crashing into objects. The same can be said about the gore. The film is packed to the brim with body horror, but it never reaches the nauseating heights of the alien c-section from Prometheus. Much of the blood is CGI as well, which is good for keeping the set clean, but it has a very polished look to it.
Alien: Covenant hits all the tropes of the Alien franchise for better and for worse. It owns its rich, and bumpy, history while forging ahead to tell the origin story of the creature that plagued the Nostromo all those years ago. But, for some, the origin of the xenomorph simply detracts from the horrifying creature seen in the first film. The fear of the unknown propels that movie forward, and removing that element neuters the creature in a way. But for others, these prequels don’t really serve as “how we got to Alien,” but they provide a space to explore a lot of complicated existential questions. Alien: Covenant certainly wants to have its cake and eat it, too. But the quality of the cake varies wildly. It’s a worthwhile viewing experience if only to flesh out your stance on the film, but it’s not one worthy of re-visitng again and again.
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