Jacob Richardson | 17/05/2017
A mismatched amalgam of the best bits of the original, with the worst bits of the prequel, Alien: Covenant is a beast with two natures. Despite delivering on some of the thrills and scares, Covenant can’t decide what it wants to be and winds up being fun, but unmemorable.
Opening on Michael Fassbender’s David in the early years of his life, clearly many years before the events of Prometheus, Covenant then skips ahead to about 10 years after the events of it’s prequel. A colony ship is bound for an inhabitable planet, with 2000 souls on board. While the crew and passengers are in cryo-sleep, Walter (Michael Fassbender), a cybernetic creation similar to David, deploys the energy recharging system. Alas, a solar flare suddenly hits the ship, damaging the systems and forcing Walter (and the surprisingly returned AI Mother) to wake the crew to help. After they have been woken up, they hear a strange signal transmission which leads them on the hunt for the source; a planet nearby that seems perfectly inhabitable.
After flying through a terrible storm, a landing ship touches down on the planet’s surface. Greenery, breathable air and drinkable water make it seem perfectly habitable, but as is so aptly observed by Daniels (Katherine Waterston), there are no birds, animals or sounds of any kind. A brief initial encounter with some Xenomorph’s who use the bodies of the astronauts as incubators leads to their savior appearing; David himself. Having arrived at the planet with Elizabeth Shaw, he has since spent his time genetically engineering a series of beasties in his quest to become creator himself.
Alien: Covenant straddles two worlds: one of the artfully directed, world travelling, jargon filled sci-fi epic and one of the gory, B-movie, tense horror. Ridley Scott seemingly heard that people wished Prometheus was more like the original Alien, and that it had more Fassbender, because here he shoves in two of the man along with a series of scenes seemingly ripped straight from the original. There’s chestbursters, facehuggers, pods, and a black xenomorph. And for the most part, they’re great. Particularly in the first appearance, with a tiny little xenomorph bursting out of the spine of a man in a hospital room, before feasting on the face of an unfortunate girl locked in there with him. Ridley ratchets up the tension exquisitely, with the blood and gore of the practical effects combining effortlessly with his CGI creation. Indeed, cinematographically this disparity between old and new techniques is also present. The muted tones of, for example, the scene where one soldier discovers wheat, are presented in ultra-high quality imagery, while the granularity and texture of the image during the first battle with an alien immediately makes the audience not only associate the imagery with the earlier film incarnations, but also brings an element of gritty realism to the danger.
Nevertheless, this two world approach ultimately fails to deliver a cohesive picture. Covenant is too caught up in its metaphorical musings, too entrenched in delivering lengthy soliloquies on the meaning of creation, to truly be terrifying. At the same time, it is too focused on dredging up tried and true aliens and hitting pre-ordained touchstones of familiarity to present any effective comment on the meaning of existence, or the dilemma of creation. Instead, we get a half shadow of both movies, and the disparity between the intentions leads to not only ineffective telling of the stories, but, in one case, a jarring juxtaposition that highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the concept.
Specifically, Michael Fassbender’s double duty as David and Walter is the at times laughable, and always faintly preposterous, problem and saviour of this film. Scenes with David kissing Walter, or teaching him to play the flute, or dictating poetry to him as he looks upon the slain thousands he has helped to kill, are all utterly ridiculous. Perhaps, had the movie driven hard, like Prometheus did, for some lofty aspirational endeavour in finding meaning, these moments wouldn’t be as cataclysmically jarring as they are. But as it stands, when you stand a Michael Fassbender kissing Michael Fassbender scene next to one of an alien decapitating a woman’s head in the bathroom, you cannot expect them both to pack the same punch that they would individually. It’s a puzzle of jigsaw pieces that can never fit together; the contrast between the tones is just too great.
Ironic, then, that Michael Fassbender also happens to be the best bit of the movie. Surrounded by a cast of characters who barely make an impression, he shines as the only character you have any interest in. Aside from Danny McBride as, effectively, a space cowboy, Fassbender’s bleached, long haired David and short haired, fastidious Walter bring a degree of recognisability and character development that is curiously absent from the rest of the warm bodies awaiting their death at the hands of the next beastie.
Ridley Scott tries to have the best of both worlds; a resplendent reboot of the original Alien and a continuation of Prometheus’ deep dive on questions of meaning, but winds up missing both. Alien: Covenant gives us too much of what we have seen before, and not enough, simultaneously. At the end of the day, the mash-up is a bit like Fassbender’s terrible, long-haired wig - deeply disconcerting, at times laughable, but for the most part entertaining and horrifying in equal measure.