It’s hard to ignore the task Alien: Covenant has on it’s hands. After 2012’s much anticipated yet utterly atrocious Prometheus, the prospect of another film in the Alien franchise settled less than well with many people, this writer included. Not only does any Alien film, or any Alien related film have to be good, it has to stand up to one of the greatest and most enduring films of all time. Simply put, it wasn’t going to be enough for Ridley Scott to do a better job than Prometheus; he had to deliver a masterpiece.
So has Scott delivered a masterpiece? Well, not really. But – and it is an almighty but – what he has delivered is a tremendous improvement.
The prologue for a start isn’t lifted directly from Alien vs. Predator, so there are immediate points there. Instead we find ourselves in a beautiful Kubrickian white room positioned beside dramatic rolling mountains and a dark brooding lake. It’s here that we are privy to an uneasy exchange between The Creator and The Created. Peter Weyland, portrayed again here in his swaggering arrogance by Guy Pearce becomes gradually aware that his artificial intelligence, David (Michael Fassbender) isn’t perhaps the synthetic doormat he had intended, but instead is capable of individual thought, deduction and analysis. Perhaps even malice. It’s this that later becomes the real strength in a film that does an awful lot better than it’s predecessor.
From here Scott takes us to familiar territory. A vessel in deep space, occupied by a skeleton crew are awakened by a signal. This wouldn’t be a problem, except the vessel and the cargo (a whole bunch of sleeping humans) are heading to a distant planet to start a new colony and this intergalactic interruption is about to throw a massive spanner in the works.
Despite sharing an awful lot with Scott’s genre defining 1979 masterpiece and the benchmark for all science-fiction since, Covenant is very much a sequel to Prometheus. It does it’s best to make sense of the mess that was left behind and for the most part succeeds. While Ripley and Hicks, re-named here as Daniels and Lope set about the arduous task of attempting to solve the mystery of the signal and why there are no birds on the planet from whence it came, the real heart and soul of the film lies with Walter, an android from the company a few models along from the original David and also played by Fassbender.
It’s the relationship between Walter and David that is most interesting. While the rest of the characters are dealing with their basic biological survival, David and Walter are more concerned with their own vast power going forward. Ethics. Morality. Limitations. All are up for debate with David. Why should superior life forms be subservient to lesser life forms? Their exchanges have more in common with Scott’s second genre defining film which itself will see its sequel released later this year. Perhaps this is a little nod to some rumours floating around a few years ago that both these worlds are in some way linked. It doesn’t matter if they’re not, in fact one would hope they’re not. But these are pressing questions especially in an age which may see the ‘human being’ become extinct.
Alien: Covenant however, is not all sunshine and rainbows.
The second act goes a bit flat as it struggles to balance Daniels and the team’s survival action with David and Walter’s conversations. The set pieces decent, but derivative. First encounters with the Xenomorph bring back memories of the raptor hunt in The Lost World. However, the ‘back-burster’ sequence is a touch and does bring something fresh to the saga.
There is a shockingly unforgivable POV shot, which I still have nightmares about and a few good characters are shamefully under utilised. Demián Bichir’s Lope for example doesn’t get enough screen time and it feels like Danny McBride’s Tennessee could have been given more to play with. That being said, you have to tip your hat to Katherine Waterston who steps solidly into Weaver’s boots. Her Daniels is both vulnerable, tough and clued up; traits that were unfortunately denied to Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw by previous screenwriters. Far from trudging through events like a bewildered, love-blind God-fearing buffoon, Daniels is really the Ripley we’ve been waiting for. Let’s hope she can survive the cryo-sleep.