Alien: Covenant. New movies in the Alien franchise are anticipated with the same level of excitement and nervousness as the Terminator movies: Both have an unassailable 80’s pedigree and are subject to an unforgiving gauntlet of public scrutiny upon every subsequent release. With Terminator, the studio’s response appears to be to re-hash precisely the same structure of time-travel and causality each time, until as a watcher you’d happily volunteer to be lowered head-first into a molten vat of cat-sick before sitting through yet another version of the same story. With Alien, the approach is thankfully different, and notwithstanding a couple of missteps there has been far more effort put into the idea of establishing some continuity and substance to the story as a whole. Alien: Covenant continues this trend in spades, delivering a gripping chapter in the narrative complemented by exceptional direction and dialogue, and mercifully going a bit lighter on the Prometheus- esque lore that made its predecessor a bit of an uphill struggle.
Alien: Covenant achieves the dual feat of presenting an exciting origins story without compromising on the traditional strength of the franchise, namely the joy of observing the xenomorphs demonstrate their absolute superiority over any other organism (usually a band of hapless humans), typically in rather upsetting ways . In Covenant, a colonization mission takes an ill-advised detour to an apparently habitable planet, only to discover that the place offers, alongside potable water and earth-like atmospheric pressure, an exciting opportunity to become a sentient incubator for a species of horrifying reptilian creatures. Half of the crew respond in relatively constructive ways, including making an effort to understand, and subsequently destroy their antagonists. Others panic in a manner which indicates that the selection criteria for space-exploration have loosened somewhat since 2017, and act imprudently in ways which generally compound their troubles. The Alien movies typically treat those who exhibit excessive levels of flippancy of panic (think Hudson in Aliens) rather unkindly and Covenant is no exception. The body-count starts ticking right from the get-go and escalates in gore and magnitude as the film goes on – a welcome relief to those who came out of Prometheus and immediately YouTube’d a compilation of Mortal Kombat finishing moves in order to get their overdue fix.
It’s a very strong feature in the franchise, that Synthetics (Bishop, Ash, Walter / David etc.) play a central role in every story line, and this is crucial since its an ever-present reminder that the human characters are consistently the weakest organism present in each movie. This fact is compounded by the physical superiority of the xenomorphs themselves. In Covenant, this idea is explored even further, and a legitimate juxtaposition is presented as the Synthetics openly acknowledge that they are stronger and more rational than their erstwhile masters. David’s contention that the very existence of a colonization mission might suggest that the species in question is undeserving of survival is interesting, and his cold objectivity and pragmatism certainly gives food for thought when considering our own subjective support for the human characters. Michael Fassbender does an exceptional job of portraying both synthetic characters in the movie, with their identical physical appearance only being distinguished by minute facial cues which give insight into their incongruent motives.
Of course, since the story is in part a continuation of the origins narrative started in Prometheus, there was always a risk of the horse-faced Engineers popping up at some point like an elderly relative who wants to share a long and utterly bewildering story from their childhood. This inevitability comes to pass in the second act, yet mercifully the Engineers are prevented from saying too much, by virtue of them all being dead. However, the mere presence of their corpses was enough to plunge me into a mildly confused depression, as it seemed indicative that hitherto flawless pacing of the movie was about to slow to the speed of a First World War tank. Thankfully, this fear was unfounded, and the fate of the humans was once again placed firmly in the hands of the two Synthetics. Fassbender was, as always, more than up to the job – trading literary excerpts with his mirror image in a way that never felt forced or overly pretentious. He even worked in a line from legendary horror writer M.R. James (if anybody can pin this one, stick it in the comments below) When it was dropped, I began excitedly whispering to my friend, who immediately told me to shut up.
My only gripe with the film, which is perhaps a sign of me becoming somewhat long in the tooth, is that the CGI aliens will never look as convincing or viscerally terrifying as the models used in the first movies. This problem isn’t unique to Covenant, as CGI just doesn’t seem to visually deliver a genuinely convincing organism of any species. While it’s clearly far less cumbersome and costly than using models, it always seems to stretch my suspension of disbelief beyond its elastic limit. I remember feeling the same way watching I am Legend, which was an awesome movie let down by the fact that the zombies all seemed to be made out of fleshy, sweating rubber. By the same token, though, the ships and vehicles in Covenant look incredible, and their movement and effect on surrounding elements and vegetation is utterly convincing.
Overall, Covenant is an exceptional return to form for the Alien franchise, with a snappy, engaging script and brilliant pacing throughout. The movie shines with quality, substance and thought, with the latter being so important since Hollywood is increasingly guilty of juicing franchises like an increasingly dry orange, with little regard to original storytelling. Its so refreshing, and a credit to Scott that he clearly took the time that was needed to do the franchise, and the fans, justice.