Alien: Covenant review – not the crowd pleasing, gore-action-horror film it needs to be

Now that five years have passed and people can objectively look back at 2012’s ambitious blockbuster Prometheus without the stigma of the ongoing marketing campaign, it’s a better film than people give it credit for. Just as Alien 3 had ambitions to return to the character lead claustrophobia of the original Alien in a time when people wanted another Aliens style action film, so too did Prometheus have pretensions of philosophical grandeur, when people wanted a scary Alien prequel.

What Ridley Scott does here, is try as hard as he can to do a sort of Alien franchise blender, a pu-pu platter of the series. From the start we have the white sheeny gloss of Prometheus, complete with Michael Fassbender’s pitch perfect David, and slightly aged Guy Pearce (thankfully not in Mr Burns mode again); we have the beat up old rust-bucket ship complete with mismatched people who all dress how they want from Alien, we have the religious elements of Alien 3, the military element of Aliens and the strange are-they-who-they-say-they-are of Alien: Resurrection.

Like most blended drinks, there are lumps, there are bits and tastes but the final product tastes like a mixture. From the start the problem that befell Prometheus befalls Covenant: too many damn characters. Alien worked because it had a few characters, similarly for 1986’s Aliens, but here the 15 strong crew become a mess, and when they all decide to don hats, it’s hard to recognise any of them as actual characters. Much like Prometheus, the issue is screen time and when it comes down to it Scott hasn’t got interest in character development.

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Katherine Waterston stars portrays the no-nonsese Daniels

Instead, the few characters with actual personality boil down to Michael Fassbender’s Walter, and returning David, though Walter ends up underdeveloped and David becomes more and more the films MVP. Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is the heroine of the story who, much like Shaw in Prometheus, gets the “my husband died” sad storyline. Billy Crudup is fine as the captain who doubts his own choices, even if there is a better character arc longing to be released, while Carmen Ejogo is great as his wife.

It’s actually Danny McBride as pilot Tennessee who gives the best performance, impressing us with his switch from obnoxious comic performer to sensitive actor-come-action hero. McBride steals the film in a scene where he silently cries for his deceased wife, and when he runs along with Waterston holding a big gun, it’s hard not to get a little excited. Similarly, Callie Hernandez — who saved The Blair Witch Project from total boredom — here does her best to inject her medic/co-pilot role with some life, though she’s given so little to do. Hernandez will get her moment in the spotlight, no doubt, but here and with one of the film’s stand out scenes, she has an impressive demo reel.

The problem with the film is that it wants to be two things. Clearly Scott wants to do a Prometheus sequel, but also an Alien prequel. This is most obvious in Jed Kurzel’s score which melds Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien themes with Marc Streitenfeld’s Prometheus score. Much like Scott’s continual changing of the film’s title: Paradise to Alien: Paradise to Alien: Paradise Lost to Alien: Covenant smack of a man making two films thrust together. Questions raised in 2012’s Prometheus are half answered, but two films in and we’re still no closer to understanding why Nostromo ended up in such peril or why The Engineers turned on us. In fact, key moments that might explain these plot points are rushed through.

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Perhaps to it’s credit, the film is fun, it has a sense of tension and fear, and it knows when to be an action film and when to be a horror. The Neomorph and the Protomorph are welcome bedfellows to the film, injecting it with life that Prometheus sorely lacked; there are also no death shocks; a chomp death, so explode-y blood deaths, a chest-burster but they don’t quite hold the tension the way the people confronting the aliens do. In this CGI world, we can have proper gory showdowns between man and monster, but the film doesn’t want to. The shower scene is totally boss, and so is Carmen Ejogo’s confrontation with a little bitty critter.

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While it’s hard not to lament the death of Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5, and with the 80 year old Ridley Scott promising another six in the series (which is – sad to say – unlikely) there is a chance the series could move towards something great. After all, as Alien was a horror film, and Aliens was an action film, the prequels need to find their own personality;  embrace the alien, strip the characters down, and enjoy itself.

At points when the film wants to be about the birth of mankind, and the morality of creation, it also has monster-body-horror bits, and some scenes which should be poetic come off a laughable. Worst of all, the brutal underuse of Noomi Rapace, and for some reason a small cameo by James Franco (maybe he was carpooling with McBride?) make you think that this, like all Scott films, has a director’s cut in the pipelines.

Having proven he can still make an awesome crowd pleasing film in the form of The Martian, this lets Scott down by not being the crowd pleasing, gore-action-horror film it needs to be. It’s getting there, it’s good, it’s not great.

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