A stellar cast and competent thrills battle Ridley Scott’s navel-gazing.
Any movie that shoots James Franco into the endless void of space can’t be completely bad. So why does Alien: Covenant insist on fighting itself at every turn? For every breathtaking moment or a schlocky bit of fun in director Ridley Scott’s newest addition to his sci-fi/horror franchise, there’s a mirrored bit of narrative overstep or emotional miscalculation. The worst part of all is that it’s still got enough ambition to be fun, albeit not as fun as its not-quite-as-stupid and much tenser predecessor Prometheus.
Covenant (previously titled Alien: Paradise Lost to give you a sense of the self-importance present in John Logan and D.W. Harper’s script) takes place a decade after the events of the previous film, following a different crew with a different mission (colonization) and different synthetic member played by the same Michael Fassbender. Walter is a degree more mechanical and sturdy than David, the earlier model robot whom Fassbender played in Prometheus and – surprise – reprises here.
He’s led by Captain Orem, played by the always scene-stealing Billy Crudup. Oram is a religious man, an unfun nerd, and a hesitant leader that sputters out milquetoast orders that nobody with a pulse and an opinion would obey. It’s a weird choice for a leader, but a great one because Crudup makes the character sing through the small things. His halting delivery, downcast eyes, and fretting body language make clear his character’s ineptitude for this sort of role and do more to instill suspense than most of the film’s camerawork. Katherine Waterston is his second mate, Daniels, and Danny McBride is Tennessee, the pilot. Waterston aptly adopts the same quiet, resilient toughness that runs throughout the franchise’s protagonists while cowpoke McBride swaggers like the best blue-collar space trucker money could buy.
The crew is large but, opposed to almost every other body-count-racking film of its ilk, not hard to remember. In one of the script’s few smart moves (besides immediately blasting Franco out an airlock), the crew is comprised of a smattering of married couples whose relationship already helps us define who belongs to whom and why we should care. It’s easier to be compassionate towards the death of a nameless security guard if he has a narratively built-in person to grieve for him.
Daniels was married to Franco’s character, refining her nuanced emotional state. Carmen Ejogo plays a biologist married to Oram and Amy Seimetz plays a co-pilot married to Tennessee. Neither character is defined by their partner, but the relationships’ existences flesh out people that we simply wouldn’t care about otherwise. That said, both actresses deserved more to do because when shit goes south, they give it their all in delightfully spit-flecked performances.
A low-key gay marriage told only through slight ring caresses, glances, and warmth between two security officers (Nathaniel Dean and Demián Bichir) reminds us that yes this is the future and people are just people – even if audiences (mine at least) laughed their way through a man-on-man kiss. The specifics of the kiss don’t matter. If you’re seeing a movie and choose to misinterpret a moment because of homophobia, you should be launched into the ocean out of a trebuchet.
The Michael Fassbenders – besides being fantastic feats of character differentiation through body language – embody the masturbatory quality of the Prometheus sequel’s philosophical noodling about creation and the meaning of life. With throwaway references to god-obsessed composers, poets, and sculptors, the clashing class identities of the refined bots and blue collar space travelers manifests in the monstrous xenomorphs.
They find them on when landing on an unplanned planet, lured away from their odyssey by the sirenic John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The staticky tune arrives in the ship’s radios after a random act of nature sets events in motion. Nature continues to fight humankind and its creations until reversing course halfway through the film when designations of “natural” and “unnatural” become far more complex. After a brief flirtation with suspense, neo-xenomorphs (or neomorphs) show up far too quickly for it to become anything but a breathless, mindless action-thriller.
The new eerie white aliens are supposed to feel newborn, fresh, and out of place – but not like this. They look almost superimposed on the gritty, dusty earth that Scott and his longtime cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (see: Prometheus and The Martian) construct. Through well-chosen sweeping angles of mountains and forests and details of otherworldly flora and cave formations, the pair (along with the effect teams) build out an ecosystem that is familiar but inscrutably off. In all this splendor, the aliens seem too sleek, too computerized, too intangibly detailed. If the cartoon penguins from Mary Poppins started disemboweling Dick Van Dyke, it’d be more horrifying but just as visually uneven. It’s another case where one excellent aspect of the film highlights a lesser one: the character work done by the actors makes the writing more apparently stupid while the lush, creative production design makes the lackluster creatures stick out like so many sore, multi-mouthed thumbs.
The film’s storytelling ambitions (mostly embodied in the The Parent Trap-esque shenanigans of the two Fassbender bots) are on such a different tier than its schlocky action that one always bowls the other over. The humans are too stupid, the bots too smart, and from this, the twists are too predictable. Everyone does what we think they’d do in a movie based on their intellectual extremes.
However, the craft and construction make Alien: Covenant tolerable through its silliest moments. Angles are chosen for maximum impact, the scenery looks great, and the relationships between the sparsely-sketched characters leave you invested in who’ll survive. Oh, and there are some gruesome kills even if a few are ridiculously goofy. Space travelers should wear non-slip shoes, right? Whether or not you’re willing to put up with Scott’s navel-gazing and move towards a more Jurassic World-style prioritization of hit-and-miss action over carefully built tension in order to — let me emphasize — see James Franco’s corpse be jettisoned into space, well, that’s up to you.