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Review: Alien: Covenant (2017)

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Premise: A sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and a prequel to 1979’s Alien. The crew of a spaceship investigate a mysterious signal coming from a habitable planet. Upon landing they come under attack from a parasitic lifeform.

What Works: Alien: Covenant is the third installment of this franchise directed by Ridley Scott and the standout quality of all of Scott’s attempts in this series has been the production design. Covenant looks great and its visual style repurposes some of the key images of Prometheus and Alien. The action is divided between happenings on the spaceship and on the surface of the planet. Both locations have a gritty look and the exteriors of the planet surface have a damp but lush visual texture. The filmmakers do some of their most interesting production design when the action moves to the ruins of an extraterrestrial civilization. With images that recall the archeological finds of Pompeii, Alien: Covenant brings something new to the visual palette of this series. This installment adds a few new twists to the franchise and some provocative ideas; even though those ideas are half-baked there is more intellectual ambition in Covenant than in the typical Hollywood tent pole release. The film is also distinct in its cast. Previous Alien movies included blue collar workers, soldiers, and scientists. Covenant is populated by married couples who intend to start a colony. That allows for a different sensibility among the characters and there are a few dramatic moments in which the deaths of their companions weigh on these people; that’s quite different from the callous disregard for life seen in a lot of Alien’s sequels and imitators. Covenant includes exceptional dual performances by Michael Fassbender as the androids Walter and David; Fassbender includes subtle differences between them and his vocal performance is especially impressive. Also notable is the music score by Jed Kurzel. It adds quite a bit to the excitement of the film and it incorporates elements of Marc Streitenfeld’s music from Prometheus and Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Alien.

What Doesn’t: Alien: Covenant is almost a remake of the original film, even more so than The Force Awakens was a remake of the original Star Wars. Covenant features the same basic story structure in which space travelers are awakened from hypersleep, respond to a mysterious message, and travel to the planet’s surface where all hell breaks loose. The familiarity isn’t to the film’s benefit. This isn’t homage. It’s repetition and the familiar beats have none of the surprise or impact of the 1979 film. Alien: Covenant is not very scary. Some of that is due to the lack of innovation but it’s also about presentation. The film shows the xenomorph far too much and a lot of the scares aren’t set up and executed in a way that creates an atmosphere of dread. That speaks to the shift in priorities from the first film to the present installment. The original Alien was a reworking of a 1950s monster movie. It was primarily interested in scaring people and it did that brilliantly. By the time the series got to Prometheus the franchise had been infected by self-importance. The Alien prequels are all about building a mythology and that pretension detracts from the thrills of horror and the need to tell a streamlined story. Covenant intends to connect Prometheus with the other Alien films and set up the next installment, all while pontificating on the nature of life, and the story drags under the weight of the exposition. Covenant reveals the origin of the xenomorph and the explanation is underwhelming. Just as Hannibal Rising diminished Dr. Lecter by explaining why he was a cannibal, the backstory of Covenant robs the xenomorph of its mystery and undercuts the series’ Darwinian themes.  

Bottom Line: Alien: Covenant ranks comfortably in the middle of this series. It is nowhere near the perfection of the first two films but it is far better than other installments. It’s a serviceable sequel and in places it’s thoughtful but Covenant is also overly familiar and tends to sacrifice storytelling in the name of mythmaking.

Episode: #650 (June 4, 2017)