scene from Alien Covenant

Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox/Scott Free Productions

Alien Covenant Delivers the
Goods, and the Bads

| published June 2, 2017 |

By Cameron Dale, Thursday Review contributor

The now long-running Alien franchise has had its ups and down over the years, and can sometimes spark the same sorts of stylistic divides which separate fans of James Bond—directors, but mostly stars, with people arguing incessantly over which actor better filled the 007 role (Daniel Craig is my first choice by a mile).

In the case of the Alien series, people argue instead over the styles and tones of directors, and rarely the actors (many of the early films starred Sigourney Weaver). There is Ridley Scott (the director of both the first and most recent movies), James Cameron, David Fincher, others. Fans split along a generally reliable battle line: those who want raw action versus those who want excruciating tension. Several films have incorporated both, but necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction.

Tension acolytes cite the first film, Alien (1979) as the archetype—painstakingly paced, guarded, cinematically structured, inducing sweaty palms. Action advocates inevitably point to the second film, Aliens (1986), as the path to glory—direct, visceral, guns-blazing, tear-the-arm-rests-off-your-seat boisterous. I guess it depends on your taste buds and your schooling. Ridley versus James.

Me: I like a little of each. But I also want story, plot, meat and potatoes.

The newly released Alien: Covenant straddles the line between the two major camps, but it also defies easy pigeonholing: it is a chapter in the long sequence of Alien movies, but it is also a sequel of sorts to a slightly related/unrelated movie called Prometheus. Reviewers note: I was not impressed with Prometheus, which I found to be a rehash of too many previous plot elements of themes, and which seemed to be a mostly derivative, overproduced excuse to wheel out digital effects. Also, because of its ambiguous connection to the Alien series, Prometheus seemed like a strained attempt at a tangent reboot-spinoff. I don’t want a secondary franchise; this is not the After all, Alien is not the Marvel Comics universe—it is just a long series of fun, frolicking films in which people get throats torn out, victims chests explode, or folks get blinded and disfigured by alien acid. Let’s stick to the primal fun.

Alien: Covenent in fact revisits and reconnects us more-or-less directly to the mainstream storyline, and does so while referencing or revisiting scores of now well-trodden, familiar Alien narrative and special effects devices.

Short version: a large group of colonists aboard a ship named Covenant set out for a distant planet at the edge of the Milky Way where they believe—based on reasonable data—they can stake their claim on a world with abundant possibilities and a chance to get human society right. But along the way, and while most are asleep or in hibernation for the long voyage, the ship encounters serious electronic and physical damage, severe enough to bring about the death of much of the sleeping crew and the ruination of thousands of embryos brought along to help to populate the fledgling new world. Among the dead: the original captain. The ship’s chief robotic “synthetic person” (played by Michael Fassbender) charged with monitoring the data and assessing the damage is forced to roust the remaining crew.

A new captain (played by Billy Crudup) is selected from among the survivors, still in transit, whereupon his first decision is to begin making repairs (good choice), and his second is to check out a strange radio transmission from an uncharted planet (bad choice; we’ve seen this horror gag before!)

Also predictable: an investigation team sent down to locate the signal find instead the hulk of a crashed space ship (shouting at the screen: don’t do it, bad things will happen). Things quickly go south, and violently so, with all the usual and reliably gory sight gags and audio gurgling. Team members are attacked, infected, or subjected to all manner of traditional Alien forms of demise. It is a horror movie cannon that people make foolish decisions, whether under great pressure or simply walking in the park late at night. This movie, however, takes the art form of stupid choices to a new level, and at times had me rooting for the creatures in a kind of thank-God-for-natural-selection spasm. Still, it turns out that the hapless, idealistic (if not moronic) humans were in fact being manipulated by the robot, whose plan all along was to secure both intact human embryos and those of the alien creature.

There are also plenty of other predictable scenarios and subplot moments, though these recycled elements—shockingly—do not greatly detract from the backbone of the storyline.

Still, Alien: Covenant was worth more than a yuck and a buck on the big screen. One thing that Ridley Scott seems always able to deliver are visually stunning elements worthy of something larger than your biggest TV set. Also, the movie succeeds in part because of its odd if distant kinship with the first film, even if the newest version lacks the skillful pacing and sweaty tension of the first. Fassbender is cool to watch, and co-stars Crudup, Katherine Waterston, and Danny McBride perform commendably.

In short, Covenant recycles almost all the cannons and plot-points of the long franchise, though it can still be in the eye of the beholder whether such frequent borrowing and retreading is a positive or a negative. Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian, calls the movie “a greatest hits compilation of the other Alien films’ freaky moments.” Other critics have been less generous, and have suggested that this newest incarnation is a sure sign that Ridley Scott’s talents and skills have faded, and that he has lapsed into the creative desperation of plundering through his own curbside recycle bin.

Good or bad, you decide. On the whole, I give it a thumbs-up: enter the theater with low expectations—or no expectations—and you will very likely enjoy the gruesome thrill ride.

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