‘Prometheus’, Ridley Scott’s return to the ‘Alien’ franchise, was supposed to reignite excitement and deepen the series’ mythology. Instead, it was beautiful to look at but stumbled through failed grasps at profound themes and irritatingly stupid writing. The long-delayed sequel, ‘Alien: Covenant’, at least improves and expands on what ‘Prometheus’ hoped to accomplish, even though it feels like a mid-level entry in the beloved franchise overall.
The flick kicks off with a bizarre prologue featuring Michael Fassbender’s eerie android David and Guy Pearce’s diabolical Peter Weyland to re-establish the last film’s themes of man playing God. Then we’re shot deep into space on a massive ship filled with human colonists planning to set up shop on a new planet. An updated version of the David android, named Walter this time (Fassbender again, with the names a sly reference to ‘Alien’ writer/producers Walter Hill and David Giler), roams the halls while the humans sleep, until a sudden accident awakens the ship’s core crew and kills off many others. The likes of Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride play the survivors, some pained that they’ve lost loved ones, all panicking about what to do next. Then they receive a distress call from nearby planet and set out to investigate, finding a world that seems perfect for colonization. Unfortunately, the planet also features that mutating microscopic black death goo from ‘Prometheus’. Soon enough, creatures are bursting out of flesh, death hangs in the air, and a familiar face from the last movie shows up to usher in a third act where things get even worse and the iconic Xenomorph finally returns to the franchise.
‘Alien: Covenant’ is a movie that feels uneasy with itself at times. It wants to continue the epic multi-film philosophical narrative of ‘Prometheus’ that gives added symbolic weight and mythology to the iconic ‘Alien’ creatures. At the same time, Ridley Scott and his team are aware of the problems viewers had with ‘Prometheus’ and have also fused in a remake of the original ‘Alien’ as well. It’s an uncomfortable mix of old and new. Even though most viewers will show up because they’ve been promised a new ‘Alien’ movie, all those sequences feel like they were tacked onto a planned ‘Prometheus’ sequel that wasn’t supposed to catch up to the original series just yet. It often feels like being force fed a ‘Prometheus’ sequel within a perfunctory ‘Alien’ remake, and oddly works best when expanding on the unpopular movie rather than retreading the hallowed ground of the 1979 masterpiece.
This massive franchise tentpole is also a rather angry and morbidly thoughtful movie. While juggling ‘Frankenstein’ themes about the horrors of creation and playing God, Scott layers in a vicious exploration of death. The alien-munching and blood-spewing set-pieces aren’t just horrifically R-rated, they also hurt. Viewers are forced to watch characters grieve in great anguish over deaths, and there’s rarely any fun to be had once the lambs are led to slaughter. Oh sure, the redshirt crew members written as alien food might act like dummies in a slasher movie, but their deaths reverberate amongst the survivors in tragic tones that are downright depressing. It almost feels like Scott might be working through some issues. (It’s hard not to read into the fact that the director developed this sequel after a rather public family tragedy.) That may be an ambitious personal spin on a marketable Hollywood franchise, but it’s also often tonally ugly in ways that dilute the popcorn fun.
Still, the filmmaking is some of Scott’s best on a technical level. No matter how morbid the scene, Scott shoots it with an absolute mastery of all cinematic craft. The film is stunningly beautiful, especially when the content of the images is gut-wrenchingly disturbing. Performances from the core cast of Waterston, Crudup, McBride and Fassbender (who steals the show in spoilery ways that shouldn’t be revealed – but get ready for one particularly unsettling sequence that’s all Fassbender without an alien in sight) are all strong. Even the one-note alien-food actors admirably commit to their roles. The evolved ‘Prometheus’ creatures are disgustingly gorgeous creations and get some of the biggest scares. H.R. Giger faithful such as the facehugger, the chestburster, and the xenomorph are as horrifying as always, even if Scott doesn’t have many new tricks up his sleeve for how to use those monsters that have appeared in eight movies and counting.
‘Alien: Covenant’ is both enthralling and disappointing. There’s no faulting the craft of the production and it’s a viscerally unsettling movie that’s hard to shake. However, problems from ‘Prometheus’ persist, including the overwritten script filled endless dull discussions of themes (most of which were elegantly presented in the original ‘Alien’ through imagery), as well as awkward plot holes and forced mythology that don’t make the monsters any more effective.
There’s a ‘Star Wars’ prequel quality to these ‘Prometheus’ movies, needlessly piling on backstory to explain things best left mysterious and unstated in the original films. Still, there’s no denying the horrifying beauty of the production, the visceral thrills, a few impressive performances, or the handful of intriguing ideas that resonate. Ridley Scott has created an ambitious, nasty, and potent new ‘Alien’ film that’s an improvement on its predecessor without living up to the two stone cold classics that kicked off this franchise decades ago.
‘Alien: Convenant’ is worth a look and offers enough of an improvement on ‘Prometheus’ that the third time might be the charm for this series of ‘Alien’ prequels that Ridley Scott is determined to will into existence. It could be worse. It already was. Approach with caution, a removable thinking cap, and a barf bag.