“Alien: Covenant” Movie Review


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     For me, perhaps no image in film history is both as iconic and unsettling as the chest burster scene in Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction classic “Alien”.  A sequence that would have us believe everything will be ok after a traumatic incident in which a face hugger affixes itself to one of the crew, only to later have that character suffer a brutal creature birth, as the now famous baby Xenomorph violently forces its way out of an unsuspecting crew member’s chest.  It’s that scene I remember most, but having six “Alien” films come out in my lifetime has dulled the experience over the years where many of the filmmakers who have tackled the franchise refused to break new ground and send the franchise in new and interesting directions.  All of that changed in 2012, when Ridley Scott returned to the franchise he created in an effort to answer questions of the Xenomorph’s origin and send the series on a different trajectory entirely.  

     “Prometheus” debuted to what became a divided audience of fans who expected another “Alien” film, but instead got something else entirely.  Rather than retread old ideas, Scott tackled new ones, looking directly into the years prior to the events of “Alien” and focusing on the mysterious Space Jockey, the doomed pilot of the derelict space craft the Nostromo crew discovers in the first film.  Scott dared to introduce a storyline which had  group of planetary explorers looking to find the creators of human kind, challenging every aspect of the common religious and scientific beliefs involving our evolution.  But even the very best filmmakers tend to realize they ultimately are selling something to a paying audience, who expect them to deliver exactly what they came to see.  In the case of “Prometheus”, the answer to the question involving the aforementioned Space Jockey, referred to as the Engineers in the film, is dealt with in a way that still leaves much to be explained and thought about.  Absent was the traditional Xenomorph most people likely expected, but there were hints of what would come in future installments.

     As a direct sequel to “Prometheus”, Scott’s new film “Alien: Covenant” plays in tone more closely to “Alien”, but still focuses directly on the events of “Prometheus” and the resulting outcome when David (Michael Fassbender) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) eventually arrive at the Engineers home planet.  It’s as if Scott made the decision to remain focused, artistically speaking, on the story he set out tell, but understands the fans and their obvious need for him to get back to the roots of the original film.  In other words, an appearance by the iconic Xenomorph would be a must.  To that extent, Scott certainly delivers, but as expected, the 79 year old filmmaker has given us so much more in the way of a complex and thought provoking story, featuring a scene stealing dual performance by the returning Fassbender, as well as a heavy dose of bloody mayhem.  As for its place in the series, “Alien: Covenant” is comfortably in the third spot following the first two films, “Alien” (1979) and “Aliens” (1986), and ahead of “Prometheus”.  When you view “Covenant” as a direct continuation of the story began in “Prometheus”, you really start to realize just how complicated of a turn Scott took the franchise in order to resuscitate it after the series two bouts with the Predator, “Alien vs Predator” (2004) & “Alien vs Predator: Requiem” (2007).

     Working from a script by John Logan and Dante Harper, Scott weaves a tale featuring characters and situations that thrive on multiple levels of creation.  In fact, the story is obsessed by it.  David, the synthetic human from “Prometheus” and played by Fassbender at the top of his game, opens “Covenant” in a flashback scene with his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), as the two converse about everything from the unique human qualities David possesses to the irony that ultimately Peter will die and David will not.  It’s clear from the events of “Prometheus” that David has a sort of infatuation with the power that comes from the creation of life and through his actions involving the purposeful infection of crew members with the black substance found in the Engineer’s ship, we get the idea he has much loftier goals in mind.  A prologue to “Covenant”, released a few weeks before the film, indicates David is the nefarious being we anticipated, as he arrives at the Engineers home planet and appears to release the ship’s entire payload of that same deadly black substance on the entire population, which is exactly what the “Prometheus” crew surmised the Engineers intended to do to Earth’s population.

     In doing so, David has essentially unleashed a powerful biological weapon that effectively wiped out the species of an entire planet, leaving him marooned for what could be forever.  That is until an unfortunate incident occurs on a colonization ship bound for a far away planet to begin a new life.  The ship, named the Covenant, carries a crew of 15 (7 couples and 1 synthetic human), plus 2000 colonists and hundreds of human embryos, all of which have left Earth permanently in an attempt to settle in a new sustainable environment.  Still 7 years away from their destination, the crew is suddenly awakened from hyper sleep when a massive energy wave cripples the ship and temporarily halts their mission, losing their Captain in the process when his hyper sleep pod malfunctions.

     Scott spends the first 30 minutes or so establishing the main characters while also creating suspense through the perils of space travel.  The solar sail used as the ship’s primary energy source is damaged and requires members of the crew to physically go outside of the ship in suits in order to repair it.  It’s during this operation that one of the crew members, Tennessee (Danny McBride), receives an odd transmission in his space helmet, which the crew later investigates and determines it has originated from a nearby planet that happens to also have similar atmospheric qualities to Earth, as well as their planned destination.  This new option brings about a debate amongst the crew with the newly appointed Captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), and the now second in command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston).  As you can imagine, the crew isn't excited about getting back into the hyper sleep pods for another 7 years after the accident that took the life of their original Captain, Branson (James Franco).  And many, including Oram, make the argument that they can accomplish their colonization mission by simply doing so on the nearby planet they have discovered instead.  Though Daniels protests, Oram makes the decision to redirect the Covenant in order to check out the newly presented option.

     As has been the case in all of the “Alien” films, Oram’s decision is one he certainly wishes he could take back.  No sooner than minutes after their arrival in a drop ship, some of the team’s members begin to get to sick and it’s not long before the crew realizes the planet is infested with creatures who have one instinct and that’s to kill each and every one of them.  But there’s much more to the plot, as the planet these explorers seek to colonize is also the former Engineer’s home world and the same place David has been marooned on for the past 10 years.  This, in turn, presents a number of new directions in which the story goes.  Part of the Covenant landing team is Walter (also played by Fassbender), a synthetic human who has the same likeness as David, but is said to be a superior, less human model.  As David and Walter begin to compare notes on everything from creation to the joys of playing a flute, the rest of the ground crew continues to attempt to contact the Covenant orbiting above the planet in order to alert the remaining crew of what has occurred.  And though David seems willing to help the ailing Covenant crew, his misdeeds begin to show themselves, as his obsessions have proliferated significantly since we last saw him aboard the Prometheus.

     Scott unapologetically continues with his “Prometheus” storyline and does so by fleshing out David’s character and his unique ambition to be a creator.  But Scott also changes the tone and structure of the film this time in order to make it feel more like an “Alien” film.  And the presence of the Xenomorph we’ve gotten to know so well helps create that unsettling sense of fear and dread within the confines of both David’s mad scientist like laboratory, as well as the claustrophobic and dimly lit hallways of the Covenant.  Scott stages several truly horrific sequences that will cause your stomach to churn, including the introduction of a member of the “Alien” family called the Neomorph, a creature who like its close cousin grows inside a human host, but then chooses to grotesquely find its way out by any means necessary.  I’ll leave it at that.  

     Taking cues from its predecessors, “Covenant” features a female heroine in the mold of Ripley named Daniels (Waterston), who remains the voice of reason throughout.  McBride’s Tennessee makes for a worthy no nonsense sidekick and occasional comic relief, with the rest of the cast, including Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Hernandez, and Jussie Smollett, making an impact at least up until the point where they meet their respective demise at the hands of the many Xenomorphs, Neomorphs, Face Huggers, and other creepy organisms lurking about.  And while the lesser characters in films like this tend to be viewed as fodder, I would make the argument that each of them is involved in a sequence so disturbingly memorable that their character remains on your mind long after you leave the theater.  The fact the crew is comprised of couples also adds to the emotional aspect of each death since another crew member is now forced to deal with an unthinkable loss.

     While “Alien: Covenant” does not rise to the level of “Alien” and “Aliens”, the film does serve up a compelling, unique, and memorable story that is well acted, suspense filled, and visually amazing.  It’s likely no coincidence that three of the best four films in the now eight film series were made by the filmmaker who created the series in the first place.  And to that Scott has said there will be at least one more “Alien” prequel film that will ultimately bridge the remaining gap between “Covenant” and 1979’s “Alien”.  And through two prequel films so far, he has established a solid foundation for both the Engineer’s and the Xenomorph’s origins, as well as the self absorbed and exploitive nature of the Weyland/Yutani corporation that we otherwise know throughout the series as “The Company”.  The big ideas explored in “Prometheus” start to become a reality in “Covenant”, as we begin to realize the root cause of why The Company sent the Nostromo to LV426 in the first place.  Thanks to David, they already knew the value of the bioweapon created by the Engineers and were willing to do anything in order to get it.  Crew expendable.  GRADE: A