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Alien: Covenant is Out of This World

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Simultaneously a seminal film in both the horror and sci-fi genres, Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien also managed to launch one of Hollywood’s most enduring franchises. Just when the series seemed all but dead, two entries in the 90s and a crossover with Predator diluting the films down to generic slasher fare, Scott returned to save it, releasing 2012’s Prometheus. Though incredibly divisive, the film certainly brought back the thoughtfulness of Scott’s original and James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens. Five years later, the prolific director has released his follow up, Alien: Covenant, a remarkably effective, if somewhat inconsistent, thriller with far more to it than expected.

Opening with the crew of a colonization ship (the Covenant) awakening from hypersleep a few years too early due to a solar flare incident, the film wastes no time in getting its characters on land as they quickly discover a planet that may better suit their needs than the one they’re heading for. As you can expect, the crew doesn’t quite find what they’re looking for, the grisly birth of two neomorphs (essentially small, eerily pale xenomorphs) giving way to an assault on the remaining members.

Scott withholds the xenomorph for the majority of Covenant’s running time, allowing time for the neomorph to leave its own stamp on the series. It’s a wise decision, the rapidly moving creatures proving to be almost equally as terrifying as the iconic black beast of the original film.  When that signature monster does make its return, it’s unfortunately a disappointment, the use of computer animation rather than practical effects weakening its impact, particularly in a daytime action sequence set on a drop ship. The film’s night-set action is far more impressive, a confrontation with the neomorphs in a wheat field standing out most.

While Prometheus’s staid look was certainly striking, Covenant ups the ante, mixing some of the most impressive set design in any recent sci-fi film with brilliant location work. When the crew first arrives on the planet, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski provide picturesque vistas oddly reminiscent of New Zealand. Brilliantly, these soon give way to hauntingly hellish landscapes deserving of a work by Bosch.

Replacing Prometheus screenwriter Damon Lindelof, Oscar-nominee John Logan brings a significant amount more depth to this cast. While most are obviously mere cannon fodder for the aliens to quickly whittle down, Logan spotlights a select group, crafting some of the franchise’s best characters (Prometheus’ sole character to transfer over is Michael Fassbender’s android David). Katherine Waterston stars as Daniels, a vastly more compelling protagonist than the Ripley clone promised by the film’s trailers. Comedian Danny McBride and Almost Famous’ Billy Crudup are equally excellent as the Covenant’s likeable pilot and its out-of-his-depth captain, respectively.

Covenant is Fassbender’s film to own, however. Arguably the best male actor working today, Fassbender faces one of the greatest challenges of his already varied career here, portraying both the sinister David and the Covenant’s endearing android, Walter. The film truly kicks into gear when the two come into contact, David’s narcissistic adoration of Walter and quest to persuade his more robotic counterpart to think for himself proving utterly fascinating. It’s a shame that these philosophical and ultimately profound conversations are at odds with the rest of the briskly-paced film, but they’re so singularly gripping and delivered with such grace by Fassbender that it’s almost entirely forgivable.

It’s that inability to effectively meld the pondering of Prometheus with the graphic body horror and corridor action of the main Alien franchise that’s Covenant’s greatest flaw. This is a film in which characters quote “Paradise Lost”,  listen to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” (it’s used twice), and debate the role of faith in the modern world, and yet also one that features multiple decapitations by aliens and a sequence that trumps the original film’s chestburster scene in its brutality. There’s a lot of potential in that blend, but Scott doesn’t seem to quite know how to handle it, seeming constantly torn between which film he wants to make.

 

The Verdict

Although occasionally torn between its two distinctly different tones, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant is a gorgeous and effective return to form for the series that’s bolstered by compelling philosophy and a Michael Fassbender performance for the ages.

 

8.5/10

Pros:

  • One of Fassbender’s best performances, strong overall cast
  • Brilliant set design and cinematography
  • Gripping philosophy
  • Neomorph

Cons:

  • Struggles to meld thoughtfulness with action/horror
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