Master director Ridley Scott bounces back from Prometheus mess with cohesive, tense instalment of Alien franchise.
By Nick Milligan
Prometheus, British director Ridley Scott’s grand return to not only the science fiction genre but also the franchise that he masterfully kickstarted with 1979’s Alien, was a hot mess. Expectations were high given that in both Alien and his 1982 Philip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner, Scott set a benchmark for mainstream cinematic science fiction that would prove unobtainable for the generation of filmmakers that followed. Nerds, such as myself, went from six to midnight at the thought of Scott sinking his teeth into another big budget sci-fi.
What arrived as 2012’s Prometheus was a jumble of dull characterisation, an uneven balance of visceral action and cerebral subject matter, silly and contrived set pieces, and stunning visuals. It lacked cohesion and buckled under the weight of its lofty ambitions. On paper, with such quality ingredients, the final dish should have earned its makers a Michelin Star. What we received was that pile of mashed potato in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Alien: Covenant finds a 15-strong crew in command of the Covenant, a deep space colonisation vessel with 2000 colonists in cryosleep and over 1400 next generation human embryos on board. Key crew members are terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the God-fearing Oram (Billy Crudup), chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and head of security Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir).
Covenant is heading for a habitable planet called Origae-6. On its lengthy mission a neutrino shockwave (energy released by a collapsed supernova) badly damages the Covenant and the crew are are awoken from temporary cryosleep by the ship’s “synthetic” night watchman Walter (Michael Fassbender). Walter looks identical to the android David from Prometheus, but is an updated model designed to be less self aware and more pragmatic.
“Watching a new-born Xenomorph burst through an unsuspecting victim’s rib cage is like meeting up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years.
While the crew are repairing the Covenant, they receive a human radio transmission from a nearby planet that they had somehow missed when searching the cosmos for a new human home. Remote testing identifies it as a world even more suitable for colonisation than Origae-6 and a decision is made to head there on a reconnaissance mission. Their search for the source of the radio transmission soon makes them wish they’d stayed on the Covenant – because, unsurprisingly, they encounter some nasty aliens. The loveable and oh-so-phallic Xenomorphs are back, baby.
The intricacies of Covenant‘s plot and connection to Prometheus have been kept largely under wraps, so if you’ve managed to block your ears and avoid spoilers (some reviewers are shamelessly dropping major twists) you’re likely to get a few surprises. They won’t necessarily arrive from the alien encounters, as they don’t break new ground for the franchise. They’re just gruesome, nail-bitingly staged and fun. Watching a new-born Xenomorph burst through an unsuspecting victim’s rib cage is like meeting up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. There’s comfort in that durable familiarity. It’s just like old times. Same, too, when a face-hugger tenderly wraps itself around a host’s face like a warm towel. For sci-fi horror nerds, Covenant is like a biennial family barbecue at which all your cousins are just totes fun to hang out with.
But what elevates this flick above complete rehash is that Scott and his team are able to explore what was thematically set up in the previous film – the relationship between creator and created. Understanding why we exist, the human desire to conquer the natural world – to play God – and to then craft artificial intelligence in our own image – these ideas are better explored here by Gladiator writer John Logan and co-writer Dante Harper. They’ve gotten the befuddled rant of Prometheus back on message.
So much of Covenant‘s success has to do with characterisation and there’s no doubt that Scott has gotten back to basics here. The camaraderie on the Covenant is strong and loving, light years beyond that of the juvenile vacuous dickheads rounded up for the Prometheus mission. Our hero Daniels is a real person – fallible and grounded like Ripley in the original Alien. Impressive too is McBride, who steps out of Kenny Powers territory to shape a humorous but emotionally grounded character. Fassbender carries the heaviest load, but is quite remarkable here.
Giving us time to get to know the crew drastically improves the pacing of this instalment. Scott puts the film on a slow boil from the outset – there’s action, but it’s of human importance not alien-induced bloodshed. When tension builds and becomes palpable, we actually care. There’s something at stake. It’s welcome that, unlike Prometheus, Covenant contains well-crafted violence and set pieces that have not been shoehorned into the narrative.
It ultimately makes you admire Scott’s mettle. He has not tried to distance the franchise from the events of Prometheus, pandering to the demands of fans and recalibrating the franchise. This is very much a sequel to his 2012 film. You will need to see Prometheus before Covenant for the latter to have complete emotional impact. Scott and his writers have taken this film into dark territory and the script’s biggest reveal is genuinely chilling – you’ll feel a pang in the gut when you realise what evil has gestated after the events of Prometheus. Some moments echo of Joss Whedon’s screenplay for Alien: Resurrection.
Covenant sets up the potential for a whole new story arc and Scott intends to make it. The script for the next film is complete and the director is ready to start shooting next year (if given the green light). “If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six,” the 79-year-old director told the Sydney Morning Herald, “I’m not going to close it down again. No way.”
For Alien lovers, it’s enough to make you burst with excitement.