Like its titular creatures, Alien Covenant is a strange hybrid: part derivative horror, part clumsy philosophy. Ridley Scott is starting to build a bridge from the film’s prequel Prometheus to the rest of the Alien canon, although the end of the film makes it clear that it’s not quite built yet. Such is the movie-going experience these days: nothing is ever allowed to be self-contained or satisfyingly complete. Leave your audience hanging and hope they’ll hang the three years for the sequel to arrive. Still, you can never fault Scott’s ambition, and this is a grand attempt to atone for the travesty of Prometheus as he melds an earnest, creepy creation myth to the Alien tropes everyone expects.
It is, at least, semi-coherent. The absence of writer Damon Lindelof ensures it makes more sense than Prometheus, which made about as much sense as a cement beanbag. In fact, it goes some way to cleaning up the worst of Prometheus’ convoluted nonsense, and establishes a clean, linear plot that answers most of the questions it asks and expands the mythology thoughtfully.
The coherence starts and ends with the broad brushstrokes of the plot. Delve into the detail and it’s fields of dumb all the way to the horizon. As with Prometheus, the cast of Alien Covenant have clearly never watched a horror film, or been trained to encounter new planets (even though they’re colonists), or indeed ever been allowed to develop common sense. They happily skip through alien worlds, prodding odd-looking biology and duly being ripped to shreds by it. Even after they find the majority of their crewmates dead, they still wander alone down darkened corridors and peer into massive and ominous-looking eggs. Is it supposed to be a parable about the arrogance and selfishness of man? More likely just an easy way to knock them all off.
Indeed the film makes a mis-step out of the gate with 15 characters to tear through (it’s a slasher flick, so we all understand that only one or two will survive). One is an android, about three are imbued with personality, and the rest may as well get their Star Trek red shirts on and start screaming. The more people you have to kill, the less time the audience spends with them, the less time there is to build the tension, and the less anyone cares. Indeed, some of the crew only seem to get facetime as disfigured corpses. Incidentally, when will the Alien franchise stop disrespectfully killing off its main characters off-screen and in-between films? Not yet, it seems.
For all its ambitious themes, Alien Covenant is disappointingly predictable, even dull. Take away all the cultural trappings and lofty musings on existence, and here’s an Alien film we’ve all seen before. Land on a planet, accidentally incubate a number of aliens, run around sweatily in the dark as aliens burst out of bodies and impale people through the face. Yes, this person is dead from swallowing the thing. This person is dead from being trapped in the medical room with the first person. This person is dead from daring to have sex. It’s simply no longer effective, especially as the aliens have now been reduced to goofy gangly CGI. Put on a bit of Yakety Sax and it’s full-on parody: watch those critters run!
But still there is grandeur at work here. Scott is a master craftsman: the film is beautiful to look at, with gorgeous landscapes and poster-worthy framing. It’s carefully paced too, with a deliberate build-up and surprising detours into the surreal corners of the franchise. There’s a gloriously disturbing flashback to Prometheus’ engineers, and a number of languid scenes involving Michael Fassbender that feel like a different film altogether, culminating in one Fassbender sinisterly planting a kiss on another Fassbender’s lips. Whilst they may be more Prometheus than Alien, these are arguably the strongest scenes in the film – and certainly the most interesting, helped by two superb performances from Fassbender. This is where Scott’s eerie, twisted take on the creation myth is explored to the full.
The film’s oddness is its strength; its familiarity its weakness. There’s ingenious stuff tied up in the script, but by the third act, we’ve seen it all before. The plot is our victims, not our monster: it lumbers down hallways loudly and stupidly. Pause the film at any point in the last thirty minutes and you’ll know exactly what will happen next. Oh, to have a plot that could hide itself as well as its alien. And for all that operatic creation myths are fun, why do we need one? The franchise was always about hidden horrors. Nobody needs to see Darth Vader as a child; no-one wants to know how the sausage is made. Fewer back stories, more stories, please.