'Alien: Covenant' - Review - Chris at the Pictures

Monday, 15 May 2017

'Alien: Covenant' - Review

★ ★ ★  

Ridley Scott loses the plot somewhat in this bold and barmy return to the Alien franchise. Ten years on from the disappearance of the Prometheus, a colonization ship intercepts a transmission from the missing crew. Acting Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes a beeline for its point of origin, against the express wishes of terraforming commander Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Upon landing, the colonists encounter a long-derelict spacecraft, a deadly pathogen and a single living soul: the android, David (Michael Fassbender), last apparent survivor of the Prometheus mission.

A far cry from the doomed optimism of Prometheus, the tone here is one of heavy portent. The colours are a grey wash, smiles are rarely cracked, and the narrative plunges a downward spiral to oblivion. Covenant has the chutzpah to pick up from its 2012 predecessor in narrative form, but the inclusion of Alien in the title and marketing shackles it to the franchise, and not always for the best.

It’s a viscous, bulging sac of visionary ideas struggling to burst forth from a largely uninspired narrative. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: shipmates woken early, a distress signal found, one wrecked spaceship, several minutes of screaming  (and a partridge in a pear tree). After the lukewarm, and even hostile, response to Prometheus, it feels like Scott had to make certain concessions before Fox gave the reins back, hence why every horrific moment or action pulse-pounder feels like an ‘in your own words’ answer to an Alien trivia exam (Jerry Goldsmith’s original music cues are brandished too, with the slyest of grins).

However, Scott still gets his own way: the viscera is unabashed and grotesque (H.R. Giger would be proud), the special effects and visuals are slick, and there’s a generous helping of weirdness the likes of which we haven’t seen since Blade Runner. His opus is referred to throughout, in small dialogue notes (“That’s the spirit!”) and the many exchanges between David and the colonists’ own doppelganger robot, Walter. Doctor Tyrell’s “More human than human” echoed endlessly in my head as the two examined, probed and prodded each other. Fassbender proves his mastery once more by giving both roles distinct idiosyncrasies and literally creating sexual tension with himself.

Not all of it works. The literature-heavy screenplay and po-faced discussions about the nature of artificial intelligence grate just occasionally, with some audience members giggling outright. The same derision was also aimed at the human characters’ casual approach to alien eggs and dark rooms, a staple of the franchise now wearing thin. I didn’t care one jot about the colonists, either. I have a sneaking suspicion we’re not really supposed to, but if that’s the case, why are there so many of them? Waterston and Crudup proved more than capable exceptions to my apathy (the former especially), but they’re side-lined in favour of everything else rolling about in this great tumble-drier of a film.

It’s predictable and overstuffed; a rush to connect this set of prequels with the original films that simultaneously takes too long to get going and sprints to the finish line, stomping inconsistencies into the ground in its wake. And yet, I’d argue Covenant is worth the sore feet. Scott remains an interesting case of authorship in Hollywood, and his dedication to religious themes and future prediction is as unshaken as ever… if only he could only find a way to balance them better with the xenomorph zealotry we all know and love.