Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper
Alien: Covenant is one of those times when I felt like I was watching a great film trapped in a mediocre film. The film as a whole is objectively the third best in the Alien franchise, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from the same sort of inauthentic Nolan-esque dialogue that made Prometheus such a chore to sit through as its characters spend much of their time spouting vaguely important sounding declarations explaining what is happening or what they are feeling. The film also suffers from a sense of sameness as it follows most of the beats we’ve come to expect from the Alien films to the point that it isn’t worth even getting to know the minor characters since we already know they’re only there to serve as cannon fodder. In the middle of all that though, there is a genuinely great story being told about death and creation, birth and parenthood, and man and monster. All of the scenes that focused on Michael Fassbender made this movie worth the price of admission.
Set a decade years after the bloody events in Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is en route to a remote planet with its crew in hibernation while Walter (Michael Fassbender), a new version of the synthetic David from Prometheus, monitors them. A disaster occurs that requires Walter to bring the crew out of stasis and results in the captain’s death. After the first mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes the role of Acting Captain, the ships picks up a transmission from a nearby planet that exhibits signs of life ideal for colonisation. Despite the objection of Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the captain’s widow, the crew decides to investigate this planet rather than go back into hibernation and continue their journey. Things of course go wrong when the ground team arrives on the planet and are attacked by vicious creatures, but they are presently rescued by a figure who turns out to be David (Fassbender again). As he explains to them the nature of the threat they face, the crew must work out how to escape.
Fassbender delivers a remarkable dual performance as Walter and David and it is these two characters and the relationship between them that makes this movie stand out from all the other Alien movies that came before. David has changed (or evolved as he puts it) in the years he has been stranded on this planet and has achieved what he views as a higher state of being. David is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster who has over time grown into a new Dr. Frankenstein, intent on creating new life to fulfil the purpose for which he believes he was created. He therefore sees Walter as some sort of a twisted combination between a brother, a son, and a lover and sees within him the potential to transcend humanity the way he has. In this way Covenant has more in common with Ridley Scott’s magnum opus Blade Runner than it does with the other Alien films. The bond David shares with Walter and the philosophical and psychological themes that they explore gives this movie an emotional core that was absent in Prometheus. My favourite scene of theirs was when David teaches Walter to play the recorder, a moment that is all at once compelling, funny and even weirdly seductive.
I wish I could have seen more of David and Walter because the rest of the film was about as typical as you could expect an Alien prequel to be. We get callbacks to the original film, generic characters making stupid decisions that get them killed, and plenty of carnage at the hands of the Giger-designed xenomorphs. The film is certainly watchable enough, but it offers little to all but those viewers who have not seen Scott’s original 1979 horror. One of the positives is Waterson as probably the film’s only compelling human character, a grieving widow set on fulfilling her late husband’s dream of building a new home, only to find all her hopes dashed by the desolate place and their forlorn situation. The design is also good, particularly that of the dead city where David has been hiding for the last decade. This forsaken ruin of what had once been a great civilisation has exactly the right air of foreboding and isolation that you would what for a movie such as this.
If Ridley Scott had set out to make a film about a synthetic being with a god complex (a Roy Batty movie maybe?), this could have been something special. As it is, Alien: Covenant is a competently made rehash of the first two Alien movies with a marvellous story lurking within the otherwise derivative plot. As far as being a prequel goes, I’m not sure whether the movie adds anything that will actually affect how I watch Alien or Aliens. As fascinating as the David and Walter narrative was, the question of whether it will add any sort of significance to the Ellen Ripley stories remains to be seen. In and of itself though, it was an excellent storyline that deserved more time and focus. The survival horror movie stuff that came in between was entertaining enough that I was willing to watch it while I waited for the movie to return to the Fassbender bots, but that’s all it did for me. Although this is one of those times when a star rating is grossly inadequate to reflect my mixed feelings on this film, on balance I’ve decided on four stars as a testament to the strength of the David/Walter story against the rest of the film.