[3 stars] The main question that was raised when this latest installment of the Alien universe was announced was, “Why?” The previous film, Blow-metheus, as it is lovingly referred to in my circles, had a horrible script, confused expectations, and answered next to nothing about the Xenomorph and the moments that led to the original Alien, even though we’d been promised that. In fact, Ridley Scott (The Martian) confused matters further by denying what little seemed obvious in the film (whether it was Earth at the beginning or not) and obfuscated the overall plan.
Now comes Covenant, which takes place 10 years after the end of the previous movie (though there are problems with that timeline based on Fassbender’s statements as David). But this time we’ve a crew that is, generally, more believable with some exceptions I’ll get to. As colonists I gave them some latitude as to their space worthiness. However it is a science fiction movie as well as horror, and there are some gaffs that really pulled me out of the tale on that aspect.
There will be some minor spoilers in this discussion, but nothing that really matters.
Let’s start near the top with the neutrino burst that sets it all in motion. Do suns have these? Yes. However, neutrinos also have little to no mass and so you wouldn’t be blasted by such an event. A gamma ray burst, maybe, but not neutrinos. And why would a multiyear, sleeper ship be so fragile as to lose all power when one sail is out of alignment? There were better ways to set up these events to get to the same ends.
Then we get to the Star Trek silliness of the entire senior staff of the crew going down to explore the new planet. They are responsible for four thousand colonists (so we’re told, though who lived and died there changes from beginning to end of the movie), but are willing to just take off and leave almost no one awake aboard. Now we get to signs of civilization, which are apparently surprising despite the following of a signal (a signal in English, mind you).
These folks may not be hardened space farers, but they are supposed to be scientists…and yet they go mucking about, touching things and being generally stupid on their arrival, and not taking objects that would make sense (like the photo they find).
And then, with the players positioned on the board, the fun begins…the second of three parts that is supposed to, eventually, close the loop with the original Alien. (Notice I’m not even calling out the scene replications from Alien, Aliens, and the rest of the series that you could take as either homage or laziness.)
Right off the bat we have familiar Alien-like attacks and expectations. Though there is a minimal, core group of actors for the story, there are really just two main crew members who drive the tensions. Billy Crudup (20th Century Women), as acting captain is ineffectual and weak…which was disappointing. Crudup is a good actor, but he was directed by Scott to be unsteady from the start and we never respect him nor believe his religious fervor. His deterioration should have been gradual. On the other hand, Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) starts off tough. She, alone in the crew, appears to understand how things should be done despite any personal pain and sacrifice that is going on. She is our Ripley analog and overcomes a lot of the script to show us a solid leader and warrior…if not an intelligent one at times.
The rest of our characters, though set up in the opening scenes as competent individuals, suddenly change. For instance, the pilot, Carmen Ejogo (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who had nerves of steel through the storm is suddenly a panicked, screaming mess causing mayhem. Callie Hernandez (La La Land) becomes a preening fool. The men fare no better, and the somewhat groundbreaking relationship of Demian Bichir (The Hateful Eight) and his lover is nice, but so glossed over as to be lost in the confused mess of the story and served no real purpose nor had any impact. In fact, if there is any constant in this film it is that the only lives that matter are the ones you, personally, care about. Everyone else’s lives are cheap…so, of course, it all falls apart.
The one steady element of all the Alien films has been the synthetics. Michael Fassbender (Song to Song) does a wonderful job as the semi-psychotic David and the even tempered Walter in this newest sequence. He also gets a great reference to Ozymandias, which is both amusing given Crudup’s turn in Watchmen, and probably far too arch for the type of film this really is.
But the reality is that, while there are the bones of an interesting story, the movie just isn’t that good. It is predictable, recognizable, thin on character and thinner on scares. The plot, the only reason to watch this prequel sequence, is getting stretched out over three films (assuming the next is ever made) and it will have to do backflips to get us to the ship with the Pilot in the original Alien. A place we already were in Prometheus, had Scott had the balls to just do one, simple film to close the series.
So why watch this uninspired, unsurprising sequel? Well, there are a couple reasons. It doesn’t really break new ground, but neither does it do it poorly. It just doesn’t entertain as much as it should because we’ve seen it all before and because we’re well ahead of the story regarding the “surprises.” There is also the dueling Fassbenders, which is great fun; watching him act is always a joy.
Is that enough to spend your time? Maybe. It is pure popcorn with a familiar refrain. It has good production values and some answers to burning questions. Fans of Alien wanted this to be so much more than it was, but it is what we’ve got to work with. The jury is still out as to whether any of it will ever make sense or be worth all the years of effort that have been pored into the endeavor.