It is virtually impossible to begin unpacking Alien: Covenant without first referencing Prometheus – Ridley Scott’s first attempt at a prequel to his landmark 1979 horror, Alien – and then referencing it a lot more. Prometheus split fans and critics upon its release five years ago. On one side, the film was deemed a sloppy mess with far too many plot holes and brainless characters. On the other side, the one I happen to come down on, the gorgeous visuals and philosophical approach focusing on the origins of life outweigh any missteps Prometheus throws up in its script.
This scene of the Prometheus landing, Idris Elba’s awful accent aside, is enough to distract me from the absurdity of a scientist frolicking with a frightening looking mutant cobra as if it were a puppy. I was too busy speculating about the origin of the Engineers and their motivation to wipe out humans to be worrying about why Charlize Theron’s character forgot she wasn’t actually in a two-dimensional video game from the nineties, and could indeed run left or right.
It seems however, that the voices of the anti-Prometheans won out in the end because Ridley Scott has opted for a much ‘safer’ film with Covenant, preferring to recapture the essence of his original 1979 offering while distancing himself from Prometheus, and virtually ignoring the pressing questions it left up in the air.
Alien: Covenant takes place in 2104, roughly ten years after the events of Prometheus. A sprawling spaceship, the eponymous Covenant, is transporting 2000 colonists and over 1000 embryos along with 15 crew members to the distant planet of Origae-6 as part of a pioneer mission to colonise a new world, humanity obviously having never fully recovered after Donald Trump laid waste to the earth. With the aid of the ship’s A.I., synthetic human, Walter (Michael Fassbender), keeps watch over the passengers as they slumber through a seven-year journey to their new home.
Fast forward to 2111 and the Covenant arrives safe and sound on Origae-6.
Ha, you wish.
An unexpected “neutrino storm” ravages the ship resulting in severe casualties and forcing the primary crew to be awakened earlier than expected. Soon after the crew has made the necessary repairs, they pick up a distorted signal, seemingly human in origin, from a nearby planet. A quick scan shows the planet is capable of supporting life even though it hadn’t previously been discovered during the ten-year search for humanity’s new home world in the planning phase of the mammoth undertaking. Not to worry. The consensus among most of the crew is essentially, “fuck going back to sleep for seven years, let’s just set up shop here.” A reconnaissance team descends to the surface of the planet and, as you might guess, things quickly go to pot. Bloody mayhem ensues, prompting acting captain obvious Oram (Billy Crudup) to remark, “We shouldn’t have come here.”
Two movies into this semi-rebooted franchise and I think there’s one thing that we’ll all just have to accept: In the Alien universe, despite having developed interstellar travel, scientists are otherwise rather stupid. Perhaps they leave all the heavy lifting and thinking to the androids. They will prance around an unknown planet, poking and prodding the local flora and fauna with no protective gear whatsoever, unaware of what kind of pathogens could be lurking. If you’re going to be that reckless you probably deserve to have a vicious creature burst out your back.
Covenant rediscovers it’s roots in sci-fi horror as the freakish neomorphs start picking off the less important cast members in particularly brutal fashion. There’s even time to venture into teen slasher territory for a minute with a gratuitous shower massacre just as a couple are about to get busy. There are a number of gory, visceral and sometimes quite discomfiting scenes throughout the film, in sharp contrast to Prometheus which, now that I think about it, had very little blood, if any.
The cast of Alien:Covenant is not what you would call a high-profile one but it’s more than adequate. It’s nice to see Danny McBride, who plays Tennessee, pilot of the Covenant, show he has some range outside of “weapons-grade asshole in a James Franco movie.” Speaking of whom, Franco is in fact a part of the cast but blink and you’ll miss him. He gets about 30 seconds of screen time in a video played on what looks suspiciously like a Microsoft Surface tablet. A hundred years in the future and we’re still using physical tablets instead of some form of personal holographic display? Now there’s a plot hole for you!
Katherine Waterston, fresh off finding Fantastic Beasts, appears ready to assume a modern day Ripley role in the Alien prequel franchise. Guy Pearce also makes an appearance as Peter Weyland yet thankfully not in the 250-year old husk he was sporting in Prometheus. Scottish/Nigerian actress Carmen Ejogo and Mexican actor Demián Bechir add a bit of diversity to proceedings. Be sure to prime your ears whenever Bechir speaks. Even with the ear-drum shattering Dolby 7.1 surround sound at Carib Cinema, I could barely make out a word he was saying.
The real standout performance of the film comes courtesy of Michael Fassbender, juggling the dual roles of twin synthetic humans Walter and David. The obedient, logical Walter is the perfect foil for the curious, devilish and downright creepy David. Both characters are played expertly by Fassbender and actually provide the few snippets of humour to be found in the dire circumstances of the movie.
Covenant is not a complete departure from Prometheus. Underlying themes surrounding creator versus creation, religious symbolism and mythology permeate the narrative, perhaps even more so than in Prometheus. Covenant raises pertinent questions about the future of humanity and its relationship with technology especially as we barrel towards ever smarter artificial intelligence. Of course, it’s not the first and definitely won’t be the last movie to broach this particular subject.
While I was hoping it would pick up immediately where Prometheus left off, Covenant charts a new course and ends up adding a whole new set of questions to those left dangling at the end of Prometheus. A quick Google search will turn up a plethora of articles trying to tackle these unresolved issues. Nevertheless, there is still room for future Alien instalments to provide more definitive answers.
Alien: Covenant’s impressive visuals – reminiscent of Prometheus’s if not quite as striking – sci-fi horror elements and a story-line, complete with a twist ending you’ll be able to spot from a light year away, are interesting enough to not only keep casual viewers engaged for the two-hour run-time but have more hardcore fans eagerly anticipating where the series goes next.