Never has an Alien movie felt so rote — so … familiar.
Looking back, each film in the series had something new or original to offer, even if the overall package was hit or miss.
The first two films are considered classics — rightly so and each for varying reasons. The first film, Alien, was a gripping horror movie that gave science fiction movies a new angle. Its sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, went the more-is-better route, giving audiences a war movie pitting human forces against an overwhelming and superior company of predators.
Subsequent movies weren’t as well-received — Alien 3 went through numerous rewrites, and the final result felt like a letdown in contrast to what could have been. Alien: Resurrection went far into the future with a cloned Ripley and an interesting cast of characters, but it lacked the spirit of previous films.
And the prequel Prometheus tried to expand the lore while exploring religious and moral plot points. Many felt it was too convoluted and messy, while others critiqued it for silly characters who just couldn’t keep themselves from dying.
But from Alien 3 and on, each of those films brought something new to the table in terms of exploring the universe or changing the tone of the franchise. As risky as it was to kill off Hicks and Newt and strand Ripley on a prison planet, no one could say that Alien 3, Resurrection, or even Prometheus were complete retreads. Sure, the risks didn’t always play out, but at least the filmmakers tried something fresh.
That’s what makes Alien: Covenant the most frustrating movie in the franchise. It’s a continuation in the prequel series that sets out to explain where the xenomorphs came from. You would think that would be a breeding ground for interesting plot points and several twists, but the final result is lackluster film that fizzles.
Covenant begins with a short introduction — a flashback of Prometheus’ android David (Michael Fassbender) who comes to “life” and is given the task of choosing a name for himself. David displays his technical ability in playing the piano and serves his creator Peter Weyland some tea as they discuss the origins of humanity and the search for God.
Fast-forward to the present, some time in 2104. Humanity is on the verge of extinction, and a group of colonizers are sent aboard the ship Covenant to a very distant planet that could host as a new Earth.
After a sudden neutrino burst damages the ship, a distress signal is picked up from a closer planet that also exhibits traits of being a possible suitor for sustaining human life. Captain Orem (Billy Crudup), despite being warned by crewmate Daniels (Katherine Waterston), chooses to change course and discover who sent out the signal.
Almost immediately, things go very wrong for the explorers. A spore infects several of them, creating new creatures inside their unwitting hosts. Neomorphs explode out of human bodies, wreaking havoc on the crew and leading to an escalation of problems that keeps getting worse. With the away base exploding into flames, the planet-side crew scatters out into the wild.
A mysterious and shrouded figure saves the day, and it turns out to be David. He leads the crew to a structure with a courtyard filled with burnt corpses.
The rest of the movie can be explained in a few sentences — David turns on the crew and exposes Captain Orem to a facehugger. The resulting xenomorph attacks, the crew hastily make it off planet aboard a rescue ship, and the film ends with a final battle aboard the Covenant with more back-stabbings and predictable plot twists.
Sure, there are a few suspenseful moments here and there along with an explanation of how David came to the planet. The most important reveal — that David created the current iteration of xenomorphs by experimenting on Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) — is a game changer that adds an ironic twist into the storyline. Unfortunately, it doesn’t answer the most pertinent question of why the spores were created in the first place and who the Engineers really are.
It’s a wasted opportunity, and the movie should have been much bigger in every single way. Instead of being a ground-breaking film worthy of the franchise that expands the lore, it just settles for being a go-between that bridges Prometheus to a third and hopefully more meaningful film of the prequel series.
It brings to mind the disappointment I felt when Alien 3 came out — instead of Ripley returning to Earth to warn the planet against an invading force of monsters, we were treated to a more insular film that stranded her on a forsaken planet.
I would much rather have seen a direct sequel to Prometheus with Dr. Shaw and David learning more about the Engineers’ “paradise.”
Instead, we get bits and pieces of the Alien franchise, the way it would have been presented on MTV: TRL — truncated and reduced to a shell.
Alien: Covenant is Alien-lite. It’s got a lot of action in its bite, but the contents are ultimately less filling.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Screenplay by: Dan O’Bannon and Ronal Shusett
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, and Benjamin Rigby