As a big fan of the Alien franchise, it has always been difficult for me to write or even think about reviews of the films and remain unbiased. As a child, I played with a six inch tall action figure (that I still have) of the Xenomorph, the frightening and brilliant monster at the center of the franchise. It was, as everyone that knew me would tell you, my favorite toy, by a long shot.
I watched the original 1979 film sometime between 1990 and 1992, when I was between 6 to 8 years old. Soon after, I also managed to watch Aliens, James Cameron’s fantastic action packed sequel, and I was forever captivated.
What started from a simple script that had the makings of a silly B-movie was turned by a young Ridley Scott into a horror sci-fi of a quality and thoughtfulness that had not been seen before. With an ensemble of very good actors which included Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt and Ian Holm, Scott hired the services of a relatively unknown Swiss artist, H.R. Giger, to manufacture a credible alien universe that would be convincing enough to elicit fear and dread in audiences. With the invaluable help of Giger’s twisted and unique vision, Scott would introduce us to an exosqueletal U-shaped alien ship sitting in isolation in the midst of a stormy unexplored planet. Inside, there were tunnels made out of what seemed to be organic material that led to one great chamber, where something that looked like a super weapon, or perhaps a giant cockpit, held the remains of a fossilized giant that had been torn open from its insides (popularly refered to as the Engineer). Soon, we would meet the gruesome eggs, the nightmarish “facehugger” and the xenomorph bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in one of cinema’s most unforgettable scenes.
In an act that would later prove to be extremely wise, Scott declined the chance to work on a sequel, giving the keys of a promising franchise to the up-and-coming James Cameron who, with a bigger budget and studio backing, made a thrilling sequel that felt like the first film but on steroids. Once again, our heroes were led by a toughened yet relunctant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) against an entire colony of the deadly creatures.
Though one can argue the merits of the third entry directed by David Fincher (many point to the less than amicable relationship between 20th Century Fox and the director as a cause for some of the dissappointment), there is no denying that the sequels that came after Alien 3 followed the law of diminishing returns. It seemed the franchise was headed to an inglorious end.
In 2012 and with the very real prospect of irrelevance looming nearby, Ridley Scott resurected its acclaimed creation with Prometheus. The film, which took us to the very beginnings of the Alien universe (and of the Weyland corporation), had a surprisingly philosophical and existential vibe that seemed to be entirely disconnected to the older films.
Even though Prometheus ends on a high note by promising an exploration through the Universe in search for the “Engineers”; Alien: Covenant is both a continuation and a rejection of the path that was hinted at by its predecessor. As crafty and stylish as Scott’s direction is and remains throughout the film, there is a designed attempt to please the fans whose nostalgia for horror, dark smokey tunnels and death had been less than satisfied with Prometheus.
Halfway through the film, Covenant abandons any hope to give us answers about any of the questions posed by Prometheus, entirely dismissing the journey of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), and giving David (Michael Fassbender) a far more protagonical role than most of us expected. In it, I saw similarities to the abrupt and unceremonious divide between Aliens and Fincher’s Alien 3, where two of the four survivors had been killed off before the first scene.
The latest part of the franchise is a conscious return to its roots, bringing back the beloved xenomorph, the gory horror, and the occasional bit of dark humor and eroticism that distinguished the 1979 film.
Covenant also has the makings of a blockbuster summer film, giving us moments of genuine thrill and edge-of-your-seat suspense that feel, however, far less distinctive than its stylish and more introspective predecessor. At times, Covenant played as a film that is clearly self-aware of its place in popular culture, hoping not to betray the lust for “xeno violence” that many had waited years for.
To add insult to injury, Covenant suffers in the details, much like Prometheus did. Even though it clocks in at 2 hours, the film struggles for pace in the first half hour to then feel hurried and messy. The crew of explorers that confronts an unimaginable danger in a yet unexplored and unknown planet follows a pattern of decision-making that reveals either their low IQs, or their complete lack of training and preparation. Once again, the first creatures that appear in Covenant are a close relative of the original, until they eventually give way to our long lost trifecta: egg, facehugger and Giger’s xenomorph. Sadly, by the time our violent guest comes into the film, its presence is more thrilling than scary, and perhaps shorter and less remarkable than I had expected. The monster’s prey isn’t a group of navy seals (Aliens) or violent criminals (Alien 3), but a diminished space expedition crew that was already on the run. The monster’s thirst for violence and death not as horrific as it once felt back in 1979.
Covenant’s greatest pleasures come from its striking visuals in the way of stylish spaceships, convincing creatures, and a deserted hellish planet whose dreamy exterior holds many deadly secrets within. More significantly, the cast of Covenant is as great as the ones from the first two movies of the franchise. Katherine Waterson fills the void left by Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw in convincing fashion as Daniels, while Michael Fassbender’s double take as androids David and Walter is at the level of the chameleonic actor’s best work. Each a distinct personality, each with a different accent, standing at opposite ends of a philosophical question: to serve your master, or to upend the status quo by killing everyone in sight.