Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Prometheus (2012) marked Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise he created over thirty years ago. While the auteur’s presence was largely celebrated, the film was considerably less so. While it has its legion of fans and apologists, it was hardly a return to form; it is marred by baffling character choices, a confused mythology, and half backed philosophical musings. Damn near the only person who left the film unscathed was Michael Fassbender, whose performance as David anchored what was otherwise a total mess. Thankfully, much of what did not work about Prometheus has been jettisoned, while Scott doubled down (literally) on Fassbender. *
Covenant begins in media-res as the ship carrying over 2,000 colonists along with a number of embryos scuttles on through space. While the crew is in hyper-sleep, Walter (Michael Fassbender) dons the captain role, manually handling everything that Mother, the ship’s OS cannot. When an accident forces the crew to wake up early, we are introduced to the main cast, led by Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, among others. ** The crew soon stumbles upon a distress signal from a nearby planet that appears habitable and decides to check it out.
Digging into the plot too much is sort of superfluous, particularly if you have ever seen an Alien film before. Generally speaking, they run a similar gamut, and structurally this is not wildly different; most of the people we meet on the crew are there to be cannon fodder once the action jumps off.
What separates this film is that in the middle of the Alien film, David (Fassbender–again) enters the scene and pivots the whole thing in a much stranger direction. Where Walter is mechanical and monotone, David is anything but; Walter remarks that all other synthetic models after David were made to be less life-like, because David made people so uncomfortable. David brings with him much of the philosophical underpinnings of the first film, though they are stripped down into something much more lean, and it feels far more in line with the established universe. Fassbender plays David as a space-age Hannibal Lecter,*** driven by a perverse curiosity and fueled by motivations far beyond ordinary human logic. He brings his usual intensity to both roles, and manages to make both characters feel distinct without slipping into self-parody. It’s a terrific performance, and frankly, it’s a lead one, as David has stealthily become the focus of this new series.
It will be interesting to see what fans of Prometheus feel about this new film, as it certainly furthers a good deal of the thematic territory of that film in a way that will surely be pleasing, but also brushes aside other aspects (like the fate of Elizabeth Shaw) without much interest. It is clear that the film has a lot on its mind, waxing about the nature of creation, and its relationship to destruction; it is admittedly unusual territory for a major summer blockbuster, but it really sings.
Despite this, it can still feel like a film at war with itself, as the philosophy of the last film keeps butting its head into this brawny monster movie, and visa versa. It makes for one very interesting dichotomy, as without these pieces, the Alien film would feel pretty well-worn and rote, but because it needs these elements to illustrate the story Scott really wants to tell, it never feels entirely of a whole either way. Covenant does not quite reach the bat-shit crazy levels of nihilism that Scott visited upon the world in The Counselor (2013), but it feels like he was in a similar head space. It paints a bleak picture of the universe as a cold, indifferent, cruel place **** a theme which is only reinforced by the almost gleeful displays of gore.
The creature designs are quite good, with the newly created Neomorph making for a deeply unsettling and effective addition to the canon. While the CGI treatment of the aliens can be distracting for fans of the old practical effects, it is a pedantic complaint that most viewers who are not Xenomorph nerds will gloss right over. Similarly, the film carries over the luminescent cinematography on display in Prometheus, particularly as this is the first time the series has visited such a lush beautiful environment, filled with trees and rocky cliffs.
The ending of the film feels finite true to the events in the film while also allowing room for the larger thematic ideas to continue should Scott make subsequent films. While the film spends just too much time telegraphing where it is all going, it remains devastatingly effective and feels suitably dark and gut-wrenching.
It is the impression of this writer that another viewing will be necessary to fully digest whether the film truly works, as it straddles a line between pulpy thrills and Lovecraftian despair. It is difficult not to consider the source of this tension during the film; as Ridley Scott is approaching 80 years old, and still likely dealing with the recent suicide of his younger brother, director Tony Scott. It will be all the more interesting if the filmmaker gets to finish what he started (he has said he wants to make at least two more) and viewers will be able to see how David’s journey gave way to Ripley’s.
Time will tell if the film holds up, but for now, it has earned its place as a worthy entry in a nearly forty year old franchise, which is a worthy of something
*Characters still do some very questionably dumb things, but it feels much more stock-horror film than straight up baffling, which is to say it is still frustrating, but with much more considered context.
** There is a very small and kind of distracting cameo by James Franco, whose presence here feels like it must have came from an assist by his pal McBride.
*** Particularly the (in this writer’s opinion) best iteration played by Mads Mikkelson.
**** Which is not to say this series was ever warm and fuzzy, but here it is turned all the way up.