ALIEN: COVENANT Review: The Xenomorph Is Good Again

Splitting the difference between PROMETHEUS and ALIEN.

To answer your question: yes. 

Yes, Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus. Yes, it largely does away with the often incoherent actions undertaken by that film's characters. Yes, it delivers a fair amount of classic xenomorph action. Yes, it is violent to a degree I would characterize as "gnarly". Yes, it is worthy - worthy of the franchise, worthy of the fanbase, worthy of the director (Sir Ridley Scott) who seems positively on fire with ambition, even at the ripe old age of 80. Regardless of what some may tell you, yes: Alien: Covenant is actually good.

But is Alien: Covenant right for you?

Lemme ask you this: how wouldja feel about an Alien movie that's one part Prometheus' philosophy, one part Alien's horror, and one part Alien 3's unrelenting bleakness? Only you know where you stand on those three films, and I'm well aware how loaded the comparison is. Prometheus is taking its first steps towards something resembling a critical reevaluation, but there remain plenty of Alien fans who'll wail and gnash their teeth at the mere mention of its name. The criminally-undervalued Alien 3, meanwhile, may be even more maligned (it holds the dubious distinction of being the only Alien movie I've ever almost gotten into drunken fistfights over). If that's two-thirds of my equation - and believe me, I've thought long and hard on these calculations - you can probably venture a solid guess as to how you'll respond to Alien: Covenant.

Me, I don't gotta worry about any of that, because I'm a fan of all three of those movies. And after two viewings, I'm pleased to say that I am fully onboard the Alien: Covenant fan-train. It's certainly far from perfect - and we'll get to all that in just a moment - but on the whole, I'm into the balance Alien: Covenant strikes between Scott's previous two Alien films, and I was more than willing to welcome a little bit of David Fincher's mean-spirited cruelty back into the franchise. Unlike Prometheus, where even the film's staunchest defenders must concede that at least half the film doesn't really work, Alien: Covenant gets it mostly right. 

Let it be known that I'll be skipping most of the plot mechanations here. If you've seen an Alien movie before, you already know the gist - crew gets a distress signal, crew gets curious, crew immediately realizes the mistake they've made upon encountering some exceptionally unfriendly lifeforms, yadda yadda yadda, who will survive and what will be left of them? The difference this time around is that David (Michael Fassbender), the mischievous synthetic who just could not stop fucking with things in Prometheus, is this story's central figure, and all of his really big scenes are played against...himself. 

That'd be Walter (also Fassbender), an android who - unlike his previous-model counterpart - does not have the ability to create. The surface level struggle in Alien: Covenant involves yet another doomed crew trying to extricate themselves from the horrific situation they've put themselves in, but the real struggle comes down to the differences between Walter and David. These two shoulder most of the philosophizin' that Alien: Covenant has to offer, and these scenes are nothing short of Very Weird. It's not just the uncanny CGI Scott employs to pull off this trick; it's also in the way these androids view the world, in what they're trying to accomplish, in how they interact. There's an extended sequence wherein David teaches Walter to play a recorder, and it's no-shit one of the strangest things I've ever seen in a would-be blockbuster movie. I couldn't take my eyes off it. 

For its many aesthetic pleasures - the fact that an Alien movie suddenly has forests and mountains and a genuine earthiness to it; the terrifying, freakshow interior of David's "lair"; the delightfully disgusting creatures introduced throughout the film - Alien: Covenant would be a much lesser movie were it not for the extraordinary dual performances carried out by Michael Fassbender. Much like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley anchored the original Alien trilogy (and, fine, also Alien: Resurrection, the "What If?" episode of the Alien franchise), Fassbender is being positioned to anchor a new Alien trilogy, and shows every sign of pulling that off. Assuming that Covenant does well enough to justify a sequel (please god), Fassbender's villainous performance as David may end up serving as a worthy counterbalance to Ripley's heroics in the first three Alien movies (and, fine, also Resurrection). He's doing masterful work here.

The rest of the cast does alright. Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride are the standouts, each given a few moments to shine and something resembling an actual character to play. Other crew members - like those played by Demián Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Callie Hernandez and Carmen Ejogo - are more-or-less cannon fodder, and it's in this area that Alien: Covenant stumbles hardest. On the one hand, you want these to be legit characters, so that when the aliens start doing what it is that aliens do, you feel something beyond a popcorn-fueled bloodlust. On the other hand, I'm willing to forgive the shallow writing on these red shirts if it means spending more time with David and Walter, or giving more time over to Crudup, Waterston and McBride's characters, or clearing the way for more bizarro set pieces. Your mileage may vary, but I'll make that trade all day. 

And let's talk about those bizarro set pieces. There's one sequence here - told in flashback - that may well represent the biggest spectacle in Alien franchise history. I'll refrain from specifics to preserve the moment for those who haven't already been spoiled, but chances are, you'll know it when you see it. This sequence is probably the most eyepopping moment in Alien: Covenant, but the one that's really worked its way under my skin involves an encounter between David and the Neomorph. In that scene, the creature stands stock still, locked at attention, just breathing into David's face as the two try and make sense of one another. It's a truly unsettling visual, and stands a good chance of one day becoming my favorite moment in the entire film. You can't but hold your breath, watching it unfold.

That Neomorph, man. I'm telling ya. It's fucking creepy.

I have other reservations about Alien: Covenant. Things like: it takes a good hour to get to where it's going, or the fact that a third act reveal does not play out in the revelatory way in which it really should, or the distracting cameo turned in by James Franco in the film's opening. I've seen some fans complain that the events of Alien: Covenant irrevocably demystify the Alien mythology, overexplaining things that we never asked anyone to explain, and there's some validity to that, too. 

But again, I can deal with all of this (I'm a Prometheus apologist, goddamnit; I can deal with plenty). The performances - even those being delivered in service of barely-there characters - are solid across the board, the creature work is top-notch, and the ending...well, I mostly loved the ending (mostly). The big strokes are dead-on, in other words, and there are plenty of minor details worth savoring. This is a big, weird-ass sci-fi blockbuster with actual things on its mind, directed by a guy who - after Prometheus - clearly feels like he has something to prove, and it's as blood-splattered and mean-spirited as you could ever hope an Alien movie to be. 

All in all, then, Alien: Covenant gets far more right than it does wrong. I'm not convinced it will be an Alien movie for every Alien fan, but luckily I've not been charged with evaluating Alien: Covenant based on how everyone else might respond to it. I only need concern myself with my response, and I responded very firmly in the positive. I eagerly anticipate seeing where Scott and company are going to take us next, and I can only hope that it's as satisfyingly unpleasant as the journey he takes us on in Alien: Covenant.

NOTE: If you wanna talk Alien: Covenant spoilers, we've got a whole post set up just for that! Head over here, folks.

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