Back in 1979, a little film called Alien was released and 8 words changed the face of sci-fi horror forever. ‘In space no one can hear you scream’. Since then we’ve had 3 sequels and a less than inspiring prequel aiming to answer some of the questions raised through the first 4 films, building a growing mythology around the Alien universe. In this respect, Alien: Covenant feels like a definitive prequel, more so than Prometheus – it answers questions raised from previous films and aims to try and bridge the gap to the start of the Alien films. In some ways it does deliver but in others the film feels disappointingly off the standard you’d expect from the best Alien films.
The story actually follows pretty closely to the original before veering off course, like the crew of the Covenant, into uncharted waters. The set up is convincing enough; the crew awaken following an incident on the ship and whilst frantically trying to get the power back online, intercept a strange signal from a nearby world that looks like the perfect paradise. They decide to investigate and when the ship lands on the remote planet, the crew decide to investigate the origin of the signal. Of course things go awry, starting with one unlucky host, and the xenomorph starts wreaking havoc on the crew.
When the story sticks to the conventional set up of the original, despite its predictable story beats, its at its strongest. There’s an air of tension around the film, the characters have time to develop and in true horror fashion we see things slowly take a turn for the worst. As the film continues, however, it deviates from its action or horror origin and turns more mystery. The focus shifts from the alien to endearing, scene-stealing David (Michael Fassbender) as he reprises his role as the android. Its here where questions are answered – including the true origin of the alien, the face huggers and to an extent, part of the engineer story that started in Prometheus. Its gripping stuff but feels at odds with the adrenaline-soaked survival game the teasers and first half of the film would lead you to believe it is.
Whilst I appreciate Director Ridley Scott’s intention of filling some of the gaps in the story, it just feels like fan service rather than an attempt to actually bring the series forward in a meaningful way. I actually thought the series thrived from its many questions and keeping them unanswered raises the uneasy tension these films produce so well. There are some good ideas here though but the attempt to explore the mythology through the eyes of android David feels at odds with the survival played out by the crew of the ship.
Speaking of Fassbender, he is outstanding as David and his role alone makes it worthwhile to watch this film. Its strange that the monster of a horror movie isn’t the scene stealer but some of this stems from the sheer amount of screen time the creature gets. Less is more comes to mind as the xenomorph gets a fair amount of screen time from its early origin form through to the perfect organism it becomes. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it doesn’t work as a horror at all and moments that should be scary don’t because there’s nothing left to the imagination.
Overall then, Alien: Covenant is a strange one to review. On the one hand, I do recommend Covenant. Fans of the series will be happy and thrown on top of a majestic Fassbender performance, there’s plenty of questions answered about the franchise. It’s certainly not the horror the trailers and posters would have you believe and despite its best intentions, there are times where Alien: Covenant feels like its only purpose is to please die-hard fans and fill in the gaps rather than move the series forward. Its uneven pace does the film no favours but unlike Prometheus, this does feel like a true Alien prequel, even if it does have some hiccups in delivering the goods.