Alien: Covenant – A Review
Let me start this review by stating that Alien is perhaps my favorite film of all time, and Ridley Scott is my favorite director, so there was a decent chance I would come out my viewing of Alien: Covenant happy with what I’d seen. As a horror writer, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Alien, and I hoped Alien: Covenant would be similarly inspiring.
With that out of the way, here’s the spoiler free part of this review. In my opinion, Alien: Covenant is a good film, not a great film, but a solidly entertaining one that doesn’t shame (much) the truly great movies in the franchise. It has some issues, which I’ll get into in more detail below, but as sci-fi horror goes you’d be hard-pressed to find a better film in the last ten years (one of you will almost certainly remind me of a better one I’ve forgotten). If I had to give it a letter grade, I’d give it a solid B. On a star scale, 3.5 stars out of 5.
Okay, now on to the review proper. I’m going to assume that everyone knows the plot of the film by this point. I mean, there were only like, what? Thirty separate previews of this movie? If you do need a summation of the film’s plot, just head on over to Wikipedia, where you’ll find a good one.
Oh, lots and lots of spoilers ahead. Obviously.
Things I Liked:
- Visually stunning. Ridley Scott has a knack for making films that are beautiful to look at, and Alien: Covenant does not disappoint in this department. From the sweeping natural vistas of the Engineers’ planet to the gloom-shrouded necropolis where David exterminated them, there is a haunting majesty to the whole thing.
- Music. I’m pretty sure a lot of the music is lifted straight from Alien, and at first I thought that might bother me, but, in the end, it’s just a good score, and I didn’t mind hearing it again. Certainly, there are new pieces, but the old music invoked a pleasant sense of nostalgia and was as effective at conveying urgency and terror as it was in Alien.
- David: The android David is an effective villain, and he’s played to perfection by Michael Fassbender. He’s a cross between HAL 9000 and Hannibal Lecter, and his ghoulish laboratory in the dead Engineer city is one of the most horrifying part of the film. One of the best things about Covenant, is that it looks like David is going to be a prominent villain going into the next movie(s). I’m all for that.
- The Neomorph. Good god, these things were gnarly. These proto-aliens, which are sort of precursor to the Xenomorph we all know and love, are created when spores from fungus-like pods in the corrupted biosphere of the Engineers’ planet enter a human host. They gestate quickly and burst out of their host pretty much anywhere that’s convenient. In the film we see one tear it’s way out out of a man’s back and another come out of a victim’s mouth. The birthing sequence is far worse than the traditional chest-burster, as the neomorph is born in a pink amniotic sack that looks a lot like a massive length of intestine. It’s gross in the best possible way. The adult Neomorph is even better, with its sickly white skin, weird clicking and chirping noises, and a bulbous head that seems to lack a mouth until the thing decides to literally chew someone’s head off. The Neomorphs are scary in the way the original Xenomorph was. They’re weird, completely alien, and just kind of awful to look at (in a good way).
- Some of the crew: Certain members of the crew were great. For starters, Danny McBride’s Tennessee was a very pleasant surprise. McBride showed a range with his acting that, frankly, I didn’t think he possessed. I would very much like to see him do more dramatic roles. Katherine Waterson’s Daniels is also very good. At first blush, you might think she’s simply a Ripley clone, but she isn’t. There’s a depth to her character that Ripley lacked in Alien (though she gained it in Aliens). Her motivation is different from Ripley’s as well, and it goes beyond simple survival. Finally, Michael Fassbender in his dual role as the android Walter and David, the older version of the same android, is probably the best performance in the film. Fassbender’s ability to play them in a way that makes them feel like completely different individuals, down to their unique accents and physical affectations, is superb.
- Disturbing. I wouldn’t say Alien: Covenant captures the horror of the original Alien, but it is definitely disturbing in a way that’ll make you squirm in your seat. A lot of this hinges on David’s ghoulish experimentation on the fauna of the engineer’s planet and, horrifically, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. His laboratory in the dead engineer city, festooned with his ghoulish anatomical drawings of his many experiments with the black goo, is downright nightmarish. As far as monsters, the Neomorphs were the stars of the film, and they definitely upped the creepy factor in a major way.
- Brutal: The gore in this one is pretty intense, but it’s not cheesy or over-the-top in my opinion. It’s used primarily to demonstrate just how fucking crazy dangerous the Neomorphs and Xenomorphs are. In past films, a lot of the Xenomorph kills happen off-screen, but here you get to see what one motivated parasitic monstrosity can do to a human body, and it ain’t pretty . . . but it is kind of cool.
Things I Didn’t Like:
- The Xenomorph. Yep, I’m sad to say that the classic Xenomorph is old news, and when it finally shows up in this film, I was pretty underwhelmed. The CGI is superb, as I’ve said, but I had a real problem seeing the old Xeno walking around in broad daylight. It worked so well in Alien because you didn’t see it. It was the shadowy monster in the dark that you glimpsed but never saw completely. Despite the excellent CGI that allowed the Xeno to move in ways that were strange and unnatural (like going from bipedal to quadrupedal smoothly), not to mention doing justice to its bizarre anatomy, it, honestly, wasn’t scary. The Neomorphs, which are frighteningly original, simply outclassed the Xeno in this one. That’s not a good thing for a movie with “Alien” in the title.
- Sped-up Xenomorph lifecycle. Yep, they went ahead and monkeyed with the classic Xeno’s lifecycle, speeding it up and removing the worm-like embryo stage. Now it takes, like thirty seconds for the little monster to gestate and it emerges fully-formed but in miniature. Oh, and the Xeno grows to full-size in something like five minutes. Come on, Ridley, this is the kind of shit I expect from Alien vs. Predator not from you, the guy who directed the original Alien.
- The rest of the crew. All the actors did a fine job in the limited time they were on screen, but most of them had little purpose other than to be ripped to shreds by alien nasties. It was especially disappointing with Billy Crudup’s Oram and Demián Bichir’s Lope, both of which showed us tantalizing hints at interesting characters but whose talents were largely wasted. Oh, and if there was a reason James Franco is in this film for the ten seconds we seem burn alive in his hypersleep pod, it’s completely lost on me.
- Stupid, stupid decisions. Like in Prometheus, the “professional” folks (and, yes, all of them are pros in one field or another) in this film made some really head-scratchingly dumb decisions. Some of this is because the entire flight crew was composed of married couples, so a lot of the bad decisions were based on a character’s emotional attachments to his or her spouse. It’s exactly why no one in their right mind would ever compose a crew like that. You know bad decisions are going because people will not be able to think clearly and pragmatically when their loved ones are about to be torn apart by aliens. Also, some characters seem to be making bad decisions just to further the plot. For example, when David leads Captain Oram into the Xenomoprh egg chamber, Oram, who is armed at the time, by the way, blithely stares into the churning pink innards of an open egg for what seems like minutes at David’s urging. This is especially irritating because at this point in the movie Oram has figured out that David is one unhinged motherfucker, yet he still follows David’s instructions, which are basically, “Hey, stare at this egg for a long time and hold still.”
- Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Man, did she get the shit-end of the stick. When it’s revealed that David has killed Shaw, and we see her mangled corpse, on which David has performed some kind of unspeakable vivisection/experiment, it’s initially awful and disturbing. But, I felt like I did when I first saw Alien 3 and learned Hicks and Newt had been killed off-screen. I would have very much liked to have seen Shaw, surviving, Newt-like, after David destroys the Engineers. Then, she could have met up with the crew of the Covenant and relayed what had happened to the Engineers, which would have been a much more realistic way to get that information than the series of strange flashbacks that are supposed to be David’s memories. Sure, you can still kill her off at the end of the film if you must, but I think her presence would have strengthened the film.
- A little too much like Alien. The set-up is practically a carbon copy of Alien. Crew awakes from hypersleep, gets a mysterious transmission from an alien planet, go to investigate, discover derelict ship and horrible aliens, etcetera, etcetera. I know the filmmakers were trying to give folks what they want (another Alien), I just wished they could have been a little more original with how it all came together.
- Kind of unnecessary. I’ve stated this elsewhere, but the basic premise of Alien: Covenant (and Prometheus to a lesser extent) rankles me a bit, and after seeing it, I feel even more strongly that it’s a film no one really needs. Basically, I DO NOT CARE WHERE THE ALIENS COME FROM. In fact, this film, as good as it is, hurts the legacy of the first two films in the franchise in my opinion. What made Alien so effective was the unsettling unknowable, the dread mystery of the derelict spaceship and the horrific monsters in its hold. The more you pull back the curtain on something like that, the less effective it is. Like I said before, the Xenomorph in Covenant is, honestly, a little boring. I know too much about it now to really be scared of it. I’m all for more Alien films, but I would have preferred Ridley make sequels that furthered the stories of his characters rather than, well, potentially ruining the legacy of what may be his greatest film.
So, in summation, Alien: Covenant is a good movie with some effectively disturbing scenes and one terrifyingly original monster that, unfortunately, we’ll probably never see again. In the pantheon of Alien films it ranks third for me, after Alien and Aliens. Admittedly, some of my critiques of the film are based on what I want out of an Alien movie, and I know there are folks who absolutely want to know more about the Engineers and the origins of one of Hollywood’s most famous beasties. So, as with any review, this is one man’s opinion and should all be taken with a grain of salt.
What’s your take on Alien: Covenant? Tell me about it in the comments.