The Alien franchise was placed firmly back on track with Ridley Scott’s return to the director’s chair in 2012’s Prometheus. While nowhere near the genius of his iconic original film, the prequel managed to right most of the wrongs of the previous entries – David Fincher’s debut feature Alien 3 couldn’t overcome frustrating story decisions and an interfering studio, while French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s follow-up Alien: Resurrection struggled with a bizarre change of tone that was in stark contrast to the dark brilliance that had come before. With Scott back in charge, the patient and intelligent Prometheus felt like a natural continuation of the universe he had first helped create, setting the scene for an action packed sequel eager to bridge the gap between the later prequels and the series’ early beginnings.
And for a few moments Alien: Covenant manages to live up anything the iconic series had offered previously. In a mid-film eruption of terror more akin to the traumatic horror of the infamous attack scene from The Hills Have Eyes Scott offers up a barrage of shocking images – infected crewmembers scrambling for safety, a gory update of the original movie’s chestburster alien, a violent explosion that leaves the scattered crew in disarray. It all merges into an unrelenting intensity that expertly blends the horror of Scott’s 1979 classic with the action assault of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens, delivering the greatness all fans had been hoping for since the director first turned his attention back to the franchise.
Unfortunately it’s a greatness the rest of the movie fails to maintain. Having finally accepted the challenge of evolving the Alien story into the world building mythology it always deserved to be, Scott has gone to painstaking lengths to craft an elaborate legend that expands the universe while also providing thought provoking ideas and themes, and on that front he’s clearly succeeded. There is an overriding vision in Prometheus and Covenant that was missing from the third and fourth instalments, and Scott has a blast weaving grand philosophising and literary references in amongst his splashes of blood and violence. It’s all knowingly pretentious, hilariously so in a later scene centred around flute playing that shamelessly walks the line into outright pompousness, but it still somehow works. It’s surprisingly only when Scott veers closer to crowd pleasing that he tends to lose his way here.
The movie starts well though. The hilariously brief cameo from James Franco notwithstanding, the core crew is introduced quickly and sufficiently, most notably Billy Crudup as the ship’s new and reluctant captain, Katherine Waterston as Danny, the ship’s resident terraforming expert and clear successor to Ripley, and Danny McBride as chief pilot Tennessee. Most interestingly of all is the appearance of Michael Fassbender as Walter, an updated prototype of the android David from Prometheus. While on their way to colonize a remote paradise the crew decide to investigate a disjointed radio transmission from an unknown planet nearby, a horrific decision given the importance of their cargo. The team split into groups, one to explore the new habitat and another to wait helplessly on the ship above. After the crew on the ground are attacked they encounter a familiar face – Fassbender’s evil android David, one of the few returning characters from the previous film.
For a large portion of its running time the movie flies by, riding on a wave of underlying tension and uncertainty until it hits a clear wall the moment we’re reintroduced to David. As good as the character was in Prometheus, here he stalls the film completely. Fassbender is again excellent, but saddled with overbearing dialogue that immediately clogs the momentum. David is the plot device Scott pivots the entire franchise on and as good as Fassbender is, it can’t help but feel a shame that this is the character the director and writers have chosen to centre the prequels around. He’s the perfect antagonist to sit amongst all the allusions to God and the devil, just not one an audience can connect with as the new centrepiece. As a result the human characters all feel entirely disposable, drifting in and out of each scene until dispensed with as grotesquely as possible.
In elaborating on the mythology Scott’s clearly forgotten part of what made the series so great in the first place. The aliens themselves were phenomenal creations, bloodthirsty terrors that stamped themselves into pop culture in a way we haven’t seen since Jaws, but they were never the main character in the story. No-one can match the incomparable Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, but after the incredible lengths her character goes to simply to survive in Prometheus, it was reasonable to hope that that Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw would carry on here, making it all the more frustrating seeing her short changed so harshly. She may never have been able to deepen the story as much as the robot David, but she was a being to empathize with, to follow the way we followed Ripley. Dismissing her from the story so nonchalantly isn’t on the same level as the way Newt, Hicks and Bishop were killed in the opening moments of Alien 3, but it leaves an annoyingly bitter aftertaste all the same.
It’s part of what makes it a disappointment compared to Prometheus. The expectation for that film was simply a suitable re-entry point, one that respected the legacy without veering too far from the established template, and on that front it was an undeniable success. With the universe reopened, the action ramped up and a genuinely terrifying trailer, Alien: Covenant had all the makings of a hit to rival Scott’s best. Unfortunately a few moments of excellence can’t carry a dull third act, one that drowns in a an all too obvious twist and a cardinal sin on Scott’s behalf – where his original alien was expertly hidden in shadows and darkness to chilling effect, here he opts to display his creature in full view for a limp final chase. The lingering thought afterwards is that maybe Scott seriously underestimated the impact of Weaver’s Ripley on the original films. Audiences came for the nightmares torn from the vivid imagination of H.R. Giger. They stayed for the iconic action heroine.