As a film-going society, we no longer seem content to abide in mystery. For 33 years, we were happy to watch Alien without any knowledge of the xenomorph’s pedigree. Then Ridley Scott returned to one of his magnum opuses with Prometheus and, apart from everything else, severely muddied the waters. Five years on, Scott says that he has several ideas (ranging somewhere between “countless” and “two”) to further the Alien brand, and Alien: Covenant is where he’s landed first.
In 2104, the colony ship Covenant intercepts a signal from a seemingly inhabitable planet seven years closer than their intended destination. Captain Oram (Billy Crudup, Jackie) thinks that it might be worth alighting there, so he takes an expedition team, including First Mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) on a survey mission. Unfortunately for the crew of the Covenant, the planet is not as hospitable as they have been lead to believe.
Alien: Covenant has the appearance of an ensemble film, and in Waterston it has a poster woman who looks the part of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, but this is really a one character show: as David in Prometheus, Fassbender was the most arresting part of the film; as Walter, he is essentially the only character with any depth. It becomes increasingly clear that Scott has fashioned Fassbender into the Alien franchise’s new mascot and, for his own part, Fassbender lends an intriguing blend of inhumanity and insecurity to his role. If the original Alien films were about Ripley against an uncaring universe, these new ones are about a variety of synthetic Fassbenders finding their respective places in an organic yet openly cruel one. Scott’s thesis is slowly becoming clear, and it’s both confidence-instilling and slightly terrifying that he has essentially become the Alien ideas man, his ascension to auteurism gradual but somehow inevitable.
The script, from John Logan (TV’s Penny Dreadful) and Dante Harper, is perhaps slightly overstuffed. The film itself gives us some things that we want, excellent Walter character work, and glimpses of a lost civilisation, but dispels mysteries that we were probably happy to maintain. The lack of characterisation for everyone else isn’t so bad, but audiences keen for a suspenseful slow burn mixed with excessive bloodshed may not be pleased; most disasters that occur onscreen are the result of human foolishness rather than monstrous malevolence, and there are few set pieces. What we get works, but it would be hard to confuse this for an action film.
Alien: Covenant is a film more about ideas than it is action; the creatures on display are an uncomfortable medium between Prometheus and the original Alien movies, and there are glimpses of structures that extrapolate on the stronger elements of Prometheus, but we are tourists in darkened corridors rather than ever getting a feeling for the planet that Scott has fashioned out of rural New South Wales and New Zealand. Production design is the marriage of modern aesthetics with the late seventies tech of Alien (this trilogy focuses on space travellers with champagne tastes rather than the blue collar nature of the Nostromo); it’s all great, and one of the few areas of Alien: Covenant where actual expository restraint has been shown.
In his 79th year, Ridley Scott is still in command of an incredibly varied career; after the nothing-for-anybody Exodus: Gods & Kings and the crowd-pleasing The Martian, he’s come to a film that’s likely to upset multiple audiences in multiple ways, while delighting an incredibly niche crowd. Alien Covenant is often intriguing, but it feels more like an explanation engine than a movie. At the end you’ll know an awful lot about xenomorphs, but these are beasts famed more for instinct than reason; Scott has brought a little too much of the latter and not enough of the former to what is ultimately an intriguing but clinical exercise.
Alien: Covenant opened in Australian cinemas on May 11, 2017.
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride.