It’s hard to follow up a classic. When you’re following up two classics like Alien and Aliens, it becomes immensely harder. While subsequent films in the series have not met the extremely high benchmark those two films set, there have been intriguing elements at least in each of the canonical films in this franchise (and no, I’m not counting the AVP films). That extended to 2012’s Prometheus, which saw original Alien director Ridley Scott return to the franchise for the first time. The final product was a gorgeous mess, but the tone the film wanted to set in its exploration of the origin of the Xenomorph was at least interesting.
To me, at least.
Prometheus wasn’t exactly a bomb, but it also didn’t go well for audiences who wanted something more in the vein of Alien. For the follow-up, Scott seems determined to have it both ways. Alien: Covenant serves as both a sequel to Prometheus and more direct prequel to Alien, and while that may seem obvious from its placement in the timeline between those two films, it ends up being a film that wants to incorporate the tones of both films at various points. The result is a film that’s great at times, and incredibly frustrating at others.
The crew of the USCSS Covenant is in the midst of a journey to take 2,000 colonists to a new planet when an incident wakes up the crew, killing the captain in the process. In trying to discover what caused the incident, the crew discovers a distress beacon coming from a nearby planet that more closely resembles Earth. The crew, under the guidance of new captain Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate the planet before reentering hibernation, to the disapproval of his new second-in-command (and the original captain’s wife), Daniels (Katherine Waterston). When the crew touches down on the planet, they discover an Earth-like environment without any creatures – until they come across both the aliens and the lone survivor of the Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender), a forbearer of the Covenant‘s own android, Walter (Fassbender). According to David, he’s been stuck on the planet since crashing there a decade ago.
More than any film since the original, Alien: Covenant embraces the horror aspect of the series. While it’s hard to top the original’s use of the Xenomorph to create tension, there’s a gruesome quality to the attacks here that outdoes anything that’s been done in this series before. For fans of the series, the brutal parts of the film are likely what they wanted from an Alien prequel in lieu of what Prometheus did. In that regard, they should be satisfied.
Additionally, Covenant does a better job than Prometheus of establishing human characters for the audience to care about on some level. Daniels may not get a backstory, but seeing how she’s processing everything in the aftermath of her husband’s death provides her with a motivation that feels more real than what Prometheus tried to do with the Shaw character. Oram is also intriguing, in that he’s shown as a man of faith trying to prove himself. He’s also incredibly foolish, and gets what’s coming to him (that’s not a spoiler). The ship’s captain, Tennessee (Danny McBride), also has some memorable moments, McBride providing some dark laughs at times.
But if Ellen Ripley was the star of Alien and its sequels, the star of this line of prequels is now unquestionably Michael Fassbender’s David (and, to a slightly lesser degree here, Walter). There was a level of darkness to David in Prometheus, but in Covenant, it’s more clearly defined as evil. David considers himself to be a god, essentially, responsible for creating life – that life being the aliens of the film. Watching David and Walter interact is creepy and fascinating, and not just because of modern technology that’s able to show Fassbender interacting with himself on screen. David is also how the film brings in the theoretical questioning of Prometheus into the film, from a chilly prologue through extended conversations he has with Walter and others on the planet.
Which brings me to where Covenant falls short. The first, and less egregious, way is how the film feels like an attempt to rush through what had been discussed around Prometheus‘ release for a trilogy of prequel films. Current discussions have Ridley Scott planning one or more sequels to this film, which feels like a rush to get through the plans for the original Prometheus sequels to get to the Alien elements more quickly.
The second, and more troubling, problem with the film is its final act. Say what you want about some of the films in this series, but “predictable” isn’t the word I’d use to describe the endings of any of the previous films in this series. Not entirely, at least. But the film’s final moments are seen coming 20-30 minutes out, and it feels like an explicit setup for a sequel. That’s not something I’d argue about any of the previous films, with the possible exception of Prometheus, and even then a possible sequel didn’t feel as obvious there as it does here.
And predictability isn’t a new concept to the series – in this film, like in every other film in the series, there are human characters who do stupid things and have things happen to them. That’s a big part of the whole series. There’s usually at least one human who has their shit together and can make logical decisions – that’s here too. But that predictability extending to the finale, where it’s clearly hanging over everything? That’s new, and unfortunate.
So, is Alien: Covenant worth seeing? For fans of the franchise, it does offer something more in line with what they might expect than Prometheus did, and for the most part, it’s enjoyable on that level. For audiences looking for something that will reinvent the wheel, they’ll be sorely disappointed. But I’m still intrigued to see where this series goes from here, because – absent this bombing in a huge way – they’ll be back.