Longtime fans of the Alien franchise know by now that the terrifying, sci-fi universe that first sprang to life from the minds of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott in 1979’s Oscar-winning classic Alien is a dark and cruel one indeed. Sigourney Weaver’s now iconic Ellen Ripley and her cat are the sole survivors of the first film. Only three of the seventeen-plus characters in James Cameron’s Aliens survive till the bitter end, and Alien 3 kills off two of them during the opening credits. Simply put, staying alive in the Alien filmic universe is next to impossible, even for a total badass like Ellen Ripley.
And though Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus looked to be passing the torch to a new female heroine in the guise of Noomi Rapace’s equally badass Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, [SPOILER ALERT], Shaw doesn’t get very far with that torch in Scott’s latest prequel installment Alien: Covenant. In fact, the death toll is so high in Covenant that there is often literally no one left onscreen to root for. And in a franchise that is built around rooting for a smart, complicated female protagonist to kick some serious alien ass, that is a huge problem.
I’m not saying there aren’t some really great female characters in Covenant, but rather that they are all killed off so quickly that we hardly get to know them. And the ones we do get to know, like Katherine Waterston’s (Inherent Vice, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) beleaguered third-in-command Daniels, lack the gravitas and surly charm that made Ripley so appealing. And without someone to root for this time around, the most troubling aspect of Scott’s entire prequel series to date becomes painfully clear. The prequels aren’t told from the point of view of the humans fighting the aliens but rather from the POV of the androids – particularly Michael Fassbender’s creepy cool David – fighting so desperately to preserve them. Yes, villains as heroes have worked before, especially in sci-fi, but Scott’s prequels are so strangely wrong-headed that it’s like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey told from the POV of HAL or a Star Wars prequel trilogy focused on Darth Vader. Oh, wait, that already happened and look how well that was received by fans.
And though Covenant looks great and has some truly scary moments throughout, the plot is so convoluted and confusing that even hard core Alien geeks (like myself) will have a hard time piecing the puzzle together in spots. I Googled every obscure reference to the other films that I could and I’m still totally confused about a few things. Seriously, the story here is muddier than the primordial ooze on Covenant’s Planet 4. That said, I’ll try and break down the basics for you.
Set approximately eleven year after the events of Prometheus, Covenant opens with an android named Walter (also played by Fassbender as a later model of his original David) going about his daily chores on the deck of the USCSS Covenant. Transporting a hyper-sleeping crew of 15, 2,000 colonists and 1,400 second-generation human embryos to the distant world of Origae-6, Covenant sustains serious damage after being struck by a debilitating neutrino burst. Losing 40 colonists and the Covenant’s captain (who happens to be Daniels’ husband) during the incident, the rest of the crew is awoken from stasis by Walter and quickly set about repairing the ship. But a mysterious transmission from an uncharted planet nearby changes everything. Deciding to search for the source of the transmission, the crew, now headed by the deeply religious Oram (Jackie and 20th Century Woman’s Billy Crudup) set course for the planet, and, this being an Alien film, you can kind of guess the rest.
Written by Gladiator’s John Logan and newcomer Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen (Transcendence) and Michael Green (Logan, TV’s American Gods) Covenant feels less like an Alien film than a moderately engaging sci-fi also-ran that you might catch on late night TV in a hotel room. Scary, fun in spots but ultimately kind of empty and forgettable, Covenant is not as bad as Alien Resurrection or the bizarro Alien vs. Predator films, but this is easily Scott’s most tired, phoned-in effort in years and true Alien fans deserve better. My only hope is that Scott and company find their groove in the next Alien prequel, which is reportedly already in development. I don’t even need perfection at this point, I just want a kickass human hero that I can root for in a classically structured Alien movie, and if Scott can’t provide that, then for the love of George Lucas, hand the reigns to someone who can.
Now playing on select Air France, Thai Airways, Emirates, Delta, British Airways, Lufthansa, and American Airlines flights worldwide, Alien: Covenant is also available via steaming on Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes.