Film Review: ‘Alien: Covenant’ Forgets the Fear

Alien: Covenant

More often than not, advancements in cinematic technology are a very good thing. CGI can show us literally anything, with the only limits being those of the imagination of the people crafting the film. The art form has an openness that almost boggles the mind. Sometimes, however, the old, simpler, way is best. In the case of “Alien: Covenant,” an already flawed film is only further weakened by an over reliance on CGI. Whereas the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott‘s classic “Alien” or the multiple ones in James Cameron‘s “Aliens” were utterly terrifying, now we just shrug. Multiple sequences in this prequel/sequel are dulled down because the scare factor is just not there.

“Alien: Covenant” unfortunately takes all of the things wrong with “Prometheus” and doubles down on them. It only pays lip service to “Alien” or “Aliens,” which may disappoint core fans. Underplotted and self-serious, the film offers very little in the way of being a satisfying prequel to “Alien.” It’s more successful as a sequel to “Prometheus,” but were the questions left unanswered there really what the priority should have been? At its best, the movie offers some small scale entertainment, but a number of crucial mistakes prevent it from working in any notable way. Scott again has failed to recapture the magic that he initially brought to this franchise.

If there’s one overt failing here, it’s that you never feel the fear that should be inherent in the situation. As previously mentioned, part of it is that the CGI creatures aren’t frightening. Another part is that so much of the gore is telegraphed so far in advance that there’s no tension. If you’ve seen the various trailers, you’ve seen the best parts, and they actually work better in that limited context. This is one of 2017’s more disappointing blockbusters so far.

In terms of the plot, this one picks up a decade after “Prometheus.” A colony vessel called Covenant is headed to a planet with the hopes of settling there. As such, the crew is mostly made up of couples. Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is married to Captain Branson (James Franco), while second-in-command Oram (Billy Crudup) is married to Karine (Carmen Ejogo). This extends beyond the most essential crew members, like with pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Faris (Amy Seimetz). They’re all in cryogenic stasis, along with thousands of sleeping colonists, while android Walter (Michael Fassbender) takes care of the ship.

Midway through the journey, a problem wakes up the crew, costing the life of Branson in the process. When the problem is fixed, a distress call is received from a nearby planet, one that seems closer to Earth than any in the galaxy. Now in charge, Oram decides to re-route the journey, despite Daniels’ objections. Initially, the planet appears perfect, though when one member of the crew steps on some wildlife, things go downhill. The surface contains monsters, both old and new, and the crew of the Covenant is in grave danger.

Once the body count starts, two very notable things happen. One is that various types of Xenomorphs are released into the equation, whittling down the crew with surgical precision. The other thing is that the planet also contains David (Fassbender), who landed there after the events of the last film. You’ll see what that means in terms of the overall plot, but there’s a lot of self-important gibberish padding the running time. Scott and company can’t figure out if they want to commit to exploring man’s place in the world or taking horror tropes and putting them in space. By trying to do both, they effectively do neither.

A whole host of talented actors and actresses are wasted here. With the exception of Michael Fassbender doing double duty, “Alien: Covenant” just makes every cast member as stock as possible. Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride are solid enough in underwritten roles, but that’s simply those actors being good enough to rise above the material. Fassbender, getting multiple scenes to act against himself, clearly relishes this opportunity. We might not be fully enjoying ourselves, but he certainly is.

Among the supporting players, the aforementioned Billy Crudup, Carmen Ejogo and Amy Seimetz are underutilized, while James Franco barely qualifies as putting in a cameo. The rest of the cast includes Demián Bichir, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Callie Hernandez, Benjamin Rigby, Jussie Smollett and more. There are a few other cameos, but they don’t do a whole hell of a lot to help things.

Ridley Scott got back on track a few years ago with “The Martian” after a long time in the woods. This is a definite step back. Visually, it’s an excellent looking film, there’s no denying that. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has a steady hand that never obscures the sometimes grotesque images. It’s not Wolski’s fault that CGI xenomorphs don’t hold the same capacity to scare. Likewise, composer Jed Kurzel does strong work on his own. The aesthetics are there, but Scott doesn’t have a story worth telling here. The logic gaps and plot holes in “Prometheus” weren’t apparent until after the fact. Here in “Alien: Covenant,” they are bothersome right from the jump.

The main problem is that the script can’t make the grade. The screenwriting quartet of Michael Green, Dante Harper, John Logan and Jack Pagan have a mishmash of ideas that don’t gel. Whether it’s the reasons for why David does what he does, how they tie in the previous movie to this one, or the abandoned threads of faith or spousal grief, it just doesn’t work. The set up is fine and some of the base thrills work, but between the mediocre writing and the lack of scares, you’re likely to be let down.

“Alien: Covenant” is not an overtly bad film. It’s just flawed and wastes its promise, much like with “Prometheus.” Another sequel could work, but this series is quickly going off in a direction that doesn’t really satisfy.

“Alien: Covenant” is distributed by 20th Century Fox and opens in theaters on May 19.

GRADE: (★★½)