20 May 2017

Alien: Covenant review

To say that Ridley Scott's Prometheus didn't receive the warmest of receptions upon release would be something of an understatement - to this day it's considered to be a punchline amongst franchise fans, a reputation that has clearly influenced the development of its quasi-sequel to a large degree. Alien: Covenant is a film that feels less like a cohesive whole and more like a feature length piece of franchise course correction, and how much that works for you is likely going to depend on how much you like Prometheus - but as a newfound fan of Prometheus following a recent rewatch, I can't help but be conflicted by a film that while well-intentioned, seems all too happy to throw its predecessor under the proverbial bus.

Set a handful of years after the events of Prometheus, Alien: Covenant follows the crew of the colony ship Covenant as they travel through space on their way to a planet they are tasked with colonising. Awoken early from hypersleep by a neutrino shockwave that damages the ship, they stumble upon a nearby planet that would be even more suitable for colonisation than their current destination, and send a group down to investigate. It should probably go without saying that things go badly for the crew.

It's part Alien re-imagining, part Prometheus sequel and part Prometheus apology, and the result is a film that's quite obviously an unfortunate compromise between director Ridley Scott's original vision for the series and a need to meet fan expectations/demands following the backlash Prometheus underwent. By leaning heavily into the sci-fi/horror vibe of Alien, both the opening and the finale are most likely going to appease long term fans of the franchise - but they surround a middle section that goes out of its way to close the book on most of the story threads that Prometheus left hanging and reshape them into something new, resulting in something that feels completely unnatural as a piece of storytelling, regardless of its individual qualities.

And that's a weight that hangs over the film throughout. Far too much of Alien: Covenant feels like director Ridley Scott simply going through the motions in order to get where he wants to be, and while the more Alien-esque sections of the film are never anything less than passable, it's pretty obvious that Scott is only really invested in the parts of the film that allow him to continue the story of Prometheus - and in fairness, this is where Alien: Covenant is at its best. I don't want to get too far into spoiler-territory here, but Alien: Covenant's macabre, nihilistic, thought-provoking middle section is the only time it really comes alive, bold and singular in all the ways the film surrounding it isn't, further expanding on the themes of its predecessor through its continuation of David's story as he transforms from creation to creator. It's genuinely fascinating stuff, and I don't think it's a coincidence that it just so happens to be the part of the film most closely resembling Prometheus.

But it's also almost entirely out-of-place both tonally and stylistically when contrasted with the rest of Alien: Covenant, again speaking to the compromised nature of the film as a whole, a problem that would be a lot less problematic if it wasn't for the simple fact that large swathes of Alien: Covenant just don't work. There is but one action scene in Alien: Covenant that is genuinely well-made, a sequence that sees the shit hitting the fan for the first time when the crew of the Covenant land on the newly discovered planet - everything else feels trite, neutered by Scott's clear lack of interest in the material. The finale in particular falls victim to this, an entirely tension-free affair that, if it didn't lead into one of the most deliciously dark and twisted endings I've ever seen in a big budget movie, would be nothing more than a waste of time.

All of which adds up to make Alien: Covenant the most mixed of mixed bags, a film that veers wildly between good, bad and everything in-between throughout. And yet when all is said and done, I can't quite seem to get it out of my head in spite of its obvious, undeniable shortcomings - an entirely natural reaction to a film that, like Prometheus, presents big ideas in ways that even charitably can only be described as imperfect. Whether or not those ideas end up being worth that imperfection is going to depend on you - but again, much like Prometheus, I can't help but think that time will kind to Alien: Covenant in a way that fans probably won't be.

3 stars

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