in Space, No One Can Hear the Bad Reviews
Stop me if you’ve heard this. The crew members of a spaceship make an unplanned stop at an unexplored, seemingly uninhabited world to investigate the origin of a message they intercepted. Before long, they find themselves on the wrong end of a predator-prey relationship with a gruesome, virtually indestructible alien creature.
Since Covenant counts as the sixth Alien film, audiences must by now be familiar with such a tale. Nearly forty years have passed since the gruesome extraterrestrial killing machine designed by H.R. Giger first appeared on movie screens. Directed by Ridley Scott and penned by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Alien arrived in 1979 to mostly mixed and negative reviews. Writing in New York magazine, critic David Denby had this to say: “[O]ccasionally one sees a film that uses the emotional resources of movies with such utter cynicism that one feels sickened by the medium itself. Alien...is so ‘effective’ it has practically turned me off movies altogether.” Despite such notices, the film still managed a solid return at the box office, and critical appraisal of the work has shifted dramatically over time. Today, Alien receives high marks from reviewers, even from many of those who initially panned it. Indeed, the horror movie masquerading as a science-fiction thriller can be found on numerous must-see lists. In addition, the original Alien has spawned a franchise that includes a legion of books, comics, video games, a pair of crossover films that tie in to the Predator series, as well as three direct cinematic sequels: Aliens in 1986, Alien³ in 1992, and Alien: Resurrection in 1997. More recently, in 2012, Ridley Scott, having directed only the original Alien, returned to the series with a prequel called Prometheus, on the heels of which directly follows Convenant.
The main story of this film begins far from Earth, where an unexpected celestial event damages a spaceship carrying human colonists in suspended animation to a new world. The vessel’s caretaker, an artificial life-form named Walter (Michael Fassbender), rouses the crew from their imposed slumber so that they can help effect repairs. A malfunction causes the death of the captain (James Franco), leaving his devout first officer (Billy Crudup) in command. As the crew mend the ship, they detect a rogue transmission—a human being singing a song by John Denver. It comes from a nearby planet, unknown but seemingly habitable. Still more than seven years from their destination, the crew face the choice of returning to their suspended states so that they can continue their journey, or taking a chance by exploring the world from which the transmission originates. Against the advice of his sober executive officer (Katherine Waterston), the new captain decides on the latter course of action. What could possibly go wrong?
The setup for Covenant’s story closely resembles that of the original Alien. In that film, a human crew heading back to Earth while in stasis are awakened by their ship’s computer when it detects a transmission from a world in their stellar neighborhood. The policy of the company for which they work requires them to investigate, which they do. Their ill-conceived reconnaissance brings them into contact with the eponymous—and deadly—alien creature, with tremendously violent results.
Therein lies a significant problem with Covenant. In large part, it recapitulates the first film of the series. It’s not necessarily a bad story, but it’s all too familiar.
That’s not to say that Covenant doesn’t posses other elements distinct from its forebear. Prior to the spontaneous stellar flares that wound the ship, the film commences with a scene between wealthy and powerful industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and an android of his creation called David (one of the two roles played by Michael Fassbender). Their conversation takes place inside a huge, circular white room, ultramodern in style, with an outer wall of glass that looks out on an unspoiled natural landscape. The setting possesses almost no adornment, other than several very specific pieces: a Carlo Bugatti throne; a Steinway concert grand piano; Piero della Francesca’s painting, The Nativity; and Michelangelo’s statue of David—from which the android takes his name.
The interaction between Weyland and David lasts only a few minutes, but it centers on the question of the origins of existence, vis-à-vis creators and creations, with the barely hidden subtext touching on the tensions between the two—between builders and built, between artists and art, between gods and men. When Weyland tells David to play any Richard Wagner piece he chooses on the piano, the android selects “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from the opera Das Rheingold. Given that Covenant’s immediate antecedent, Prometheus, features David secretly conducting experiments in his own perverted attempt at creation, the prologue to the later film comes off as obvious. Worse than that, it plays like a desire to say something meaningful about gods and their progen, but it actually fails to do so. At best, Covenant unfolds as a pastiche of deeper fare, style without substance.
And Covenant, like Alien and its scions, does have style, beginning first and foremost with all of the Giger-inspired motifs. The production design by Chris Seagers, art direction by Ian Gracie, and set decoration by Victor J. Zolfo all contribute to one of four distinct settings: the ascetic white room in the opening scene; the interiors of the colonization ship and its auxiliary craft, by turns modern, technological, and practical; the home world of an extinct humanoid race; and of course, the fearsome and creepy aliens. There’s no question that Covenant looks good.
The cast features some fine actors, including Michael Fassbender in his dual roles as the androids David and Walter. Mr. Fassbender brings different accents to his two incarnations, and noticeably different sensibilities. He imbues Walter with a recognizable sense of purpose—to assist and safeguard the Covenant crew and colonists. His motivations for the other android are murkier, though, which seems more a function of the story than of acting or direction. David’s actions appear to have something to do with his resentment—or even hatred—of humanity, or his desire to be a creator, but none of it really tracks. A more obvious explanation may be that David has lost his sanity, but even if that somehow made sense for an android, it would deliver a simplistic and unexciting driver for the character.
Katherine Waterston also gives a noteworthy performance as Daniels, a terraforming specialist and the ship’s second officer. She benefits from her character having more to do than most of the others, including mourning the loss of her husband, stepping up as the crew’s new exec, and fighting for her life against a malevolent alien. Ms. Waterston succeeds in creating a believable character with passion, intellect, and grit.
Most of the rest of the cast do not distinguish themselves much. Billy Crudup brings an earnestness to the first officer who must take over for the dead captain, but there’s little to differentiate him, even given his religious views and a traumatic loss he suffers. Demián Bichir always turns in a fine performance, but Covenant utilizes his character as little more than fodder for the brutality that suffuses the film. Danny McBride, typically cast in comedic parts, does a capable job in a straight role as the ship’s pilot.
The lack of character development can readily be traced back to the screenplay, but neither does the direction do the cast any favors. The camera and the editing focus on Mr. Fassbender in his twin roles, and on Ms. Waterston as Daniels, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in other types of movies. Films have stars, of course, but in a work like Covenant, leaving secondary characters poorly drawn makes them obvious targets for the violent antagonists. What David Denby noted about Alien applies here: there is an ugly cynicism to including characters for the sole purpose of watching them die.
Like Prometheus before it, Covenant clearly wants to contribute not just new layers to the Alien mythos, but also meaning. In essence, the two prequels compose an origin story—or most of an origin story—for the horrifying creature of the title. But the new layers look an awful lot like the old layers, and the attempt to sow poorly plumbed depths into a horror movie comes off merely as sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The end of the film leaves some of the characters alive and heading through space to a new destination. There remains a gap of time and circumstance between this tale and the beginning of Alien, implying that another entry may follow to complete a prequel trilogy. The filmmakers should make a covenant with audiences to craft a better film than this one.
*½ (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III