However many entries within the expansive saga of the Alien universe the 79-year-old Ridley Scott winds up making, Alien: Covenant will no doubt signal a most essential turning point in the series’ canon. Having been an enormous fan of the flawed but engrossing Prometheus, I was elated by the news of Scott’s plans to continue down his existential rabbit hole complete with the nefarious “engineers”, Weyland Industries, the all-consuming questions of life and creationism, and to chart the paths of our hero Elizabeth Shaw and her synthetic android sidekick David along their renewed journey to finding those answers. So I was a bit angry to learn early in the film’s development that Shaw (and her portrayer, Noomi Rapace) would not be returning to the follow-up, and that the new film would be all but detaching itself from the core events of Prometheus with a new set of characters and locations and mysterious connective ties to its predecessor. She was this franchise’s Ellen Ripley, and this series of films were to be her story; how could it possibly continue on without her? Or so I so wrongly bemoaned.
As the opening scene of Covenant makes abundantly clear, a series this grand in scope that asks questions as profound as to what it means to create life could never be about one feeble mortal being. But a rogue synthetic android obsessed with the very nature of his own existence and that of his makers, one who simultaneously detests the lifeforms responsible for creating him while also unwaveringly devoted to the idea of creating life of his own, and one who’s cold, calculated and lacking in any semblance of humanity enough to see these exponential ideas to their next phase? That’s a character worth centering a franchise such as this around, and that’s what Covenant does to itself and future entries in the series, but also retroactively Prometheus. It turns out we were only secondarily following the story of Elizabeth Shaw and her team’s mission to discovering the origins of Earth; what really mattered were the underpinnings of one immortal being’s quest to understanding the worthlessness of humankind along his path to creating life worthy of his own unrelenting standards. It’s in that sense that Covenant picks up right where Prometheus left off.
And on the execution of those aforementioned ideas, some really ambitious narrative swings and particularly the character of David as played amazingly by Michael Fassbender, Covenant is a tour de force. It’s the rest of the film around those things that occasionally lacks. Similarly to its predecessor, outside of maybe three or four characters (everyone not played by Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride, essentially), the entire cast mainly exists to function as useful idiots there only to purge exposition and drive the plot forward through strings of awful decision-making. Oh and also to become gruesomely murdered by the various iterations of the iconic xenomorph creature. As has been justifiably championed by the critical community, Covenant returns the saga back to its original 1979 Alien horror roots, and to mostly terrifying effect the film is not shy about playing up the suspense and subsequent savagery of the abundance of xenomorph-related deaths. There are so, so many.
The action-horror elements are acceptable but more-or-less unremarkable and unimaginative. The occasionally flimsy CGI attributed to the xenomorphs doesn’t help those scenes feel any less plain. I’d argue from a visionary and technical level Covenant takes a noticeable step back from Prometheus, for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me yet. That being said, from a narrative perspective coupled with the sheer complexity of its own ideas, Covenant takes a definitive step forward above any film in the Alien saga to date. Watching as it fades to black on a cliffhanger more terrifying than anything else in the entire film preceding it with the series’ most irreversible act to date, my anticipation for Ridley Scott’s next chapter only surmounts. This time I’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
Rating: **** out of five
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Damien Bichir
Runtime: 122 minutes