The xenomorphs are back.
After their introduction in Ridley Scott’s sophisticated and inventive sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien in 1979, the terrifying creatures have been returning to cineplexes off-and-on again for close to 40 years. Alien: Covenant is the eighth film in the series if you include those shameless Alien vs. Predator films, and Ridley Scott has devised a way to inject some life into the premise once again; although, in this film it is evident more than ever that this franchise is nearly out of gas.
Alien: Covenant is the sequel to 2012’s Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s engaging, yet frustrating prequel to Alien, in which he returned to the series for the first time since the its inaugural movie. Prometheus was a very different film than any Alien film before it in that it posited lofty philosophical questions related to the purpose and origin of human life, and this led to both fascinating and disappointing new territory.
Prometheus was co-written by LOST’s Damon Lindelof, and very much like that show, the flick featured a host of captivating mysteries, but failed to divulge many of the secrets that were promised. The film was pitched in its marketing and setup as an origin story of human life set in the Alien universe, but resulted in a bait-and-switch that instead served to fill in backstory elements that connect the Alien franchise. Worse, the xenomorphs got hardly any screen time.
Perhaps in response to fan frustration, Alien: Covenant was marketed as a much more conventional Alien film akin to the series’ first outing, hence the title featuring the word “Alien” again. The trailers made the film appear to be revisiting some familiar territory, and this gave me a lukewarm anticipation. Seeing the movie, I was pleased to find this film expounded on some of the unanswered questions left behind in Prometheus, and it delivered a sophisticated approach that felt closer to the original movie than any sequel preceding it.
The latest Alien film evokes many familiar elements of the original film that were absent in Prometheus, such as old school technology (including a return from Weyland computer system “Mother”), close-quarters scares, and dangers that keep returning just when you thought they were gone for good. Covenant also features a stronger use of practical visual effects than the heavy reliance of CGI that was seen in Prometheus.
Covenant feels so much like a conventional Alien film that it repeats entire plot beats and covers much of the same ground we’ve seen before. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshow describes Covenant as “a greatest-hits compilation of the other Alien films’ freaky moments.” This is both a strength and weakness, returning the series to paths that made it great, although it becomes apparent that many of these elements lose potency in repetition.
Where Covenant excels is when it continues the storylines beginning in Prometheus that explain the origins of the space jockey and the xenomorphs. To avoid giving too much away, I’ll just say that it delivers some satisfying backstory that doesn’t frustrate with too much confusion. It doesn’t complete the arc connecting it to Alien, but that is because Scott hopes to do more sequels. Covenant’s greatest offering is a return from Michael Fassbender’s droid. The actor is given the chance to expand on his terrific character from Prometheus, and this time his job is even more difficult, as he plays more than one droid of the same model, but with subtle variations.
Alien: Covenant is successful in delivering more of the satisfying backstory and creature scares it sought to distribute in Prometheus, albeit without any of the false advertising in its premise. It is a much more straightforward and fitting Alien film, and nearly as satisfying as a film like that can be after seven sequels.
Early box office reports are saying that Alien: Covenant is seeing underwhelming returns, and though Ridley Scott is said to be developing as much as two more sequels to this series, perhaps the marketing that positioned this film as more traditional will put a temporary halt to the franchise. Did the Alien-derivative, Life from March rob some of the anticipation for Covenant? Perhaps this may be the end of the line for Alien for a while, and if so, this is a fine film to cap off the franchise.