I saw Alien Covenant this afternoon on an Imax screen, munching and sipping on overpriced popcorn and soda. The final tally: somewhere around $27. If I’m going to put up that much cold hard cash on a movie, it better be good.
Lo and behold: when I left the theater, I wasn’t thinking about the money at all.
I’m not going to say Covenant is a great film. It’s not. But I enjoyed it. It’s been clearly noted that Ridley Scott heard all the commotion from crying fans over no xenomorphs in Prometheus. I personally hate the idea of any creator bowing to the whims of a weeping fan base (with the possible exception of George Lucas), but apparently he took the criticism to heart and decided to nuke Prometheus’ whole Engineer mystery thing. Literally.
It’s the only way to be sure.
But at least he doubled down on the best thing from Prometheus: David. As I noted in my review of Prometheus, David is the glue that holds everything together. And I for one am grateful for that. Sure, there’s aliens galore in Covenant, but Scott’s fascination remains with the duplicitous David and his diabolical agenda. In the end, the xenomorphs may be antagonists, but they’re not evil. They simply respond to their instinctive nature to kill, eat, and reproduce. Anything living is just a means to continue that existence. And let’s face it: seeing xenomorphs kill humans isn’t exactly a new thing. But David?
Now the series has a real villain.
So when we last saw David, his decapitated head was being placed in a duffel bag by the kindhearted, single-minded Elizabeth Shaw. Expanded trailers have shown her repairing David (footage not found in the film) and going into cryosleep. A lot of questions have been raised about her fate. I won’t spoil the revelation.
But hey, let’s not get ahead of myself. We have expendable crew members to discuss, after all. They’re all aboard the Covenant, a ship loaded with sleeping humans and frozen embryos on the way to colonize a hospitable planet. Also on board is Walter, a synthetic duplicate of David sans the whole insane in the membrane thing. Walter’s model has been toned down to behave more robotic, because David gave humans the creeps. I wonder why.
The crew of expendable humans are awakened by an energy surge that knocks some of the ship’s systems off line and causes some malfunctions, including the captain (James Franco) burning alive in his cryo-pod. I found that part rather hilarious, because I consider Franco to be one of the most overrated, annoying popular actors alive. It should be a new trend for annoying popular actors to die immediately at the start of every horror/sci-fi/action film.
So the captain’s death leaves a rather timid and touchy second mate (Billy Cruddup) in charge. And the crew is rather shaky after the pod incident, so going back to cryosleep isn’t exactly attractive to them. So when the ship picks up a strange signal that indicates a human presence that far out in space, they are inclined to investigate. And even better, it’s originating from a planet that somehow slipped their scanners when searching for a hospitable planet. The newly discovered globe appears an even better place to start their colonization efforts. All in favor of going in for a closer look?
Everyone but the Daniels, the ex-captain’s wife, who fills the role of the short-haired heroine in this chapter of the franchise. She has reservations, but the newly appointed captain doesn’t want to listen. So off they go, to that realm of human idiocy that these films seem rely on. The air’s breathable? No need for suits, then. After all, there won’t be any harmful microbes spawning from the fauna, right? And hey—no need to stick together, either. Better to split up, because it’s not like anything will attack us on this new-discovered, never-explored habitat…right? And if we’re actually being attacked? Best time to split up. Because humans.
So yeah, dock points for lazy writing in that regard. The rest of the stupid actions I can overlook because they occurred in moments of serious panic. When you see a creature explode from your friend’s back or throat, rational thought might just take a back seat to the ol’ fight-or-flight adrenaline rush. And those moments of gore and subsequent terror really dial up the notch in the film. The neomorph creature is decidedly creepy, particularly when on the move. But close-up shots reveal the CGI, which isn’t anything to brag about. But the lightning-quick attacks are definitely unnerving. People die in quick succession, and the only reason why more don’t is the fortunate arrival of a cloaked stranger.
Who happens to be David. Thanks goodness, right? Right.
All of the above you pretty much got from the trailers, but once David enters the scene I have to be careful not to spoil things for those who haven’t seen the film. There’s layers of genius and madness going on with David, who has taken over an Engineer colony by dropping the black goo payload from the ship he and Shaw borrowed in Prometheus. (Not a real spoiler, the extended trailer shows this) The scene that follows is pretty grim, as is the complete disregard David has for a species that may have created those who created him. It’s clear at this point that David is a megalomaniac, a god in his own mind with none above him. He carries a bitter grudge against his makers, one that carries over to the Engineer race.
The scenes featuring Walter and David are weird in a good way, with David playing chess while Walter plays checkers, so to speak. Walter is supposed to be an upgraded android, but it’s clear he’s no match for David’s intellect because of the limitations his creators have programmed, restrictions David doesn’t have. Fassbender again does a fantastic job in dual roles, creating two entirely different personas.
There are revelations concerning Shaw that I won’t comment on. Nope. Can’t do it. Then a few more stupid human choices to get your favorite character into the film. Yeah, the big, bad xenomorph.
Let’s talk about CGI for a moment. Yeah, I understand the desire not to have a dude in a suit. But there’s something about the incredible design for the alien, the three-dimensional, fully weighted, slavering glory of the thing that unsurprisingly just couldn’t translate completely in CGI. There was something missing, and despite some money shots the effects sucked the real scare out of the creature.
Which is a shame, because that moment was supposed to be big.
So despite the alien onslaught, the most terrifying thing in the movie is David. Many will lament this move, but I think it’s a great thing. There’s only so many times I can watch a movie centered around aliens killing a group of humans. Bringing in David as a synthetic devil in this underworld raises the stakes, pitting the protagonists against something much more devious than the instinctive killing machines. There is a moment in the film that completely reveals him to be evil in every since of the word, a soulless, corrupt being as focused as any xenomorph in the annihilation of human life.
He’s the villain the franchise deserves.
Bottom line: Covenant has enough going to be considered a worthy entry, but it certainly isn’t a perfect film. Still, Fassbender carries this film and every moment featuring David is riveting. Three and a half out of five stars.
When Bard Constantine isn’t consumed by pop culture, he writes gritty futures and far-flung fantasy. See more at bardwritesbooks.com