Oh Ridley. You forgot what made Alien so great. It wasn’t the iconic HR Giger design, it wasn’t the special effects or complicated world-building narrative. It was two things – character and suspense. We got to know Ripley and Lambert and Kane and Ash. We cared what happened to them. We held onto our seats and sheltered behind cushions as Ripley navigated her way through the Nostromo, we cheered when she and Jonesy made their final report.
We even loved James Cameron’s Aliens where we got to see Ripley transcend her voyeuristic-male-pleasing, breathy, vulnerability to become a kick ass hero (and we forgave the fact that she had to destroy the only other powerful female to do so – “Get away from her, you bitch!”). With Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s follow on from Alien prequel Prometheus, he eschews everything that made Alien a classic and instead serves us a lukewarm rehash of seemingly every other scifi that’s been influenced by his original.
A colonist spaceship is hit by a freak solar flare that forces it to waken its cryo-sleeping crew seven years before it reaches its target planet. Within a few minutes, captain Branson (James Franco), looking strangely like Jesus in the above crew photo, is freakishly incinerated in his pod, leaving a grieving widow, third-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and a new captain, ‘man of faith’ Oram (Billy Crudup). We can tell that no one really likes him, including us.
An errant transmission draws the crew, against all common sense and protocol, to land on a nearby planet that no one has ever heard of before but is totally habitable and could save them all a seven-year journey to completely safe Origae-6. We, like Daniels, know it’s not a good idea.
There are a few key weaknesses with this serviceable but uninspiring installment of the Alien franchise: insipid character development, an improbable narrative and more gore than suspense. There are fourteen or so crew members and it’s apparent at the outset that there are ones to like (Daniels, Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Walter (Michael Fassbender)), ones to dislike (Oram) and ones who are xenomorph fodder so it’s not worth really even learning their names. We learn so little about them that the characters have to fill in the blanks – “Hey, take care of my wife while you are collecting those samples” so we know that someone is going to be really sad when that generic female character dies (although I was never really sure who).
When faced with peril, the characters flounder and either cry (if they’re female), get hysterical (if they’re female) or ignore it until it’s too late (and if they’re female they’ll do this in a state of undress). The blokes aren’t much better though. They make stupid, rash decisions that are probably supposed to be heroic and then are so stupendously clueless that it is no surprise they don’t live long – “Hey, come look inside this huge alien egg, that’s just hatching, on this planet that has alien monsters. No, get a bit closer, it’s really interesting.” They seem to have no strategy for dealing with unexplained sickness, hostile aliens or strange men with clearly ulterior motives. Other than to shoot at stuff in a panic.
The art direction and CGI are good, as you’d expect. The planet, which looks a lot like New Zealand, provides a suitably wild but familiar environment contrasted with the patchily-explained labyrinthine, ruined city that seems primitive but has motion-sensor lighting and lots of good quality white paper. There is a lot of variation in the ‘alien’, which is somewhat explained in the narrative, but I began to feel a bit lost with the widely varying gestation times and types.
The film seesaws between gory action and exposition and misses the opportunity to keep both the audience and the characters in the dark about where the menace is and what is about to happen. For us there are no surprises – person goes off on their own? Splat. Someone gets admitted to sickbay? Splat. Couple have sex in shower? Splat. Strange man says you are perfectly safe? Splat. The ‘twist’ at the ending we can see coming a mile off and I wonder at its purpose other than to clumsily set the scene for the next ‘prequel’. It left me feeling somewhat cheated.
Currently in cinemas
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