ALIEN: COVENANT; Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by John Logan and Dante Harper; Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride; Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity; Running time 123 minutes; In wide release May 19, 2017.
The Alien series has been a fan-favorite for over 30 years, and the movies have evolved as much as the titular monsters that reside within. From horror, to action to a philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and where we all come from, each has been almost a completely different type of film, linked solely by the deadly xenomorphs that hunt us down in each outing. Covenant is no different as it feels like it fully belongs, yet stands out as its own movie nearly independent of any others (save one, but we’ll get into that). And because Covenant is so important to the mythos of this universe, we put together a team of crack film critics to dive in, because there’s just too much here for one person to fully cover. Oh, and we are going to be VERY vague on the plot because a lot of what happens should be experienced first hand, so rest assured, nothing will be spoiled by reading this review.
Bryan: This movie needs to be watched differently from other movies. First, you need to divorce yourself from the original films, and then you need to look at Prometheus and Alien: Covenant as the first and second part of the same film. There’s a reason Ridley Scott gave us so much Lawrence of Arabia to latch on to, because this film is his science fiction version of that structure, casting David in the role of Lawrence. In the first half of both this larger film and Lawrence of Arabia, we’re given a very innocent view of our character. Lawrence and David are clearly heroes here. But in the second part, the point of view shifts and that veneer is stripped away from the character and we’re left to wonder if we’re really looking at a monster. When this is married to the Frankenstein story (even the title Prometheus, is a veiled reference to Mary Shelley’s seminal work), we’re given existential horror that the original Alien films never sought to go after. That’s why I think, taken together, Prometheus and Covenant, work so well for me. Ridley Scott was operating at a different level and knew exactly what film he was trying to make and it’s taken all this time for that idea to come together. And we still have so far to go.
Adam: And see that is one of my biggest problems with Covenant in that it can't decide what kind of movie it wants to be. I'm in full agreement that this is very much a Prometheus sequel rather than an Alien prequel, however there are just too many times when it tries to be both, and that is its biggest downfall. Is it a philosophical think piece? Sci-Fi action/horror? It just doesn't know, and the weight of all those genres pressing down on it causes a lot of problems. Now that all said, when it comes down to it, I really did like Covenant despite its many shortcomings. I didn’t feel this way at first. In fact, it took nearly a week along with a deep philosophical discussion with Andy and rewatching Prometheus to finally swing around to feel positive for it. I really want to go see it again to catch the things I missed, and I can’t tell if that’s damnation or praise because I normally don’t miss much when watching a movie. Then again, I had to do the same for Prometheus, and that ended up being the most important and probably my favorite movie in the whole series (blame the philosopher in me). Oh, and speaking of, while a basic understanding of the Alien mythos is needed to fully understand and enjoy Covenant, Prometheus is required viewing as the events here are completely intertwined with what unfolds in that film. So, if you’ve never seen it or only gave it a passing glance when it hit theaters five years ago, go back and revisit it before heading in to see the new one. You’ll thank me.
Kelly: I only gave Prometheus a passing glance when I watched it at home, and I’ve only seen Alien once, years ago, so I came into this film viewing it as a bit of a stand-alone. And while it does essentially work that way, I feel like I need to go back and revisit Prometheus to really understand the film on a deeper level. I think this is a film that works best on the big screen. The scares, while predictable, are still intense. At least they were to me, but at some of the scariest moments, some in the audience laughed. Nervous laughter? Or laughing at the idiocy of some of the characters? This film did straddle the line between horror and sci-fi, so I’ll give it the genre description of creepy. Both roles played by Fassbender? Creepy. The planet they land on? Creepy. David’s collections? So very creepy. Since I wasn’t trying to compare it to the other installments, I had no real expectations and enjoyed it overall, but I have no strong desire to see it again.
Andy: What I think this offers best is a bridge between the ponderous mythos of Prometheus and the tropes we expect from Alien movies. Some audiences were disappointed in Prometheus because they wanted facehuggers and chestbursters and strong female characters using heavy machinery to fight xenomorphs. This film gives us that, as well as too many to list homages to the original Alien/Aliens movies, but it also bridges directly into the heavy philosophy Scott was laying on in Prometheus. Along with that required viewing, I’d say it also helps to have a decent background knowledge of the Romantic poets and authors, specifically Byron and Shelley (both Mary and Percy Bysshe), and specifically the poem Ozymandias. There’s also a reference to The Island of Doctor Moreau, which fits both tonally and thematically. So where this works is its rich subtext and references, while also having facehuggers and chestbursters, etc. As Adam pointed out, that does make for some strange tonal shifts-- this is a bit of a Frankenmovie. But, given the strong allusions to Shelley, I wonder if that isn’t completely by design.
Bryan: Although, on the surface, this film doesn’t work as well as other installments of the franchise, placing it among the others as part of a mythology I didn’t know I wanted, it has a lot to offer. And, really, Michael Fassbender is the god of this new universe. The parts he’s been given to play in make it richer and offer a depth to the artificial humans that neither Ian Holm nor Lance Henriksen were able to mine. They were good in their roles, but there’s something much more sinister and satisfying about Fassbender’s portrayals. And, going back to my earlier point, Fassbender’s ability to create the voice of Peter O’Toole in his performance is nothing short of perfect, and even weaving in direct quotes from Lawrence of Arabia, makes that as vital a film to watch before this as any Alien film.
Adam: Fassbender gives it all and is definitely the stand out here. Although I will give a lot of praise to Danny McBride. Who knew he could give a thoughtful and heartfelt performance? It was nice to see him NOT being Kenny Powers for a change.
Bryan: I mean, he worked fine. The whole cast worked well, in fact. I think Billy Crudup made a lot of interesting choices. And Scott’s choice to use James Franco was surprising, given the nature of the role. But the ensemble was competent and that’s something you need in a film like this.
Andy: I think understanding Crudup’s character is one of the most important parts of the film. A man of intense faith on a scientific/colonization mission? How do you merge the two of those? And, of course, the inexorable nihilistic Alien-franchise deaths leading you to contemplate “Where is your god, now?!?” And that may be the key philosophical question of the movie -- a search for God in the universe, tying that in to what we know of the Engineers. So what does that make xenomorphs? The equivalent of the Biblical flood or the plagues of Armageddon? Intense.
Adam: Which again loops us back to Prometheus and how big a role it, and now Covenant, have played into this mythos. No one was really expecting to see Ancient Astronaut Theory weaved into Alien nor the fact that the reason the aliens exist in the first place is because we killed Jesus. I'm fully on board with Bryan that both of them are two parts of a whole, and I would love to do a back-to-back marathon with them. On a nice, big movie screen, of course.
Bryan: But I think it’s emblematic of the original creator of humans being a force akin to David, right? We’re generations removed from that initial spark of life, whether the engineers created that or someone else did. We played God, they played God, David played God, and they’re all the modern Prometheus.
Kelly: Fassbender amazed me. He played his roles, using both voice and body language to create two identical-looking but distinctly different characters. Even though the Alien franchise isn’t something I’m well-versed in, I was able to enjoy the movie. While much of it was predictable, the acting was top-notch, I thought the visual effects were stunning, and there were also some tense moments. 7 out of 10.
Andy: So, despite its problems, I think this bridges the gap between what some audiences found lacking in Prometheus and what is so intriguing about it. For Fassbender alone, I’d give this 7 out of 10, and that’s where I am -- even though I thought they totally telegraphed the ending.
Bryan: I think, taken in concert with Prometheus and the rest of the Alien saga, and for how much I’m going to dissect and rewatch this movie, it earns a solid 8 out of 10, though I reserve the right to revise that after further viewings.
Adam: As I said, the more I’ve thought about it, the more it has grown on me, and I’m sure that I’ll enjoy it even more after a second or third go around. While I wish it had made up its mind about what it really wanted to be instead of jumping around so much tonally, this is still a good movie. People who want to jump even deeper into philosophy will have new topics they can bring up and tie into Prometheus, and Fassbender’s performance alone is nearly worth the price of admission. 7.5 out of 10