The first horror setpiece of Alien: Covenant is a masterpiece of panic, a frantic and terrifying piece of body horror that builds a lack of communication, a lack of understanding, and a lack of precaution into a slowly unrolling disaster. It’s monster doesn’t look horribly convincing, but it doesn’t matter; the actors sell the hell out of the moment, and the camera movements put us right in the thick of it with them. It sets the film off to a fantastic start that it never comes close to reaching again. Afterwards, Alien: Covenant switches between a cheaper version of the extraterrestrial slasher (complete with a crew too dumb to live), a high-flying space trapeze act, and a half-baked pontification on birth and creation. It’s supremely unsatisfying on all counts. While Prometheus was flawed but promising, Alien: Covenant is proof positive that it’s time to put this franchise back on ice.
Notably, the aforementioned early setpiece does not involve the Alien series’ titular killing machine. The most surprising thing about Alien: Covenant might be that, after years of waiting and the tease of Prometheus, seeing the xenomorph again isn’t thrilling, scary, or even enjoyable. At least the Alien v Predator movies were moderately self-aware in their shallowness; Covenant aims to the standard of Alien and Aliens (particularly the first), but the central beast feels much lesser. Perhaps it’s because it spends most of its time in the open air rather than as a home invader; perhaps it’s because Covenant mimics iconic bits of its predecessors (rendering the intruder as a blinking dot on a map, multiple uses of construction equipment). Maybe it’s because the crew is particularly dumb this time, ignoring basic common sense by constantly splitting up in a crisis and investigating a mysterious planet during a high-force hurricane. Maybe it’s because the xenomorph is viewed in full light more often, making it look faker despite forty years of technological development.
Most likely, though, it’s because director Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to care about the xenomorph anymore, and every time it appear it feels like a distraction from is true intentions. Alien has always acted as a powerful rape metaphor, which in turn set up its hero well to become a feminist icon, and Covenant merges this not-entirely-unsuccessfully with Prometheus‘ undercooked exploration of creation. Covenant acts as a tale of impotence, as a dark-mirrored tale of man’s anger at their inability to create life, as told through Michael Fassbender’s dual performance. This provides Scott with fodder for plenty of eccentric scenes, which he made the most of in his heyday with Alien and Blade Runner but feel forced and awkward here. Alien took sexual anxieties and fears of personal invasion and spun horror out of it. Covenant tries to extend it a bit too far and in doing so exposes the limits of its structure.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender
Rotten Tomatoes (77%)