Regardless of whether it is a good or bad film, Alien: Covenant is certainly a strange one. Following from 2012’s Prometheus (itself a space oddity), it continues in telling a very long, convoluted, bizarre, and, in the end, fairly unnecessary backstory for the Alien universe, explaining where the notorious xenomorph creatures came from and, I guess ultimately, why a wrecked ship full of their eggs is on planet LV-426 at the start of the original Alien. Intriguing though that may be for some, I’m admittedly bothered by the apparent impetus for these prequel films. It speaks of a troubling need in modern cinema culture to expand on every vague plot point ad nauseam, extending a series in less than stellar ways and doing retroactive narrative damage to prior entries. Put another way, from a storytelling stand point, it was better not knowing where the creatures in the original Alien came from. It was part of the mystery and horror that made that film effective for so many people. Getting any sort of explanation spoils some of the fun, and even ignoring that, the explanation that we’ve been given thus far in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant (evidently there’s still more to come) hasn’t exactly been cathartic, as these movies raise new questions as much as they try to answer old ones.
On the other hand, regardless of how I feel about its conception, I would be lying if I told you that Alien: Covenant somehow wasn’t an entertaining work of cinema, or that it didn’t satisfy our expectations for an Alien movie.
The film is faithful to the classic Alien setup: a crew making it’s way through space intercepts a transmission from a previously unknown planet, and they go to investigate. Can you guess the rest of the story? Will they ignore obvious warning signs to turn back? Will they run into deadly creatures that proceed to murder most of them? Will at least one character know more than he/she is letting on and turn on the others? Are there stars in the sky?
So yes, the plot is definitely familiar, but it’s well executed all the same. Acclaimed director Ridley Scott, who also helmed Alien and Prometheus, has done his job to make a respectfully entertaining picture. From the start, it treats the audience seriously, giving us characters who seem both believable and relatable, in a scenario that, while largely predictable, is never the less paced well and effectively engaging. New faces and improved effects also work to make this latest entry feel fresh. As the movie progresses, and we descend into hard sci-fi plotting, it never dips in terms of keeping our interest, be it through showing us another creature, presenting us with another locale, providing us with another action scene, or surprising us with another plot twist. I was certainly never bored while watching the film.
Beyond the plot, I appreciated the look and style of the picture. I enjoyed the various call backs in this film to the original Alien. The sets, costumes, props, and creature designs are all very reminiscent of 1979 classic. More over, some of Alien‘s score (or at least a respectful recreation of it) is used in this movie as another fitting allusion. While the Alien series is widely inconsistent as a whole, Ridley Scott certainly succeeded in making his Alien movies more cohesive stylistically, which I appreciate. I also enjoyed the production design of the picture in general. Nearly everything — including the ship, the natural environments, and the alien structures — has been constructed to have a strange eeriness about it that does much to add to this film’s creepiness factor. And given that this is science fiction horror, that’s important.
Admittedly, this film does have its drawbacks. As I mentioned earlier, it falters in trying to develop its over-arching, world-building backstory. The revelations it provides about why certain things in the Alien universe are the way they are fail to impress; and, much like Prometheus before it, this film ends up raising more questions that leave us having to wait (hopefully not another five years) for the next entry to have answered. On that level, I would have preferred it if this film had simply been just another Alien movie that didn’t feel the need to tie into some larger story. Not every narrative needs a multi-film arc that teases the audience by dragging out a punchline, certainly not a series with such long times, on average, between installments*.
Another blight on this film is its rather half-hearted attempt at some religious themes (you may have guessed this given the picture’s subtitle). It starts out alright with some descent “Why are we here and what’s our purpose?” discussion before unfortunately devolving into disappointing, cliched drivel by the end. I can’t say I thought it added anything worthwhile, and it feels like a bit of a lost opportunity. Good religious discussion could have enriched the picture and added another layer of complexity to the narrative, but instead it’s mostly distracting.
To sum up, I liked Alien: Covenant a bit more than I thought I would, while acknowledging that it’s not perfect. It effectively channels some of the spirit of the original Alien while also feeling fresh, engaging, and exciting on its own; and that is enough for it to overcome its narrative issues. I would definitely recommend seeing this movie if you are a fan of the franchise. Let’s just hope the next entry finally ties this nutty backstory up.
*Release years for films in the Alien series: 1979, 1986, 1992, 1997, 2004, 2007, 2012, and 2017.