2104. The colony ship Covenant is headed for Origae-6 with 2000 colonists, 1100 embryos and 15 crew aboard. After a freak accident, the crew intercept a mysterious signal from a supposedly uninhabited – but temptingly habitable – planet. They turn aside from their course to investigate. What can possibly go wrong?
I’m a sucker for Alien movies, so it was inevitable I’d see Covenant. I ended up seeing it on a plane, and while that probably means I didn’t get the full impact of those gorgeously composed shots of David and Weyland at the start, it was enough to appreciate their clean lines and crisp, cool palette. The restrained performances are all part of the piece. It’s breathtaking, reeking of privilege and about as far removed from empathy and humanity as you can get.
Perhaps it was inevitable after a prologue like this that the film would be more interested in its AI than its aliens. But I nearly forgot about it, because the beauty of the second scene – the golden sails unfurling to recharge the Covenant‘s batteries – is just as breathtaking: the magic of scifi writ large. In fact, the ship design is the most stunning we’ve seen since the Nostromo: uncompromisingly functional, beautifully architectural – all struts and plumbing and really big welds.
But from this point on, there’s no hiding from the fact that it’s all horribly derivative. An android awake while spacefarers sleep, a little too attached to a certain female crew member? Yep, we’ve seen this before.
An out of his depth commander making decisions his crew don’t agree with and giving riders they disobey? I seem to recall seeing that in Aliens. Oh, and his faith is a big thing too, if significantly less respected than in Prometheus. A grief stricken woman fighting to protect those left to her in spite of losing those closest to her? Sounds a lot like Alien3. She’s also the outspoken second in command for much of the film, so chalk one up for Alien too. Hybrids and unspeakable experiments in darkened laboratories? Well, I like to pretend I didn’t see Alien: Resurrection, but…
Covenant steals elements from every film that’s gone before and has little new to throw at us. This sort of remix doesn’t have to be a bad thing (I adore The Force Awakens), but when every beat in the first act feels like a retread, you’ve got a problem. At least previous Alien scripts have come up with new stupid things to do; this crew recycle the same old terrible ideas and end up in the same old predicaments – just on a different (if beautiful) set.
It’s the difference between escalating tensions because you suspect something is a bad idea (let’s land without scanning the planet; let’s touch the weird goo; let’s break quarantine; let’s bend over an egg, seriously) and not only knowing it’s a bad idea but knowing exactly how it’s going to end. Predictability is just not my popcorn. I’m not actually here for the chestburster porn.
But there were other things I found disappointing:
The absence of Prometheus’s Dr Holloway (MILD SPOILER (mouse over to read) …not to mention what happened to her. I am. So. Angry. This. Just. No. Not the story I was here for. Not the story Prometheus set up. It is just disappointing, and I don’t care if it was a scheduling conflict or what the writers always had in mind – either way, fuck you, writers). I liked Holloway, and liked her more for her angry outburst at the end of Prometheus. I was invested in her story. Some of my disappointment with Covenant is mostly anger that I didn’t get to see it.
The ongoing obsession with a certain type of body horror. I get that chest bursters were a birthing metaphor and that there’s never been any pretense that the xenomorphs are anything but phallic, but frankly I’m done with the increasingly explicit undertones of sexual assault.
And, unexpectedly, the aliens themselves. Maybe because I was hoping for a film that showed us more of the Engineers rather than of the Xenomorphs. Maybe because there’s nothing new to see here (not quite true – but the idea that they can be tamed isn’t explored). Instead, we get all the familiar tropes, plus a selective sort of airborne pathogen to get things started.
On the plus side, Katherine Waterston makes a wonderfully resolute and capable heroine, and Michael Fassbender pulls off vulnerability even while putting in a reliably creepy turn.
I like the diversity of the crew, and the depth of their relationships – the actors capture the nuances of affection and irritation in an established group. They feel like tribe.
Also, I’ll cheer for any film that kills James Franco off in the opening act so I don’t actually have to watch him. And the set design and photography are stunning throughout; like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, I think you’d struggle to find a bad still.
And let’s face it: I’m a sucker for great art direction. I go weak at the knees. My heart clutches up. I may even shed a tear. So while Covenant is a bag full of awful, seeing it on the back if someone else’s plane seat can still arrest me.
And unlike Alien: Resurrection, I am prepared to watch it again. Annoyingly, the more time I spend thinking about it while I write this, the more interested I become in seeing it again. Maybe I’ll find more to like second time around. But I suspect I’ll mostly wish I’d watched an Alien movie I really enjoy instead. So let’s end with provocation – my top 5 Alien movies:
- Alien (yes, I love the original the best)
- Aliens (so much fun, but still not the original)
- Prometheus (yes, I really do have a big soft spot for it)
- Alien3 (this isn’t faint praise. I have a lot of time for 3 too)
- Covenant (well at least it makes the list)
(no, Alien: Resurrection really doesn’t get a look-in)
Go on – tell me which one you like best and/or why I’m wrong about Covenant…