There is a brilliant film to be found hiding somewhere in Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, though finding it is much like trying to assemble that 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the single sunflower where you absolutely swear to yourself that all the pieces absolutely must fit together but eventually your patience, along with the puzzle, ends up smashed to bits against the living room wall out of frustration.
It's clear that Ridley Scott wants Alien: Covenant to be that cinematic masterpiece that reminds everyone of the original Alien, the only one in the six film franchise, intentionally and forever not counting the fun but frivolous Predator variations, to come even close to deserving to mutter that word "masterpiece."
Alien: Covenant isn't a masterpiece, not by a long shot. It's a paint-by-numbers philosophical cinematic slug with more than enough frights and delights to please most moviegoers but devoid of anything resembling the ingredients necessary to create a true masterpiece. It's not a good film nor a bad film, really, but instead it may be, worst of all, an unfortunately most ordinary one.
Covenant begins with the birth, if you will, of Prometheus' android, David, standing amidst a sea of whiteness in a lavish room alongside his creator, Peter (Guy Pearce), whose back and forth dialogue with David at first centers around art and culture before rather predictably detouring into a metaphysical discussion of creation and mortality. This dialogue does, of course, eventually tie into the rest of Alien: Covenant, though not nearly as profoundly as it would seem Ridley Scott and screenwriters John Logan and D.W. Harper intend it to be.
The action really kicks off as we join the colonization ship Covenant ten years after the events that occurred in Prometheus, the ship on a years-long journey to Origae-6, a supposedly life-sustaining planet where they are taking a couple thousand cryo-sleeping colonists along with embryos. While all are sleeping, Walter, another android, watches over the ship and its inhabitants. When a "neutrino burst," don't ask, causes multiple crew members and colonists to be awakened and/or killed, including the ship's captain (a curiously brief cameo by James Franco), it becomes clear that in Alien: Covenant we aren't so much dealing with the hardened soldiers and space travelers of Alien films past but with multiple couples who've volunteered themselves as creators of a new civilization. While one would assume that they've received some training along the way, there's very little of it that's evident throughout the course of Alien: Covenant.
There is a surprising degree of vulnerability amongst the crew members who are awakened and suddenly find themselves without a leader and with an unclear sense of direction and purpose. There is one crew member, Oram (Billy Crudup), who is deemed the most logical to take leadership of the vessel despite concerns amongst the intellectuals about his being a person of faith.
It's clear that Scott is intentionally trying to create that sense of vulnerability as a way of explaining the inexplicable, directed by Oram the crew opts to follow a suddenly detected planet that, despite never having been detected before, is deemed to be an even better candidate for colonization - plus, it's even closer than the years-long journey that would involve the skittish crew members crawling back into their cryo-pods. The crew seems ill-fated from point one, their ridiculously poor decision-making hardly a match for an unforgiving universe. The captain's widow (Katherine Waterston), the closest thing we get to a Sigourney Weaver here, barely has time to grieve her husband's death before being called upon to try to right the wrong decisions made by the impossibly immature and impulsive Oram. The rest of the crew is, unfortunately, barely worth a mention as they're not given more than a couple scenes to shine with the possible exception of the oft-seen Danny McBride, whose spouse is also obviously ill-fated. McBride, as a crew member nicknamed Tennessee, has some of the film's best lines and manages to deliver them without adding another tonal variation to Scott's tiptoe through the tonal tulips.
It's a basic truth of life that if something seems too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true. This new land? Yep, it's too good to be true. Stunning and deceptively beautiful, the seemingly idyllic land becomes hellish after a couple crew members ingest microbes that turn their innocent curiosity into exploding internal organs and xenomorphs and chaos breaks out only to broken up the messianic appearance of David, whom we learn has become a god-like figure in this land and whose willingness to help these obviously weaker and more vulnerable counterparts never feels quite right.
While the Alien films have always delved into the spiritual and metaphysical worlds, it has seldom been done as obviously and with such religious devotion as it is in Alien: Covenant. It's rather dizzying to watch it all unfold, especially given that Scott also seemed to remember this time around that audiences really dig the monsters and like the scares quite a bit. Alien: Covenant lobs its tonal variations back-and-forth vacillating between mindless action flick and meandering meditation on life with barely a gasp of breath between them. It doesn't help that Scott, a gifted creator of image and mood, can't tell a story worth a damn and loses control of this mishmash he's created here before it dissolves into an almost stunningly unimaginative climax and finale that seems like it should have ended with a wink from a certain mischievous android.
Yet again, I must say, however, that Alien: Covenant has many of the pieces for what could have been, and maybe even should have been, a cinematic masterpiece. Michael Fassbender, tackling the dual roles of both David and Walter, gives his usual immersive performance completely devoid of unnecessary histrionics. There's an undeniably intentional intimacy between David and Walter that is best left undescribed. Suffice it to say that it is at times uncomfortable and, with one line in particular, rather laugh-inducing.
Go ahead. It's okay to laugh.
Alien: Covenant feels as disjointed yet obvious as this review, though this review was created on a much smaller budget and is likely destined to entertain far fewer people. Alien: Covenant isn't a masterpiece, though some will claim it to be. Alien: Covenant is also not a disaster, though some will also claim it to be one. It is a film that never quite finds its true voice, sort of like trying to listen to a John Denver tune in space. The film is filled with mostly stupid people making stupid choices and jeopardizing the very lives they've been sworn to protect. These are people who are hard to care about because, if we're being honest, because for much of the film it seems like natural selection is the law of the land.
Far better than Prometheus but immeasurably below the first couple of films in the franchise, Alien: Covenant is a more gothic journey that is beautiful to watch yet devoid of the purpose and meaning it so obviously craves to project.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic