“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” – John Milton, Paradise Lost
Bursting forth with sickening brutality and chilling thrills, Ridley Scott’s second ALIEN prequel is a lean, mean, disturbing machine packed with genre delights that still manage to feel fresh and daring in a decades old series. With plenty of narrative cohesion, bristling conflict, significant tragedy, and grounded grittiness, ALIEN: COVENANT isn’t just superior to PROMETHEUS, it makes a damn good argument for the previous film’s existence. This is late, hardened, and dark Ridley Scott, one that seemed to take the fucked up machinations of McCarthy’s THE COUNSELOR as a blueprint for showcasing all of humanity’s bleakest and most frightening aspects, yet also one that finds ways to naturally tap into his affection for all things biblical and mythical. Following many unexpected shifts and turns, and a few that are quite expected, the ride is still gripping and terrifying from start to finish, ending in spectacular cliff-hanging quiet. It feels as though Scott remolded much of its predecessor, doubling down on its triumphs, reworking its faults, and produced a prequel that is not perfect, but immensely satisfying nonetheless. Back with a returning Michael Fassbender in a performance that argues his place as the finest actor of his generation in any genre on any scale, as well as a cast of actually definable characters, COVENANT has enough strengths to land among the top tier of the franchise, and, with THE MARTIAN, hopefully signals the return of a more focused and inventive director in his later years. At the very least, it’s a spectacular way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.
Who are the gods and who are the monsters? The opening moments reveal a dialogue between creator and creation, reintroducing Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his eighth generation synthetic, David (Michael Fassbender). It’s a compelling discourse, one that reveals more about the forces at work within this android, motivations on which the rest of the narrative hinges. From David, we switch to Walter, a later generation of the same physical build. He is onboard the colonization ship Covenant carrying three thousand life forms looking to build a new home on the planet Origae-6. En-route, the vessel experiences a catastrophic accident that wakes the crew from their stasis. Losing power, as well as a few lives, they’re forced to undergo repairs before moving forward. While out on a space walk, chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) encounters a radio frequency they eventually identify as a song. Believing the origin of the message to be a planet potentially habitable for their colony, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) chooses to alter their course to investigate, much to the dismay and dissent of terraforming expert Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston). They quickly discover a downed alien spacecraft atop a mountain, the source of the transmission, though they’re unable to find any life forms. There’s something lurking in the planet’s environment, however, seeking a host to infect, and create terrifying new life.
One would assume that, based on past entries, Waterston’s Daniels would be the central driving character, and much of the film’s first half suggests she might easily follow in the footsteps of PROMETHEUS‘ Shaw, or ALIEN‘s Ripley, and become the primary focus of the narrative. Waterston is fully committed and invested, and her Daniels is an emotionally scarred fighter, at least one with a handful of more smarts than everyone else on board, but there’s a shift in the storytelling that paves the way for the film’s real star. Fassbender’s David was the shining gem of the previous installment, and he returns once more, shrouded in darkness and mystery, apparently the lone inhabitant of the planet, yet still fueled by motives that have the potential to be exceedingly dangerous. The actor pulls double duty here, portraying the updated model, Walter, with slight distinguishing traits that separate the two. When they come head to head, engaging with one another on their own over the simple task of playing a flute, it’s a testament to the magic of current cinematic technology and astounding performance. This is ultimately David and Walter’s story, as the prologue lays out, a Cain and Abel dynamic between two synthetic children of the same creator. Fassbender is nothing short of astounding, mesmerizing, eerie, and deeply moving. He is undeniably the true star, but there’s a nicely formed cast as well. Other noteworthy standouts include Billy Crudup as a reluctant and troubled Captain attempting to shoulder significant responsibility, and, surprisingly, Danny McBride puts in some of his finest supporting work ever as the Covenant‘s pilot, Tennessee.
Right off the bat, we feel the pangs of tragedy, and conflict between members of the crew is immediately established, making for an eventful and engrossing start. John Logan’s screenplay refuses to drag its feet on exposition and set up, a welcome improvement compared to recent franchise entries. A colony ship is the perfect choice for quick emotional investment, and it doesn’t take long for the weight of connections and relationships to settle in. They may not all be particularly distinct, but as various members start to expire from severe brutalities, the loss is more deeply felt when reflected in their loved ones’ eyes. It’s also to Logan’s credit it feels as if nary a wasted a minute goes by. He certainly has a good time including lofty references to Shelley, Byron, and Michelangelo, but they feel included in the right doses, a trait that should be far from unexpected from the man who gave us the delightful melding of genre thrills and philosophy in PENNY DREADFUL. Scott isn’t playing with 3D in this go around, yet it’s even more uncomfortably bleak, almost relentless in its ever growing thematic darkness, and the gruesome horrors still feel shockingly close. Cinematographer Wolski’s work is far more muted and toned down than the last one, yet also more visually pleasing, another laudable change. This far into the series, there’s a tendency for the action to feel mostly like a rundown of the greatest hits, but Scott still finds new ways to haunt us or keep us on the edge of our seat. It’s a film where the aliens get to win, a terrifying thought, yet even more frightening is their creator, who may just reflect pieces of the artist behind it all.
That this particular franchise continues to churn out sequels and prequels almost forty years since the original isn’t particularly a surprise, but how fresh, yet grim and unforgiving this latest feels is quite astonishing when considering all of its predecessors’ diminishing qualities. ALIEN: COVENANT grabs hold like a facehugger from first moments to the last silence, and while the grip may slacken from time to time, it never truly lets go, unrelentingly forcing its twisted and destructive progeny on you. Some bits and pieces do occasionally feel rote and predictable, but when executed with such finesse and sickening gruesomeness, it still makes for riveting entertainment. Scott has once again firmly cemented himself back in the pantheon of science fiction greats with his one-two punch of this and THE MARTIAN, occupying vastly opposite ends of the thematic and narrative spectrums, but both display some of his greatest attributes as a director, hopefully indicating a new wave of compelling films from the notoriously uneven filmmaker. Now 79-years old, Scott is reassuring us that he’s still got some bold endeavors within him, and if this is any indication, they might be some of his most harsh and cynical to date. COVENANT is as inky as the xenomorph itself, a reflection of our current time, and hopefully, in both worlds, we’ll be able to find some light down the road amidst the overwhelming darkness.