Has there ever been a more terrifying or evocative movie monster than the Xenomorph from the Alien films? The HR Giger-designed beast has been an iconic part of the pop cultural lexicon since 1979 and deservedly so. In fact one of the main criticisms of Ridley Scott’s ambitious-but-unwieldy 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus was the lack of classic Xeno action. Enter Alien: Covenant, Scott’s follow-up film that undeniably contains some awesome creature sequences but also a bunch of baggage from Prometheus you might hope had been jettisoned from the nearest airlock.
The story concerns the crew of the colony ship, Covenant, who are on a mission to inhabit a potential new home on the other side of the galaxy. Things turn pear-shaped when a freak accident damages the ship and kills the captain, Jacob Branson (a briefly-glimpsed James Franco). As the crew make their repairs they receive a mysterious transmission from a nearby planet, a seeming paradise, and decide to investigate. Naturally this proves to be an astonishingly bad idea.
Within minutes of arriving on the planet the crew blunder about, without spacesuits or protection of any kind, and are almost immediately infected by a fast-acting virus that has monsters bursting out of every orifice with splattery alacrity. This first half of Alien: Covenant is an effective, albeit slightly ponderous, set up for a mysterious, tense tale about the dangers of accepting anything that looks too good to be true. Unfortunately, directly after the monsters arrive, so too does a certain surviving character from Prometheus, and any sense of mystery or intrigue is swiftly squandered.
Alien: Covenant should really be called Prometheus 2: This Time There’s Xenos, because ultimately that’s the journey you’re on. The story bends over backwards trying to insert David (Michael Fassbender) into the creation mythology of the Xenomorphs, which comes off as deeply unconvincing and demystifies the effective ambiguity of the creature.
That’s not to say Alien: Covenant is without its charms, mind you. After a fairly bloodless previous entry, Covenant lays on the gore and ratchets up the shocks to eye-popping extremes. The cast valiantly battle Xenos and an awkward script, with Michael Fassbender being particularly effective as both Walter and David – the yin and yang of synthetic people – and Katherine Waterston does what she can as Daniels, a thin role that requires her to look a lot like Ellen Ripley and become a bad arse just in time for the third act.
Ridley Scott’s direction is frequently beautiful, with effective sci-fi imagery that’s almost good enough to make you forget the rather ordinary story. Ultimately, though, Alien: Covenant doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Prometheus for all its many (many!) faults had a strong central thesis, asking ‘where do we come from?’ Alien: Covenant doesn’t really ask anything and seems content to effectively whittle down a cast of characters with some very cool-looking, if somewhat overexposed, creatures. That may be enough for the diehard fans, but one can’t help but feel the Xenomorphs – and we the audience – deserve better.