Michael Lee enters an uncharted planet and makes a terrifying discovery.
The Covenant is hurtling silently through the vacuous abyss of space. It’s a colonization mission carrying over 2000 embryos to a planet surrounding a distant star. All the crew are frozen deep in hypersleep, while the artificial Walter (Michael Fassbender) keeps control of basic mission duties. During routine protocol the ship is struck unexpectedly by violent turbulence. Glass shatters and rains, sparks fly. Walter tries to maintain control of the situation, but the ballooning complexity necessitates emergency procedures.
Daniels (Katherine Waterston) opens her eyes pushing herself out of the cool chamber, to an onslaught of piercing alarm bells and flashing lights. There’s been an emergency wake up from hypersleep. Nauseous, disorientated and anxious she catches her balance and pulls herself out to face unforeseen horrors. Crew members desperately try to pry open a hypersleep chamber. They’re trying to free the captain, who’s engulfed in flames inside. Daniels recognizes her partner and throws herself at it, trying to break her way through, but it’s hopeless. Right from the get-go Daniels is struck with a tragic loss and left in a deadened state of mourning. It’s from here Daniels starts out, and she must salvage whatever strength she can in order to survive.
Oram (Billy Crudup), a self-doubting evangelical type, reluctantly steps into the captain’s shoes and attempts to pull in the reins. It’s quickly determined that an unexpected solar flare caused the tragedy. Shortly after, during the repair operation Tennessee (Danny McBride) comes across an enigmatic radio transmission. Upon further inspection, the transmission is revealed to have emitted from an unknown planet surrounding a nearby star. This planet exceeds the projections necessary for sustaining life, even more so than the crew’s destination planet. Factoring into account the relative distance of their destination and dangers posed by a further 7 years traveling, Oram decides to investigate. But it’s an uphill battle; and he faces disapproval from various crew members, chiefly Daniels who’s doubtful of his motives.
A small expedition craft parts from the Covenant and lands in a mountainous Eden covered with a green canopy of ancient trees. On first appearances the planets by all accounts an island paradise, but when you stop to listen, there’s a deathly silence hovering in the air. The team set off like pioneers; walking through reeds of wheat and into the thick of the foliage. Daniels wearily follows. As they pursue the radio transmission’s origin the Expedition team discover the colossus ruins of an Alien Spacecraft. And from here on out we spiral into the escalating depths of pure horror and carnage.
Since Ridley Scott first brought Alien to the screen in 1979, the series has been a benchmark stylistically. The level of visual richness Scott achieves in Covenant is staggering; he’s built a world in its entirety from the ground up, a fully functioning ecosystem that activates all the senses. It’s a hazy mountainous landscape that brings a fresh sense of texture and location to the series. There’s a razor-sharp crispness to Darius Wolski’s cinematography, which is breathtakingly immersive, inviting us close up and personal into the inner lives of the Covenant’s crew.
Jed Kurzel’s score is dually indebted to Alien and Prometheus, and incorporates key aspects of both compositions. Kurzel shifts with ease from a potent religiousness to a daggering sense of tension and anxiety. In terms of production design, Covenant is nothing short of stellar, Chris Seager’s work is of unparalleled genius. Janty Yates is an otherworldly talent, and once again she pushes the boundaries of costume design, with a masterful subtlety of detail and a measurable sense of realism.
For the Covenant’s crew, Scott’s rounded up a powerhouse cast of players. With her choppy short haircut, Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is undoubtedly the film’s spiritual equivalent to Ripley. She gives Daniels a distinctive femininity that weathers her through the storm. And Billy Crudup brings a sincere vulnerability to Oram. For me it’s Danny McBride’s performance as Tennessee, which is one of the film’s true shining lights; McBride brings a genuine warmth and strength amidst all the chaos and drama. And then, of course, there’s Fassbender. There seems to be a near mysticism to Michael Fassbender’s ability as a performer to wholly embody his character. And what’s more, in Covenant Fassbender does it twice, playing both androids, Walter and David. Fassbender ingrains these characters with clear distinguishable personalities, from the honesty and functionality of Walter to the intellectual arrogance of David. Watching Fassbender spar with himself is hypnotically masterful.
John Logan’s script is certainly a towering step up from Damon Lindelof’s botched effort with Prometheus. And while Covenant is a clear return to form for the series, Logan’s script is none the less hampered by a number of clear drawbacks. Chief among these being the deliberate parallels set up between Covenant and the original Alien. There was a piercing subtlety to the original that ate at you to the core, right down to the marrow. Logan’s script, however, gets weighed down by artifice, and the not so subtle nods to the original film. In many ways, Logan’s attempts to re-live the original are, in the end, more superficial imitation than celebration or homage. Everything in the original film was fresh, and textured, and grounded in a clear emotional reality that developed organically. Alien: Covenant reaches for an uncertain mix of grandiosity/philosophy and horror, and, like the self-aggrandizing Prometheus before it, the film attempts to over-intellectualize itself. Ultimately, it lacks a clear vision of what it’s meant to be. Scott sacrifices the primal horror of the original in favor of a half-hearted, half-winded script, which at times gets bogged down by a deadly contagion of predictable Hollywood cliché.
But even taking all this into account, when the Alien is climbing out of the primordial soup, eyes bulging, mouth twisted, tearing through flesh like a blood-stained dinosaur; my eyes can’t help but light up. H.R Giger’s creation is a creation outside of time, eternally frightening in appearance, shark-like, versatile, and strangely mechanical, Alien is a truly mercurial creature. It’s a product of the darker nature of creation, which seems to somehow perfectly encapsulate our own unconscious fears. Make no mistake, Scott’s nearly 80 and he’s still a stylistic heavyweight, and one of cinema’s rarities, a truly visionary filmmaker, who knows how to keep nerve endings dosed in a constant state of fear. Alien: Covenant is half Prometheus sequel/ half Alien prequel and in many ways, it feels like a missed opportunity, but it’s probably the best Alien film this side of Alien Resurrection or Alien 3; so for now at least I’m happy to chew the fat.