Film review | Alien Covenant: In space, everyone can see you ruin a franchise

The film is a swirling, undercooked soup of bad narrative decisions and half-baked character • 1/5

Say cheese! The xenomorph is back – literally, by popular demand
Say cheese! The xenomorph is back – literally, by popular demand

Well, I’m back. After a much deserved break spent traipsing around Paris (and subsequently recovering from a flu picked up in the most romantic city in Europe), I enjoyed leafing through what my erstwhile ‘replacements’ had to say about the latest cinematic releases. Seems like they lucked out, too – what with Marco [Attard] getting to sit through what seems like, by all accounts, a breezy and fun pre-summer blockbuster with Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 and Andreas [Matia Arqueros] getting stuck into a heady and morally ambigious period drama (Lady Macbeth). 

And what do I get, upon my return? 

I get Alien: Covenant – Ridley Scott’s not-so-long-awaited sequel to the messy and much-derided Prometheus (2012), a film whose identity crisis in an already flawed franchise set-up ensures that it short-circuits any attempts of just sitting back and enjoying it. 

It just doesn’t seem fair. To myself as your returning critic – but also to us in the audience as a whole, since we certainly deserve a satisfying Alien flick to tide us over as the Marvel blockbuster morass continues apace in its effective but uniform churn...

The year is 2104, and the colony ship Covenant is heading into deep space to terraform the friendliest planet they can find, having 2,000 colonists asleep in its cargo and ready to make a new world. When a freak accident leaves them without a captain, the ship’s jittery first mate – and ‘man of faith’ – Christopher (Billy Crudup) takes over, leading a crew consisting of couples, among them the freshly-widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the wife of their fallen captain. A decision is made to settle on a nearby unknown planet after receiving a distress signal. The ship turns out to be the Prometheus, and the signal comes from Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who appears to have perished in the wake of the disastrous expedition. 

As the crew descend on the pristine planet to investigate the distress call and assess it for potential terraforming, the Covenant’s resident artificial intelligence robot, Walter (Michael Fassbender) meets his counterpart, David – who rescues the crew from an assault by the planet’s especially menacing indigenous wildlife. But the rescue appears to be a short-lived one, and soon it will fall to Daniels and Walter to ensure there are any survivors left of Covenant’s mission at all. 

There’s a couple of good action sequences in ‘Covenant’ that, at the very least, manage to channel the best the Alien franchise is at – a climactic scuffle with the titular creature, a treacherous negotiation through a sublime jungle environment and some of the best-lit spaceship corridor sequences you’re likely to witness – and a central pseudo-spiritual conflict that comes across as a bizarre ‘reverse-Frankenstein’ dynamic, brought about by the story’s ‘synthetic’ brothers David and Walter (both played by Fassbender with varying accents but the same dead-eyed commitment to the role). 

Beyond that, however, the film is a swirling, undercooked soup of bad narrative decisions and half-baked character development. An early promotional clip to emerge on YouTube hinted at a sense of camaraderie between the crew that makes use of the varied thespian talent we have here – most notably, perhaps, the beloved comedian Danny McBride – but it turns out that this clip was to remain just that: a glorified trailer excised from the final cut, leaving us with barely any emotional anchor for the characters before they inevitably succumb to the hostile planet’s iconic creepy crawlies. 

Scott’s lack of conviction in his own central ideas for the continuing franchise is nothing short of staggering – and it has a direct bearing on the narrative here. He’s brazenly confessed in interviews that he went back on his promise to not include the iconic xenomorphs in post-Prometheus iterations of the franchise due to ‘social media’ pressure exerted by fans. And he’s even altered a key piece of worldbuilding logic carried over from Prometheus – the details of which I won’t spoil – which  in turn pretty much renders the thematic heft of Prometheus all but moot. 

Sure, not every sci-fi/fantasy franchise requires tight, Tolkien-esque worldbuilding, and the slapdash, pulpy nature of some aspects of both Prometheus and Covenant do lend a patina of old-school charm to the proceedings. But the overall effect is not one of inspired improvisation and fun – rather, it feels sloppy and even, perhaps, desperate – a rushed attempt to create something that the fans will actually respond to, but which in the end falls flat on its face. 

Alien: Covenant is what happens when a franchise loses its way but has just about enough directorial star power behind it to make it happen despite all evidence that it, in fact, is a thing that should not be. The result is a stillborn jumble of some ‘greatest hits’ from the Alien repertoire, strung together with a story that lacks both the aesthetic clarity of Ridley Scott’s original, and the flawed-but-ambitious scope of his penultimate stab at the same universe, with Prometheus. Though the Alien franchise has been patchy since its second iteration, here we see its legacy chopped together in such a piecemeal way that it’s depressing when it should be scary.