Chances are good you’ll make the same mistake with Alien: Covenant that you made with Prometheus, though it won’t be your fault. Each film is marketed as an extension of the Alien series—which began in 1979 with director Ridley Scott’s terrifying film—and while that’s true, that creates a certain expectation which hinders full appreciation. Neither film is Alien nor do they ever try to be.
That might be difficult to reconcile, especially in the case of Covenant. The addition of Alien to the title will no doubt only give hope that this will be a return to a more traditional form for the franchise, but it’s a false hope. The connections between this and Alien are there, but they’re more incidental than anything else. Xenomorphs may abound but as monsters they pale in comparison to man and man’s hubris.
Which is why, despite the title, you shouldn’t go into Alien: Covenant expecting an Alien movie. The DNA is there, but it shares more in common with Prometheus than with its namesake. Even then, it’s less a sequel to its immediate predecessor than a companion—call it an extension of the former’s themes, a work of supporting evidence to Prometheus’ thesis.
Its connections to Prometheus center around Michael Fassbender’s David, the near destroyed android who has been repaired by Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) sometime prior to Covenant’s beginning. Elizabeth, for her part, appears only briefly, in a flashback, having died also prior to the movie’s opening. This is all relayed to the crew of the Covenant, a group of pioneers who land on the planet in hopes of colonizing it. Turns out that’s a bad idea, as the whole planet is lousy with predatory aliens.
These lead to some decent scares—these aren’t quite yet the Xenomorphs we know and love (though, yes, those show up later) and Scott uses the new versions of his classic monster in terrifying new ways. Their births, while not as off-putting as the classic chest bursting scene of the original Alien, are effectively creepy and it is fun to watch their murderous rampages.
The crux of Covenant, however, is the continued exploration of the themes of Prometheus. Like its immediate predecessor, this movie finds Scott ruminating on the origins of life and the nature of man. It’s only somewhat odd that these themes are best explored via Fassbender, who has double duty here as David and David’s counterpart, Walter. Together, these androids represent the best and worst of humanity, and the meatiest bits of thematic inquiry are had when they share the screen.
At times, the rest of the cast feels a bit like filler, placeholders used to get Fassbender and Fassbender together. Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride all stand out and shine on their own, but there are ten other crew members, none of whom make any real impact except as fodder. Which would be frustrating if the work of these three and Fassbender-squared wasn’t so utterly fascinating.
Scott clearly has a grand vision, one that he suspects will be spread out over one or two more films, and doesn’t particularly care who’s along for the ride. Covenant, like Prometheus before it, is Scott unrestrained, making the films he wants to make without worrying about trying to fit them within whatever box you’d like to put them into. The result is fascinating, and often beautiful.
Forget what you know about Alien; forget what you think an Alien movie should be. Covenant doesn’t care what you think or expect. It’s here strictly for itself, but it’s willing to take you along if you’ll let it. If you stop fighting against what Scott’s trying to do, you might find that it’s a ride worth taking.
Alien: Covenant is now playing in theaters everywhere.