Movie Review: Alien: Covenant - looks great, shame about the lack of scares
Alien: Covenant. (R16, 122 mins) Directed by Ridley Scott ★★½ Reviewed by Graeme Tuckett
Ten years after the events of Prometheus, a new ship of luckless fools is ploughing its way across some vast tract of space.
The ship is carrying 2000 passengers and crew, all on their merry way to colonise a far off planet.
A solar storm damages the ship, causing the synthetic (ie, artificial) crew member Walter (played by Michael Fassbender) to wake the crew from their suspended animation and set in motion the obligatory beats of any movie in the Alien franchise: The ship will have to be diverted to an unfamiliar planet, where waiting for them will be one or many of HR Giger's most-famous creation. Carnage will ensue, before a young woman wearing a singlet will eventually kill the beastie and we can all get back to whatever we were doing.
Alien: Covenant unfolds along pretty much exactly these lines. We know when we first meet the crew that only one or two will be left alive for the credits. And if we have seen Prometheus, which this film is a sequel to, then we can probably guess that Fassbender is going to show up again as David, an earlier iteration of Walter, who survived the events of that film.
What you won't see coming is just how numbingly tedious a lot of Covenant truly is.
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The joy of the original Alien franchise is that in their bones, they were just monster movies. The first film was put together on a modest budget by people who had old-school effects and classic horror films in their blood. Their alien was remorseless and mindlessly savage. There was no possibility of mercy or negotiation. Once it was in the same room as you, you were probably dead.
But over the nearly-40 years since that first, still wonderful film, Ridley Scott has become entranced with the idea of explaining the alien's origins and then trying to tie that into some grand unifying theory of human evolution. It's not necessarily a bad idea. But it doesn't fit comfortably at all with what we are laying down our money for when we buy a ticket to any movie with Alien in the title.
What we do get is a lot of pseudo-philosophical guff from the two Fassbenders of the "would you rather serve in heaven, or reign in hell?" variety, which probably looked alright on the page, but just sounds daft on screen.
When your screenplay finds room for its cast to land on an alien planet, but not bother to wear any sort of breathing apparatus, then any attempt to then make your film appear "intelligent" is pretty much doomed from the get go.
Most bizarre of all is the film's trying conjure some sort of homoerotic relationship out of the two synthetics' interactions. Hearing Fassbender say to his other self, "no one will ever love you like me" was good for a round of laughter from the audience I sat with, but I'm pretty sure Scott and his writers weren't actually aiming for comedy at that point. By the time Fassbender was teaching Fassbender the flute and murmuring the deathless advice, "you blow, I'll do the fingering" (honestly, I am not making this up), I was pretty much falling out of my seat laughing.
None of which would really matter, if Alien: Covenant was frightening. But it's just not. Yes, most of the cast perish in a gratifyingly gory fashion, as we knew they would. But we've seen it all before, and better, without the punishingly long interludes for Scott to bore us to tears with his dissertations on the monster's purpose and whakapapa. I'm a sucker for a decent jump-in-your-seat moment, but Alien:Covenant didn't deliver me a single one.
Alien: Covenant is spectacularly well-designed and filmed. New Zealand's Fiordland makes a stunning backdrop for much of the film's first two-thirds. The sets, costumes, spaceships, the various versions of the creature and even the performances are all truly impressive.
But the script is a misguided, bloviate thing. I like my horror movies nasty, brutal, short and purposeful. For a moment, unintentionally I'm sure, one creature in Alien: Covenant reminded me of the "crawlers" in Neil Marshall's low-budget gem The Descent. As soon as I've finished writing this, I'll be putting that film on, just to remind myself what good, smart, unpretentious horror is supposed to look like. Maybe Ridley Scott should get himself a copy.