Alien: Covenant is the sixth installment in the Alien franchise (the Alien/Predator stuff I’m not counting). It brings Ridley Scott back to the xenomorph territory for the third time, but being 38 years after the first, Covenant exists in an entirely different cinematic, and studio, environment. Which is to say Alien: Covenant is film comprised almost entirely of world-building.
That the fifth and sixth installment in an almost 40 year old series are chiefly dedicated to the origins of the first film’s monster is indicative of what kind of movie moment we live in. Franchise entertainment as it currently operates in Hollywood is driven by a pathological need for expansive, intricate world-building.
This commitment comes largely in two modes: Origin Stories, and Mythologizing.
As an individual component to any fiction story, world-building is both necessary and rewarding. In science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, the need for constructive world-building is even greater; we have to know the rules of the world, and the stories that make these worlds plausible. But as franchise filmmaking has become the primary revenue stream for studios, world-building has started to become a drag. Too often mythology weaves out not fascinating rules and consequences for story and character, but cumbersome exposition that promises future films that will, trust us!, answer the questions you’re now asking. Character arcs are teased and withdrawn, only to premise future films that will craft origin stories to beloved characters, races, even entire planets.
Even when world-building is exciting and weird and unexpected, as it is occasionally in Alien: Covenant, it’s still so commonplace to get buried in explication that the commitment to this endeavor has become a drain on the experience of genre cinema.
The original Alien remains one of the grand achievements in horror cinema world-building. Alien presented a universe that was lived in, corporeal, rule-based. It felt real, just as the crew of the Nostromo felt like real people. Though the world the Nostromo finds was seemingly dead, it felt mysteriously alive. In 1979, Scott’s direction and Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shuset’s story gave us history without unwarranted exposition. Horror without need for resolution. Audiences received hints, feelings, glimpses of mythology, but facts and information were sparing, if not completely absent. Who is that statue of? Who left the distress call? Why does the alien bleed acid? We don’t know, but we don’t need to. Alien is peak minimalism in world-building, and for that, audiences were rewarded (and scared shitless).
Minimalism does not describe Alien: Covenant. Which, to be fair, isn’t a negative criticism. Not all films are minimalist in their world-building efforts. Some fantasy stories thrive on mythology and lore and complicated webs of rules and backstories and arcana. Prometheus was that kind of movie. And so too is Alien: Covenant. By all rights, we can expect the third film in this Ridley Scott prequel trilogy to do the same.
Alien: Covenant, then, is in many ways, a common, studio franchise effort. The very kind of movie we expect to come from a major studio with a $100+ Million budget. This is the era of films that we live in, and so we must compare them against each other and not against one of the greatest genre films ever made, even if that film is the one that started this particular franchise.
So how does Covenant compare to its contemporary peers? Quite favorably.
Covenant, at its core, is split into two parts.
On the narrative side, Covenant is the companion of its predecessor, Prometheus. It brings a new crew out of hypersleep to meet a distress call that will pair them up with the android David (Michael Fassbender), the only survivor of the Prometheus, who will weave them through a bunch of history and mythology and franchise-recognizable story elements. There is a great deal of mirroring and echoing, with some shots coming straight from the source. On the spiritual side, Covenant harkens back to its 1979 originator, waking a crew from hypersleep to answer a distress call that will deliver them straight into an effective, surprising, often really fucking scary horror movie.
Of these two competing traits, it’s the horror that works the best for Covenant. This kind of horror hasn’t been a part of this franchise for decades, and the scares, splatter and gore are all welcome. There are also new, wonderful and terrifying creatures, some with inspired design that would make Guillermo Del Toro jealous.
It’s also in the horror that Scott gets the most from his stunning images. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Ridley Scott makes beautiful looking pictures. His technical gifts are clear, and few directors can frame a mundane shot as exquisitely as he. When Scott chooses to use that power for horror and sci-fi, his craft prowess it at its most satisfying. Atmosphere is Scott’s specialty, and alien worlds are his sweet spot. This time he mixes war imagery, creature feature scares and endless, recycled origin story/world-building elements (oh my god, the eggs!, oh my god, the engineers!), and the effect, while uneven, is often quite moving.
Much of what moves in Covenant, it must be said, comes from Katherine Waterston, who plays Daniels with a mix of fierceness and soft mourning, and Danny McBride, a cowboy hat wearing trope named Tennessee. Both take their plot-required bits and make them into a delicious meal. The same can’t be said for Billy Crudup’s Oram, the unfortunate number two who becomes a reluctant captain. Oram struggles with a character written only to serve cliches, and Crudup’s talent at playing just south of trustworthy is wasted in thematic loose ends.
Which leaves Michael Fassbender, playing the latest synthetic crew member, Walter, and the surviving philosophical rambling android, David. Fassbender plays the dual part with aplomb (he’s always seemed a little robotic to me, anyway). Ridley Scott loves Fassbender as David and it’s not hard to see why he came back to the character to anchor Covenant: Fassbender is really good at playing that part.
Alien: Covenant promises something more than mythology and origin stories, and for many, I imagine it will deliver. But despite all its visual grandeur and effective horror, does it really have anything more to offer than tedious, endless, franchise wheel-spinning? David’s story, his entire promise as a character, is explicative; meant to unravel the mysteries of what was once better off a mystery. In that way, Alien: Covenant is a let down. It undertakes a task that would be better left untouched. Having undertaken that task, though, Covenant does about as well as it any franchise-promulgating movie can.