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Alien: Covenant (2017)

As with Quantum of Solace (2008) and The Great Gatsby (2013), Prometheus (2012) is one of those films where I often try to convince myself that I was wrong, and that actually, surely it can’t be as bad as I remember.  Maybe it’s actually pretty good?   Yeah, I’m sure it was actually great – I’ll put it on now.   I might even get as far as lying to myself during the movie, wanting it to be good… right until a biologist thinks it’s a good idea to start toying with a scary space snake, and a geologist suddenly turns in to a zombie after having his face melted off.  Despite it’s entertaining scares and great visuals, it’s around that point where I begin to accept that this was in fact a let-down of a movie.  Aliens (1986) is a superb thrill ride of a war film, but Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is one of my favourite films of all time.  I love how much of a slow burner it is, cranking up the horror and dread very gradually.   One of Prometheus' biggest criticisms was the huge number of unanswered questions, but in it's defense, it was the lack of answers that made Alien so scary in the first place.   So why do the unanswered questions of Alien not bother me anywhere near as much? Was it that Prometheus was billed as the answer to the questions we already had, only to ask lots of new ones on the birth of humanity, let alone Xenomorphs? Maybe it’s sequel, Alien: Covenant, would answer those and bring the two together…
 trailer alien reveals franchise covenant GIF
Set in 2104, 11 years after Prometheus, and 17 years before Alien, this latest prequel is about a human colonisation mission to find a habitable planet for the human species.  The ship is manned by a set of couples, and has thousands of passengers in hypersleep, and human embryos in the biggest fridge ever.  When they're awoken following minor damage to the ship, they pick up a strange transmission that they decide to investigate.  Sound familiar yet?  As you can imagine, it's not the smartest of ideas and all does not end well.  I'm sure Ridley Scott was pleased to hear that Alien: Covenant made no.2 on my list of reasons to be excited for 2017 back in December.  The trailer promised plenty of gore, and more Xenomorph so I was suitably excited to see this.  I'm a very big fan of the franchise, even if I only really love the first two, so hopes were high (particularly after the sci-fi exhibit in Berlin's Film Museum forced us to watch the original chestbuster scene lying on our backs... so grim).

When Alien: Covenant was good, it was pretty good.  There's plenty of new alien-related deaths (soz, spoiler), and even a couple of original ways for aliens to burst out of people that were suitably gross.  The visuals are absolutely jaw-dropping at times, and the performances all convincing (already an improvement on Prometheus then).  Fassbender's performance(s) demands attention whenever he's on screen. One of the two androids he plays is more in touch with emotion and a yearning to learn, while that self-awareness is stripped back by the newer model.  They are traits (as well as a permanent creepiness) that really come across in the performance, without characters having to spell it out for us.  Off the back of her stand out performance in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last year, Katherine Waterston is excellent too (and Danny McBride surprisingly endearing), but everyone else is just forgettable alien fodder.   I couldn't tell you how many crew members there were at the beginning, how many die, what their names are, or anything interesting about their characters.  The only giveaway as to who was partnered with who was one was torn to pieces and the other was upset about it.  Alien was full of real people in a fantastical setting, and there is none of that here.  I was also a bit annoyed at how obvious it was when something bad was going to happen to a character.   As soon as someone went for a walk by themselves it was clear that it wasn’t going to end well for them, and it happened time and time again.

 trailer alien reveals franchise covenant GIF
Too often big budget films aren’t brave.  They have paint by numbers plots we know off by heart, 2 dimensional characters, and mega special affects to hide the fact there’s little going on upstairs.  Riding high off the back of the enormous success of The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan had enough credit with Warner Bros. to go and do whatever he wanted.  He decided to make a thinking audience’s blockbuster film he had been dipping in and out of for ten years: Inception (2010). It made over $800 million at the box office, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and was the answer to the assumptions that audiences don’t want to be challenged, to think, and to be an active part of the cinematic experience.  Whenever a movie with a huge budget has big ideas to match I always want to commend it for that.   Any Alien follow-up could very easily just have been a mindless gorefest (see Alien vs. Predator, 2004) with the guarantee that audiences would have gone to see it, and it would have made a tidy profit.  I’m therefore really pleased that Ridley Scott has made the decision to take the series in a slightly different angle, tying in huge themes of humanity, creation and heavy religious subtext with the build up to Ellen Ripley’s encounter with a Xenomorph on LV-426.  It’s a shame then that Alien: Covenant’s heavy themes jar so much with tired Alien touchstones we’ve all seen before.  The tone for Alien: Covenant is never quite right.  Sometimes it feels like a Prometheus film (mostly, the first half), and then sometimes it feels like an Alien film (second half).  The dialogue is bogged down with big ideas too, and it never sounds right coming out of these people.   In the first Alien film, the crew were discussing pay packets and the state of the food – here they’re discussing their Noah’s Ark colonisation mission and referencing ancient mythology.  It doesn’t sit right.
Despite all of that I did enjoy the film overall.  It scared me when it wanted me scared, and as a fan of the series, seeing a Xenomorph tearing apart people after we barely saw anything of it in Prometheus was quite cathartic.  As the action began to ramp up I really wanted it to take it to the next level - to blow me away with something new.   Unfortunately it stays stuck in third gear, halted by the multiple themes it's trying to cram in to the run time.  We're left with a perfectly fine Alien movie (and it might be the 3rd best of the franchise), but one that sticks to a formula we've seen before, beat for beat with grand themes chucked in for good measure.


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