Letterboxd Review - Alien: Covenant (2017)


I'm still reeling from the realization that Ridley Scott is capable of such a dramatic spectrum of quality. He's a filmmaker who makes masterpieces, and also makes some hot garbage. This film is good. It's fine. Aim right in the middle of that spectrum of quality, then nudge slightly toward the masterpiece end. If it were made by someone else, I might have liked it better. So maybe the problem is that I know Scott is capable of better and I'm frustrated that he seems checked out.

Prometheus was a strangely polarizing film, but it had some undeniable positives going for it: it's a hauntingly, disgustingly beautiful film with such an organic texture to the amazing practical sets and effects, and a purposeful use of color. The emergency alien cesarean sequence is a muscle-spasm of tension and thrills. Michael Fassbender's charming/creepy android David is by far the most interesting character the series has had since the mid-1980s. There are evocative things going on in that film. But if Prometheus could be called the Rogue One of the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant could be called The Force Awakens. It exists largely, it seems, to aim back into a more conventional direction that involves a lot of familiar territory. That can be a good thing, and in certain places it is. But it's a bit of wheel-spinning.

Fassbender continues to be the outlier, as now he gets to play both a spacey, philosophical David android and his more duty-bound, stoic contemporary model, Walter. The strange, dreamy sequences of the two artificial men should have been it's own spinoff film, because it's that compelling to watch, and that would be a risky proposition. The rest of the cast fulfills the usual gallery of dead-meat scientists, explorers, and engineers, with a surprisingly effective straight-faced turn from Danny McBride, an anemic captain character that wastes Billy Crudup, and sort-of leading lady Katherine Waterston. Waterston has the thankless role of being the emotional anchor of a film largely uninterested in emotions, and she does an admirable job of carrying her character through an arc to becoming, for a brief few minutes, the newest Ripley facsimile.

What is frustrating about this series at this point is that Scott has fully admitted that he has no stake in the titular aliens anymore. It shows. While the filmmaker digs deep for the philosophical discussions about creation, destruction, art, science, et cetera, there's a reluctance to stage any of it around the aliens themselves. Why should Scott waste his time with those things? He has Michael Fassbender and a flute. There are a few quite commendable action set pieces with the xenomorph, including a fight on top of a speeding cargo hauler and the final showdown in the Covenant's moody hallways. And there's one terrific horror moment that recalls the previous film's "birth" sequence in fits and starts, but there's not much from this that will be remembered. And for every interesting idea like those, there's a frighteningly mediocre or lazy counterpart, like the inevitably fatal peek into an alien egg for one character or the B-grade horror film staple of a sexy shower interrupted by the monster.

How about those monsters? Well, on a visceral level, fans of the series might have a good time here. There are a few wacky proto-aliens scurrying about, and once the classic black creature, complete with H.R. Giger's patented tubular head and dorsal horns, arrives on the scene there is a liberal amount of gore. So, if one were to watch this purely for the thrills and chills, it's safe to say one might have a good time and feel less cheated than previous installments.

It's a perfectly decent film, and for the first 30 minutes or so I felt some of that old 1979 magic, but it's probably for the best that Scott decided to continue this supposed trilogy rather than bring his disinterest to the Blade Runner sequel. This series can coast on familiar ground, and that's what this is. I'm fine with that, I expected either a typical Alien sequel or a bug-nutty Prometheus sequel, and I got both in a way.

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.

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