Film Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien: Covenant’

Alien Covenant
20th Century Fox

Ridley Scott's official return to the 'Alien' franchise is essentially a 'Prometheus' sequel with Aliens in it.

Forty years ago, two movies rewrote the rules for science fiction. The first, of course, was 1977’s “Star Wars,” which made every child dream of space, introducing cuddly, nonsense-spouting aliens that could be brought home as toys. Two years later, Ridley Scott took the opposite approach, conjuring a nightmarish worst-case scenario of the unknown life — and death — that might be awaiting us out there in the void in “Alien.” The franchise has gone through a number of permutations since, but “Alien: Covenant” is, if nothing else, a return to form for both Scott and the series: a hard-R horror movie, featuring ferocious, acid-dripping space crustaceans, a tough female lead and a bunch of dead-meat crew members.

In short, it’s more of the same, which is both a relief to fans and a letdown to those hoping it might pave new ground. The personal enjoyment you derive from the film probably depends on what you thought of Scott’s 2012 semi-prequel, “Prometheus,” a high-minded sci-fi chiller that presumed to explain the origins of not just the “Alien” series but of mankind itself. Scott teased as much by suggesting that the off-canon entry contained the DNA of the “Alien” series, though its creatures weren’t nearly as scary and the mission was ultimately seen as a disappointment for the franchise’s most ardent fans.

“Alien: Covenant” attempts to have it both ways: Taking place in 2104, a decade after “Prometheus” and 18 years before the original “Alien,” this latest chapter is essentially a “Prometheus” sequel with aliens in it. Though the current movie is named for its spaceship, the Covenant, its plot concerns what became of Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender’s “Prometheus” characters, Elizabeth Shaw (who somehow survived a self-induced abortion) and renegade robo-butler David (dismembered but still functional), after they escaped a planet that looked like an insidiously dangerous version of Iceland.

“Prometheus” aside, it’s been two decades since audiences had a proper “Alien” movie, and fanboys’ appetites and speculation have been raging ever since Scott announced the project — to the extent that nearly every morsel of marketing has been digested and analyzed ad nauseam. None has been more misleading than the stand-alone “Last Supper” prologue released in February, in which James Franco appears for less than a minute as the Covenant’s feverish captain (be warned: that’s about as much screen time as he gets in the feature) and two of the crew members are revealed as gay — a suggestion that’s largely ignored in the movie, in which the couple’s relationship feels more buddy-buddy in its execution.

Maybe that’s because there’s not much call for homosexuals aboard the Covenant (these two, played by Demian Bichir and Nathaniel Dean, work security), since the ship carries 2,000 hyper-sleeping breeders on a mission to colonize Origae-6, a distant planet deemed capable of sustaining human life. Is the destination actually habitable? We’ll never know, since a “destructive event” forces synthetic Walter (Fassbender, playing a new-and-improved model of the more idiosyncratic David) to awaken the crew early. Franco doesn’t even make it out of his cryo-chamber alive, which leaves second-in-command Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge. Oram is written as a religious character, conflicted by issues of faith, although the trait feels like more of a nod to the movie’s grand existential dimensions than anything directly relevant to his behavior.

No matter what your belief system, “Prometheus” floated a blasphemous alternate theory for the origin of mankind, tracing it back to a race of giant marble-skinned beings revealed to have created life on Earth, and who later cultivated a virus capable of wiping out all animals on the planet, including humans. The opening scene of “Alien: Covenant” reminds us how synthetics came to be: They were the creation of a human named Weyland (Guy Pearce), whose android “son” David (Fassbender) has been obsessed with the idea of creation ever since, experimenting with a toxic black liquid he discovered in “Prometheus.”

Oram would surely have strong feelings about David’s misbehavior if the movie ever slowed down long enough let him consider the teleological questions raised by a robot playing God. Instead, Oram’s role is to redirect the mission to a nearby potentially habitable moon, which might shorten the mission but violates all kinds of logic when you consider that the 2,000 deep-sleep pioneers on board the Covenant are all bound for another destination entirely. As Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the dead captain’s widow, observes, “There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense,” and it’s hard to disagree.

Still, in an effort to appease “Alien” fans, Scott has returned the series to its horror-movie roots, unleashing a sequence of gory death scenes as four aliens body-snatch and otherwise terrorize the crew. By now, though, audiences are so familiar with how this species reproduces that there’s not much surprise between the point of infection (whether by microscopic spores or old-fashioned face hugging) and the moment that an alien embryo bursts out of the host’s chest. If anything, an impatience sets in, much as it does with zombie movies in which characters aren’t up to speed on the genre rules: In the world of “Alien,” humans don’t recover from these close encounters; once someone catches the virus, he or she is already a goner.

The novelty in “Alien: Covenant” comes in the form of two virtually identical-looking but differently wired synthetics, Walter and David, both played by Fassbender, whose poker-faced dual performance keeps us guessing as to where the androids’ allegiances lie. One will emerge as the film’s villain, while the other serves as its tragic hero; one seems capable of love, the other impervious to the paradox that “creation” comes at the cost of a seemingly infinite loss of life.

In the film’s best scene, David teaches Walter how to play the flute — an instrument that later serves as a deadly weapon. The moment is so compelling that we hardly stop to question how the filmmakers pulled it off with a single actor, and besides, few directors can compete with Scott in terms of sheer production value. “Alien: Covenant” looks as good as a blockbuster can, alternating stunning interstellar vistas with gorgeously lit character moments, courtesy of DP Dariusz Wolski.

And yet, as in his 2014 biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Scott has no qualms about wiping out an entire population in a single CG effects sequence, suggesting that the philosophical considerations here are superficial at best. “Alien: Covenant” may continue the “Prometheus” storyline, but it doesn’t share that film’s spirit — or else the characters might pause to show some interest in the extinct population that at one time inhabited the moon they’re exploring.

As acts of creation go, Scott has made an “Alien” movie for that segment of the audience that has always rooted for the monster.

Film Review: Ridley Scott's 'Alien: Covenant'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, May 4, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 122 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release, presented in association with TSG Entertainment of a Brandywine, Scott Free production. Producers: Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, David Giler, Walter Hill.

Crew

Director: Ridley Scott. Screenplay: John Logan, Dante Harper; story: Jack Paglen, Michael Green, based on elements created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett. Camera (color, widescreen): Dariusz Wolski. Editor: Pietro Scalia. Music: Jed Kurzel.

With

Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich.

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  1. Amanda says:

    I actually enjoyed Prometheus, my only complaint was the dumb moves of the crew. The moron treating the “fluke” as you would a frightened puppy was the single most unrealistic thing in a movie about aliens and evil robots.
    Clearly this was not a big deal to Scott. It’s dumb decision after dumb decision after dumb decision for the Covenant crew.
    My issue with Alien Covenant, other than the gratuitous “Cabin in the Woods” rules sex scene, was the almost rape of one female character by David as he implies he did the same to Elizabeth Shaw.
    What was the point? That women can’t even avoid rape by a robot that finds humans beneath him?

    I was still dealing with my annoyance with two women who seemed to be at the top of their game, suddenly becoming two of the biggest morons of the entire crew. One a scientist who should have know better then to bring a potentially infected crew member on board. before deciding he really just needed a hug. WHAT?
    And the other going from cool headed pilot to a screaming falling down horror movie cliche who not only can’t take 5 seconds to warn the rest of the crew “hey he’s infected and something just burst out of his body” while taking the time to shout other not as informative information, before setting the ship aflame Instead of leading the alien outside where help was on the way and or she’d have a clear shot.
    Ripley would be so ashamed.

  2. Tony says:

    Disappointing. That crew made so many stupid moves, who wouldn’t be rooting for the monsters? Its like these people never saw a horror or sci fi movie in their life but they know John Denver? Touch alien plant life? Sure, it’s cool. Bring infected passénger back on board? Why not? If you think someone is behind you, turn around very slowly. That always makes them quickly vanish. Your crew members are slowly disappearing and/or dying, there’s only three of you left, what should you do? Split up of course! The odds are in your favor. Two identical robots, one good, the other evil? Give the ride to the evil one without checking his identity. What could possibly go wrong? If I were one of those 2,000 colonists, I’d be demanding a refund when I woke up! This crew gives idiots a bad name.

  3. Les Vogt says:

    Tying anything to the preposterous and dreadful “Prometheus” is a huge mistake right off the bat. Unlikely this could be worse. I’m not sure I’m into another sequel that is just more of the same.

  4. Terry Mac says:

    Seriously? I was so looking forward to seeing where the “Engineers” came from, to contunuing “Prometheus” journey to humanity’s origins. But you can’t have everything at once I suppose. Hopefully the next one has a few surprises.

  5. loco73 says:

    This movie was awful and painful to watch. People were complaining about “Prometheus”?!?! That movie was a masterpiece comparing to this stinking turd…I preferred when the aliens were scary, bloody and violent predators…I didn’t need to know their backstory…that they were some kind of engineered and pre-planned bio-weapon…the lack of explanation, the “not knowing” is what made them terrifying in the first place…Ridley Scott is one of my favourite directors, put it is sad to watch him now almost purposefully dismantle his legacy…

  6. Kurt Heiss says:

    So let me get this straight, most of your crew mates with whom you’ve spent many months and years with, preparing for this colonization effort, have just been slaughtered by an unknown alien entity – yet you (as a couple) feel compelled to have sex in the shower immediately afterward (presumably to celebrate the deaths of your friends)?? Utterly ridiculous.

    • recount the stories of those who, after surviving death are overcome with a biological imperative to reproduce. if I had a hot wife and we just survived some crazy alien bullshit, the first thing i’d want to do is reproduce.

      though honestly if you’re so unwilling to suspend disbelief, every movie is going to be
      a disappointment

      • NT says:

        Why defend a trope? Would have been way more original if she was crying over everything they just went through, and her husband went over to console her, and then they were attacked. That’s how easy it would have been to make the scene feel authentic (ie, more like Alien).

  7. Ed Cross says:

    Spoiler alert……

    So unless I misunderstand, Alien Covenant says that, in effect, the android Walter, acting as God, and feeling like God, created the Alien species as we know it in the 1979 original movie. He took the organic material devised by the engineers and worked genetically to breed the perfect organism: the Alien resulting from breeding humans with the DNA created by the engineers in Prometheus. Am I wrong?

  8. tommy donahue says:

    alien movies are bad about quarantine procedures

  9. Ripley Connor says:

    when do we get to see Alien vs Terminator?

  10. I remember the ‘not everything in space is cute and cuddly’ from ALIEN
    and am glad Ridley is taking it back to that genre. I liked ALIEN and ALIENS
    but then it got sidetracked.
    The ‘queen’ sounds like she is still ticked off…LOL

  11. Sad says:

    Send your reviews so that Hollywood dont make cheap and horrible movies.

  12. Sad says:

    Evil robot magneto won
    Duped her into thinking it was walter the good robot but so obvious that she saw his amputated robot hand, the magneto robot covers it. A clue that was easy to discern but poor storyline made those characters dumb.mother ship warned of aliens aboard but dumb characters didnt quarantined magneto robot. Obvious that it was inside magneto robot.characters too dumb too act again.

  13. Sad says:

    Realtime. 4 audience watch that movie. Only 4.im not going to disclose that place somewhere in a well known mall in Philippines. Just for your info hollywood, first hand information about that movie tru the internet reach us late.unfortunately. Fast and furious was already removed from the adjacent movie theater that alien was the lone movie shown. Pls send the reviews before watching.the fakes were already sold weeks before but lucky for them

  14. Sad says:

    There is no ripley in this movie!

    • Spiketbear says:

      That’s because it takes place when Ripley is like, 12.

      • MEH-lien says:

        So if all this happens when Ripley is 12, (Spoilers ahead) how is Ripley’s crew supposed to find a cave or hold below and engineer piloted vessel filled with David-made genetically engineered eggs? When you are the chief storyteller and director of two movies and you are the chief storyteller and director making a third movie that connects those two, the first and foremost rule is not to invalidate the other or others. This movie invalidates Alien, and thereby completely fails at the one simple and most fundamental goal it must achieve. Felt more like an M. Knight movie that took the easy way out with cheap twists, rather than a sophisticated or even just passingly effective bridge between the series.

  15. Sad says:

    Ms.katherine and crew should make harry potter movies. A waste of talents for such a horrible movie. The scripts of the original has to be followed strictly up to its minute details.millions of dollars wasted and we end up on debts

  16. Sad says:

    Disaster. Mr scott.your audience are educated people. Not kindergarten students. Choose another script or make a harry potter film. Waste of good ideas not done.the plot of the story was so simple that promethues continuation was thrown in the waste can.

  17. isv says:

    Prometheus wasn’t a mistake.
    Alien covenant is a BIG, BIG, BIG MISTAKE.
    I’ve seen the movie in the cinema, and I can say that Ridley, you need to explain “A”. But you explain “B” in Prometheus. So you now, you explain “C” in Alien Covenant,, when in fact, we need to know “A”. Covenant is the worst movie of Alien-Prometheus franchise by far. So we need another movie, please, and if we’re lucky, finally we will know “A”. Not “B”, not “C”.

    If The force awakens was the worst movie of Star Wars ever made, I can say that Alien Covenant is the worst alien movie ever made. Sorry Ridley, sorry Fox, Sorry Abrams, sorry Disney. WE DON’T WANT THIS KIND OF SEQUELS.

    Alien Covenant: 4/10

  18. Daniel says:

    I really am curious what movie some of you critics were watching. If a layman like me can see the STARK contrast between the artistry that was the original Alien and the banal abomination that Alien: Covenant proves to be, and numerous “critics” can’t see it, then the title seems very ironic, because what kind of critic lacks a critical eye?

    • JB says:

      Exactly. The resoundingly positive reviews are completely without merit. You have a crew of beyond stupid people who make the absolute worst decisions. The Nostromo crew made stupid decisions but their decisions were almost always the best decision available and not the worst. There were plenty of Laughable serious moments. Plot holes. In short, a very bad movie. Possibly the worst movie released since ID2. People should be fired over this.

  19. John says:

    Im sorry, but for real sci-fi- fans, the movie WE all wanted to see was the origin story about the engineers. Its too bad Scott waisted such a great opportunity for a real, thinking persons movie and instead seems to have giving in to the low IQ fanboys with more of the same ole, same ole. Sad

  20. JxM says:

    Alien wasn’t about death and killing, it was about life and reproduction. Excepting John Hurt’s scene, it was nearly free from explicit blood, gore, and violence, just a couple gory shots that last less than a second. It was a hard R for thematic content, (sex, rape, reproduction, and yes, dehumanization/alienation — The title doesn’t just mean extraterrestrial, it also means unfamiliar). If you think it was trying to KILL Ripley in the final scene, you should watch it again. Alien’s closer to Deliverance than any of the movies it spawned, and THAT is why it’s so psychologically horrifying, even you don’t consciously realize it.

    Adding gore, explosions and Alien gymnastics is like giving Norman Bates a bazooka for 5 shower scenes. It just demonstrates you care more about a paycheck that the original movie.

    And Ridley Scott has never been able to properly stage an action scene.

  21. danceplaylove says:

    learn how to write a review ffs, you dont explain the movie, that’s basic as, you moron.

  22. jason ross says:

    Stopped reading as soon as the spoilers came thick and fast. Holy hell Variety, you have gone from the best most reliable ‘impressionistic’ reviews, to the worst most angering spoiler heavy reviews. Just lazy.

  23. TG says:

    Damn, this review gives too much away!!

  24. Tom Hartman says:

    Homosexuals can “breed” lol
    Never post after a recent head injury….

    • Neil says:

      To Tom: Oh look, another old man has come forward with his own old man opinion. I have personally known 3 gay men and 4 lesbians who have had biological children of their own, two of the gay men while having sex with women but living as openly gay men who wanted to have a child with women friends, all four of the women while they were in same-sex relationships utilizing in vitro fertilization, and the third gay man while in a relationship with a woman, who knew he was bisexual (later identifying as gay). These children are real. And they were bred just like you and I were bred. And the two kids I still keep in touch with turned out to be pretty cool kids of gay parents. But let me guess, Tom, your opinion has not changed. You are still like, “lol, gays don’t have children. Lol.” No head injury here, my man.

  25. Neil says:

    Uh, homosexuals can breed, old man. In fact I’ve known quite a few in my life who have, both in gay and hetero relationships. Whether or not this dumb movie shows the gays in any sort of realistic way, I don’t know — but it seems short-sighted to mention them and write something like that.

    • jonahsteeler says:

      No. Gays can’t breed. Two gay guys that are born guys can’t have a child. Just like two women can’t. WITHOUT THE OPPOSITE SEX. You are beyond stupid.

    • Why do you idiots always have to bring in “GAY and Race issues” into a movie…???
      IT’S a movie, leave it at that..
      PS Now you bring AGE into it, I’m old enough, take a break…

  26. Wayne says:

    Accept it for what it is.

  27. LOL says:

    Hope this flops. These H’wood franchises never die as long as troglodytes mindlessly consume them.

  28. James Krisvoy says:

    Outside of the United States Alien Covenent can be seen by audiences in 3D. It would seem the film lends itself to the process. So far no explanation…but it almost seems like a form of technical censorship. So what happened?

  29. LensView says:

    Right, you are, Xenomorph! Star Wars is in no way science fiction – except for Hans Solo’s creative remark about his Millennium Falcon being able to do the Kessel Run in under “12 parsecs.” This is usually considered a gaffe, since a parsec is a measure of distance, not speed. Ah, but this is the clever science fiction bit since it is not generally known that the Falcon had a pirated cargo of Spice Melange on board and was therefore able to bend space, making a run of 660 parsecs in only 12. It was quite a trick, and definitely the stuff of science fiction.

  30. Xenomorph says:

    Do people – including film reviewers – still think “Star Wars” is sci-fi? “Star Wars” is about as sci-fi as “Wizard of Oz”, or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy were…meaning Not at All. It’s “fantasy”. Films from the 60s and 70s such as “2001”, “CE3K”, “Andromeda Strain”, “Demon Seed” and the original “Alien” and “Star Trek” movies might legitimately be considered “sci-fi”. And I can’t tell if Mr. Debruge actually LIKED “Alien: Covenant” or DIDN’T like “Alien: Covenant”, based on this non-committal review. Oh well…

  31. Ann Seeber says:

    “1977’s “Star Wars,” which made every child dream of space, introducing cuddly, nonsense-spouting aliens that could be brought home as toys.” ?? So Ewoks were in New Hope? I don’t think so!

  32. macd says:

    Sounds to me like this crap might well be one of this summer’s biggest bombs.

  33. Cybershaman says:

    Wouldn’t it be a hoot if each Alien film were named for its associated spaceship? Certainly seems like that’s how things are going these days. ;) Imagine, if you will: Alien: Nostromo, Alien: Sulaco, Alien: Fiorina ( or “Fury”. OK! So what if it’s the planet’s name! :P), Alien: Auriga (or “Betty”. :P)

  34. SH says:

    Was hoping #2 was CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND…which actually came out 40 years ago also…unlike ALIEN…

  35. Kevin Tran says:

    This should be the scariest and bloodiest Alien film ever. Wasn’t impressed when I saw Prometheus back in 2012.

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