When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise with 2012’s Prometheus, one of the primary criticisms was that the film wasn’t really, well, Alien-esque. Rather than build upon the sci-fi/horror formula he had created in 1979, Scott went in a different direction with a film that was much more concerned with questions about the origins of humanity and our place in the universe. It was an intentional shift, with Scott even saying at the time that the film shouldn’t be taken as a direct prequel to his previous work, but that didn’t do much to curb audience expectations.
For his new sequel to Prometheus, Scott has made the decision to go back to his roots. From the title to the marketing, Alien: Covenant has been framed as a direct descendent of the original, with one thing in mind above all others: scaring the hell out of the audience. The visceral footage previewed at SXSW earlier this year only seemed to underscore the idea that this was going to be a brutal, gory Alien, much closer to the film that fans wanted five years than the ponderous, often convoluted story they got.
For long stretches Alien: Covenant delivers on that promise. It’s a film full of terrifying, heart-pounding terror, on par with some of the best work in Scott’s career. But it’s also a movie stuck between modes, mixing that horror with the same pseudo-intellectual pondering that ground things to a halt last time. The result is a film that is a welcome improvement over Prometheus, but perhaps not the home run that sci-fi and horror fans might have been hoping for.
The film picks up 10 years after the events of Prometheus, with the ship Covenant making a years-long journey through space. With 2,000 colonists in cryosleep and bevy of human embryos on board, its mission is to reach the distant planet Origae-6 and set up a new outpost, spreading humanity’s reach across the galaxy. Monitoring the ship during the trip is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an upgraded model of the synthetic human Fassbender played in the previous film. A wave of energy from a nearby star ends up assaulting the ship, waking the crew up from their sleep pods and killing the ship’s captain (James Franco, who is in the film for no more than a single shot before being burned alive).
Stepping into the leadership vacuum is Oram (Billy Crudup), and when the crew receives a transmission from a nearby planet that might be an even better fit for their colonization mission, he directs the Covenant to the planet to investigate. Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the dead captain’s wife, argues against it, but is ultimately overruled. When the Covenant crew lands on the new planet, they find an incredibly Earth-like environment, but as they start to explore they discover a world of horrors they could never have anticipated.
From the early moments of Covenant, it’s obvious that Scott and his collaborators want this movie to feel like an Alien film. Themes from original composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score surface early on, and the entire pacing of the film feels like a nod to what has come before. (One sequence towards the end of the film even plays like a 7-minute supercut of the original.) Meeting the crew of the Covenant only strengthens that connection. Characters like the pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), and his no-nonsense wife, Faris (Amy Seimetz) are human and relatable, calling back to the “truckers in space” vibe that made the original Alien such a novel break from sci-fi convention in the first place.
When it comes time for the monsters to reveal themselves and wreak havok, however, Scott doesn’t just prove that he’s still able to call upon the horror sensibilities that served him before. He takes the opportunity to show off how much he’s learned in the past 38 years, turning up the tension and squirm-in-your-seat anxiety to the point where it’s nearly unbearable at times. One of the posters for Alien: Covenant features just the face of the infamous xenomorph along with the word “run”, and that juxtaposition perfectly encapsulates the film’s best moments. When it’s humming, Alien: Covenant isn’t just a return to sci-fi horror. It’s quite nearly the perfect sequel, hitting every hoped-for franchise beat effortlessly. In a word, it is terrifying.
If only the rest of the film was able to execute its objectives with such flair. Scott may be interested in horror, but he is also interested in picking up the larger thematic questions he toyed with in Prometheus — and once again, they stop the film dead in its tracks. It’s not that these ideas aren’t welcome. Alien: Covenant has some legitimately fascinating notions about artificial intelligence, and how humanity’s search to know things beyond our grasp could ultimately prove to be our undoing. These concepts toy with the Alien mythology, upending it and giving it a spin, to the point where everything audiences have known since 1979 is suddenly called into question. But it often feels like there are two different movies spliced together, resulting in an odd and awkward mix of tones, with each undermining the other.
Perhaps even more frustrating is that Alien: Covenant, in its desire to take things in a different direction, actually makes it fundamentally unclear how these first two films lead to the original Alien in the first place. I’m not going to go into spoilers on this particular point, but Prometheus ended with Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw and Michael Fassbender’s David heading off in a ship from the intergalactic Engineers. While the pieces didn’t exactly line up, it did allow audiences to at least draw some general conclusions as to how those events would lead to Ellen Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo discovering their alien-infested vessel on LV-426. By tweaking the mythology, Alien: Covenant sidelines those ideas entirely. It causes the film to end on a note of frustration, like the story it’s telling is inherently incomplete. (No doubt future sequels, one of which Scott has said is already written, will connect the dots, but that doesn’t do much for audiences buying tickets for Covenant).
When compared to Prometheus, there is no doubt that Alien: Covenant is a massive improvement. The scares are some of the best the entire series has to offer, and on that criteria alone it can probably be considered a success. But there’s no escaping the fact that as a standalone film, Covenant is wanting, neither truly making its own thematic points nor carving out its own unique place in the legacy of the franchise. It’s an expanded universe movie, one whose meaning can only be determined when viewed alongside all other installments — including those yet to be made.
The problem is that the Alien franchise started in an age where sequels could be complete films unto themselves — in fact, James Cameron’s Aliens is considered by many to be one of the best sequels ever made. That is simply not the same kind of cinematic landscape we find ourselves in today, so perhaps something like Alien: Covenant is the best we can hope for. That said, I’d like to think that Scott has one more truly great Alien movie left in him somewhere. Maybe we’ll get it next time.