"We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell." Oscar Wilde
It has been 38 years since Ridley Scott first launched the Alien series upon us; taking a haunted house/slasher format and grafting HR Giger's perverse monster design onto it. He returned to the series in 2012 with the deeply divisive, notably xenomorph-free Prometheus; and now he dips his toe into the Alien universe again, this time with Alien: Covenant.
Simply put Alien: Covenant will probably be as divisive as Prometheus. At its core it is an odd tale of gods creating monsters with a monster movie wedged in. Synopsing the film is difficult as much of its appeal comes in experiencing the plot developments unfold - so I shall give the basics. The Covenant is a colony ship on its way to a new world that, in close succession, suffers a devastating incident and picks up a signal from a nearby planet that offers the possibility of a habitable new world. What they find there is, of course, far from a paradise, and the crew start to die... horribly.
Scott's approach to the franchise can be summed up with two anecdotes. The original ending to Alien had the xenomorph kill Ripley and mimic her voice to communicate back to Earth. And during the promotion of this film Scott has stated that we only have the alien of the title in Alien: Covenant because fans demanded it. In short Scott is not particularly interested in making a traditional Alien film and is a firm advocate of a cruel cosmos that does not play by the narrative rules of the slasher movie (as we do not need a final girl). This cruelty colours much of the film's more interesting moments and, in particular, the presence of returning cast member Michael Fassbender. Alien: Covenant is unafraid to embrace some refreshingly dark moments for a summer blockbuster.
Fassbender is fascinating in Alien: Covenant both as David, the devious android from the Prometheus, and Walter, a newer model aboard the Covenant. When he is on screen the film lifts and shows its more surreal side. A stand-out scene sees David teach Walter to play the clarinet. It is laced with a tension that you would expect in the more alien-orientated moments, which this film can't quite capitalise on. The rest of the cast are mostly disposable with only Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride standing out. There is the potential early on, during the scenes on the spacecraft, for this film to have a rich ensemble. But once the film grounds itself on the new planet, it loses interest in the nuance of the earlier scenes and focuses in on the all-consuming acting prowess of Fassbender.
It has been 31 years since the last truly exceptional Alien film was released (Aliens) and I still hold out hope that one day there will be another great addition to the franchise. Sadly, Alien: Covenant is not it. It is a fun sci-fi that offers some interesting talking points. It looks gorgeous, has a nostalgia-driven soundtrack that is exceptional, and has one remarkable dual performance. However it is not interested in being a traditional Alien film, and the xenomorph scenes certainly lack the terror of the original, while the action is never as satisfying as in Aliens. But this is an endearingly odd film and I am intrigued as to where Scott will take the series next in the eventual sequel.