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There’s nothing quite like the tragedy of watching something you held dear going off the rails, possibly never to return, or the corresponding joy of that adored object getting back on track and clicking nicely into place.  These were the lows and highs of watching Alien: Covenant.

As a lifelong fan of the first two films, I endured films three and four, dismissing their decreasing quality as they were not directed by the originator, Ridley Scott.  While James Cameron’s second installment was an excellent blockbuster and one of filmdom’s finest sequels, it was much more an unabashed action film than the 1979 original’s sci-fi thriller; with its mythos and creation of a never-before-seen cinematic nightmare.  The movies following Cameron’s felt more in his mould than Scott’s, while boasting neither’s vision.

While I usually anticipate sequels with all the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist, when 2012’s Prometheus was announced as Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien lore - and that it would be a prequel - I was here for it.  What I hadn’t counted on was the possibility that after thirty-three years away from the material, the man responsible for creating a new kind of horror experience might have forgotten what made that first film so special.  Prometheus was a lead balloon that alternated a flat script with very un-Alien-like, cheap, shock-horror scares that crammed the Alien iconography down our throats in a frenetic jumble.  It was as if Scott was trying to match the work of those who came after him, instead of remembering how he had blazed a trail by creating something different in pacing, visuals, characterisation and deep, unsettling terror.  Scott’s film (and the hands of artist HR Giger and special effects legend, Carlo Rambaldi) created one of cinema’s most famous and unforgettable monsters.  Though I really shouldn’t have, after the thud of Prometheus, I felt let down by the director, who I regard as my favourite, because I knew he could’ve done better than this unfortunate prequel.  Alien: Covenant was an opportunity to see if my faith in Ridley Scott had been redeemed.

We open in the past, observing the naming of David, the efficient synthetic we met in Prometheus.  A conversation between David and his maker, Peter Weyland, ponders the place of mankind, now that with a being like David, he has created something better, more “perfect” than himself.   As we go forward in time, it seems a step down for such a flawless entity to be next seen as a servant to the human homesteaders of the spaceship Covenant.  We meet Walter, a later model AI, who looks quite a bit like his predecessor.  The Covenant, from its crew, to the thousands of passengers onboard, lie in stasis until such time as they are meant to land on a far off planet and make it a home.  As space isn’t particularly predictable, a shockwave throws all into chaos as the crew must awaken from their enforced slumber to deal with the emergency.  In the midst of the confusion, a radio call from an uncharted planet forces a decision to abandon their original course for the possibility of a nearer option, and the crew sets down to explore the mystery land. 

Incredibly, the new world seems perfectly habitable and perhaps an even better opportunity than the years-away intended destination.  The air is fresh and vegetation abundant, and the inhabitants seem to have been big art lovers, because there’s tons of statues of large people everywhere.  One interesting art installation is a semi-circular structure that looms over the woodland, framed by hundreds of broken trees.  As part of the Covenant staff goes looking into temples of ruins, bedecked with many of those realistic statues of very big men, their scientists look around at the flora and fauna of this world so unknown they don’t realise the dangers of merely breathing in.

A sudden weakening sickness hits several members of the crew and our science team makes it back to the landing ship in time to watch one of their own ripped through the back by something very strange – one might even say, alien.  As the creature grows exponentially by the minute, it’s joined by a sibling hatching out of another poor crewman in the field.  As the pale, zippy monsters manage quite a bit of damage with their flying teeth, tails and claws, the remaining Covenant crew runs for cover inside the temple, where they are met by someone who looks quite familiar. 

The last of the Prometheus crew, David knows his way around, and after saving the ambushed explorers, begins his tale of the destruction that occurred after his people encountered the deadly beasts.  To the survivors of the Covenant, David’s knowledge, experience and – like their Walter – subservience to humans is a godsend, as all they want to do is get off the planet and back to the main ship.  Clearer-eyed than his terrified humans, the docile Walter, while fascinated by the travelled elder, suspects that all may not be what it seems with David, as David senses the gentler, more caring nature of his descendant might not necessarily be an upgrade.

Right off the bat with the beautiful framing and lushness of even a minimally-decorated white room, the look of Alien: Covenant shows us a true Ridley Scott production in play.  While miles away visually from Alien 3 or Resurrection, in what seemed like a frantic need to wrap the film in its mythology, Prometheus kind of looked like HR Giger threw up all over it.  Scott isn’t afraid of looking back this time, and it’s all to the good as Covenant does not become a pillar of salt.  The calmer, more studied pace from the outset, as the camera lolls down the long hallways and stations of the Covenant behind Walter’s daily chores keeping thousands of space pioneers alive, is the director letting the pictures tell the story, which is such a key element of any Ridley Scott film.

All of the participants in this extraterrestrial homestead experiment are young couples, which is a new dynamic to the series; giving a different emotional depth to what they endure.  There is also the added drama of the entanglements of family beliefs and the simple passion of love shaping their decisions and reactions.  We see a loss early on that colours how we view the motivations of the person left behind.  Scott makes sure the inevitable losses are realised people, and not just cannon – chestburster? -  fodder.

In highlighting the couples, Scott also goes back to burying the lead character until it’s absolutely necessary to focus.  The third in command, Daniels Branson had no expectation of needing to take charge of this lengthy, but hopeful journey.  As the stakes change, we see that character bloom in adversity in a way that loudly recalls another strong lady in space faced with unforeseen circumstances.  Katherine Waterston’s portrayal adds the right amount of heart and softness that did not exist in Sigourney Weaver’s hard-as-nails, by-the-book 1979 version of Ripley, but Waterston simultaneously lends Daniels an intelligence and clarity that makes her leadership believable.  In a bit of a sop to the success of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, unlike Weaver, Waterston doesn’t have to wait for a second film to be an action star, as Scott gives her a gravity-defying, heart-pounding set piece all her own.

The other creatures worth noting - besides the blokes with the acid blood - are the two synthetics, David 8 and Walter.  Apples from the same tree, they grew up a little different.  There was a scent of expectation around David in Prometheus, that he was going to be a bit more than a servile Mr. Roboto, and here Scott carries over that presumption to colour our view of David from the start.  He’s strangely aggressive; he makes no particular fuss over the collection of alien bits decorating his home, and he seems to have learned some nasty human habits during his years crashed on the planet.  This David 8 calls back to our memories of Ash, the “buggy” AI from the ill-fated Nostromo, raising hackles on the audience’s collective neck every time he’s on.  Playing both David and Walter, Michael Fassbender perfects the smooth, unctuous older creation, who in his coldness is often more creepily reptilian and alien than anything popping out of the eggs.  His Walter is a puppy dog; absolutely subservient and showing teeth only to protect his masters.  Walter’s demureness makes us wonder if he ever spent a moment as David did, pondering the order of the synthetic versus its lesser human creators.  Fassbender gets some great moments out of playing against himself, including a few silky seconds of perversion that will keep fan-fiction writers busy for decades.

While Prometheus was practically an exploitative gore fest compared to the (relative) restraint of the original movie; showing far too many graphic human explosions and trying too hard to shock, Covenant also has its share of pops.  However, this time, Scott takes a lesson from his younger self and lets the audience anticipate the terror and lets it build in their minds.  Cleverly using quick cuts and editing and allowing for obscuring angles, we don’t get many full, explicit views of the big bads, even in full combat.  They loom more in the mind’s eye, making them even scarier.  However, when he does throw the xenomorphs in our faces, for the most part, it’s gloriously shriek-worthy.  This is the kind of movie where we used to yell helpful – and completely unheeded - advice to the victims at screen during the opening night midnight show. 

Alien: Covenant is not perfect, but it makes up for a lot of transgressions.  It is every bit a blockbuster thrill ride, but with the intelligence, wit and stunning visuals that restore our expectations for Ridley Scott films. 

Appropriately ending with a scream in space that no one can hear, Ridley Scott is back on track with Alien: Covenant, and all feels right in – and out of – the world.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 17th, 2017

 

 

 

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Photos

Stills Courtesy of  20th Century Fox

 

 

 

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