Alien: Covenant Review: Ridley Scott Steers the Beloved Series Back on Track

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There are two sci-fi franchises chiefly associated with film that garner more respect than all the others: Star Wars and Alien. With their respective originals released two years apart in the ’70s, it only makes sense that both of their returns to form would take place just two years apart almost 40 years after the fact. Alien: Covenant is this series’ Force Awakens, in that it takes small steps to expand the mythology of the series and is mostly focused on recreating that classic mood. The only difference between the Star Wars mood and the Alien mood is that the latter can mean a lot of different things. Is it the original’s close-quarters horror? Is it James Cameron’s action-packed war effort? Is it Prometheus‘ philosophical musings? Covenant ambitiously tries to balance all three, with returning director Ridley Scott thankfully succeeding far more than he fails.

Set ten years after Prometheus, a film viewers don’t necessarily have to like but should be familiar with before Covenant, this entry brings a whole new crew in contact with varying species of pure horror. Two voices break out as the leaders of the Covenant, the ship from which the film gains its subtitle, after their captain dies waking up from cryostasis: Daniels (Katherine Waterson, the level-headed Ripley stand-in that comes this close to not being that) and Oram (Billy Crudup). They’re woken up by Walter (Michael Fassbender), the ship’s android, when something goes wrong, leading them to a hospitable planet that holds rewarding answers to the series’ mythology.

As with the 1979 original, Scott has made an understated sci-fi film that yearns for a second viewing just to look around at the details hidden in its rich production design. But unlike Star Wars, this isn’t a world you ever want to live in. Covenant runs on tension, though a more modern version of it than what Scott delivered decades ago. It’s terrifying creatures, old and new, as well as the return of Prometheus‘ David (Fassbender again, stealing the film right out from everyone else), lend the film not only it’s anticipated terror, but also its consistent uneasiness. All that combined makes for a film you can’t stop looking at, even when that same look promises to deliver something either gruesome or horrific.

But the best surprise here is how Scott appears to have learned from his mistakes from Prometheus. Better dialogue and acting are only part of what makes Covenant so much more watchable. His 2012 effort introduced some fascinating philosophical quandaries about the existence of life and its purpose, but then promptly dropped them. Covenant not only expands upon them, but makes them relevant to the evolution of the Alien mythology. Putting the pieces together of the now six films in the series might make one’s head spin, but this film tries to fill in the blanks in legitimately interesting ways and largely succeeds.

Covenant isn’t all bells and whistles though. Once certain plot developments are in place, the climax doesn’t share the same passionate relish that the rest of the film does. It’s over before you really know it began, a massive flaw for a film that uses its suspense to stay afloat. The ending that follows is also more interested in setting up inevitable follow-up than wrapping up this chapter, a modern flaw that swiftly rips out the film’s refreshingly simple, old-fashioned feel.

But still, Covenant gets so much right that its flaws are mostly secondary. Being the best film in a franchise in three decades (coming in third after Alien and Aliens, though by a fairly wide margin) is something to celebrate. With expanded mythology, strong performances, a high gore quotient, and genuine thrills, this is one prequel to a beloved classic that doesn’t disappoint. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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