Monday, 15 May 2017
Alien: Covenant (Film Review)
So, here we are again. It's been several years since Prometheus, and with Ridley Scott having flip-flopped a few times over what he was going to do with this one, it was never wholly clear whether we were going to see it. So, was it worth the wait? Definitely. Is without its flaws? Definitely not. This is certainly a very enjoyable film, but one with more than a few major failings present within its storytelling, which might well put you off of this one.
The story this time follows the crew of the colony ship Covenant as it travels to a new world. However, after interstellar anomalies damage the vessel and a human signal is picked up on a nearby world, they opt to investigate, hoping to find a closer destination to make their new home. Unfortunately, they soon discover they are not alone, and the answers to what happened in this horrifying world lie with the mysterious android who awaits them there. His name? David.
Now, let's get the obvious out of the way first - This is a beautiful film. In terms of cinematography, visuals and CGI, it is astoundingly gorgeous. Scott has never directed a bad looking film in his life, and Covenant isn't about to break this winning streak. While he certainly experiments with a few key ideas, everything from horror driven close-ups to an airborne battle scene, all of it looks spectacular. Even the lack of colour, dulled and subdued as it is, proves to be remarkably effective given the bleak nature of the tale, breaking up only for certain secondary atmospheric moments.
Many of the film's key horror scenes themselves both play towards older alien films and break away from it. Many of the major fight scenes are infinitely more visceral, tense and downright bitter compared to anything before them. When a xenomorph clambers atop of someone, it isn't just stabbing them, it's gouging its way through their flesh and ripping them apart. Equally, many of the major chestburster scenes - barring one late exception - prove to be just as violent and horrifying as the original, adding in some spiteful or disturbing element to make the very act of it all the more harrowing. In fact, while the new variations of the old creatures are quite clearly a proto-xenomorphic creation, their features, bodies and designs, but their general behavior still makes them stand out.
The actual planet itself proves to be almost a character in of itself. We have the hostile world vibes despite it seeming almost identical to Earth at first glance, but there is much more to it than just that. We see an entire city of Engineers, covered in the petrified bodies of fallen aliens, and falling into ruin. We see a workshop of horrors and dissected creations left on display, and even the ship itself has an oddly chilling atmosphere to it. You can tell it is lived in, and is less the sort of grimy oil rig the Nostromo was, but that manages to still make it all the more chilling. In fact, when it does eventually go full horror-show towards the end, it almost seems more thematically fitting as you know that there is something horribly wrong stalking about the place.
This is perhaps the core of Covenant's success above all else, as it is a film which is willing to use old ideas but not rely on them. Sure, we might be seeing a lot of old Alien tropes in the film, and it's even focusing upon the return of the original xenomorph design, but it still is willing to try and be its own entity. The return of the android David, and his upgraded replacement Walter, are clear signs of this. Many of their conversations prove to be the film's highlight where they discuss the subject of self-determination, perfection and creativity; with a few distinct ones opting to follow only a single shot with few to no cuts. David was always a major highlight in Prometheus, so anything to give him more screen time here is a gem to behold, and it seems that Scott himself fully understood this fact.
While many also might have complained about the excess CGI present within the film, there is no denying that the blend of digital imagery and practical effects stands out well. The xenomorph in particular moves with vastly more agility, speed and strength than almost any past depiction, and there's something unsettling about its motions. Everything from the movements of its tail curling about a ladder to running across walls is the sort of unnaturally agile mobility these creatures have always been famed for in additional material.
Finally, the ending is a work of true genius. It's the kind of incredible twist of the knife which justifies sitting through every flaw which is about to be outlined below. While it cannot be truly covered, and you might even predict it a few minutes before it fully pans out, the execution is absolutely stunning. It's the sort of depressing, horrifying conclusion which makes it clear that there's really no happy ending here even when the protagonists win.
Surprisingly, Covenant is arguably narratively weaker than Prometheus. The two might be very, very different films (and this is coming from someone who loved Prometheus) but there were some notable idiot plot moments used here to drive the story forwards. Perhaps the most infamous among them is when the man who has been acting aloof, mysterious and outright villainous since the crew arrived is trusted implicitly for quite some time. Even after he is standing over the decapitated body of a crewman, admiring the creature which slew them, and has to be talked to telling the truth at gunpoint, characters still somehow allow him to walk them into perilous situations. This doesn't arise too often, and a few moments can even be put down to blind panic, but several critical points exist only because the crew acted like morons.
In addition to this factor, the story suffers from an extremely weak start. Visually it is stunning, and there are some extremely atmospheric moments to be sure, but the story quickly rushes through several crucial events. It starts with a bang, moves onto a question, and then heads right for the planet. You never get a chance to learn just who is who, or a real reason to truly care about them. In fact, even the protagonist herself is given little chance to be truly established outside of a brief conversation and a look through her dead husband's effects. This might not have been too bad a point, were it not for the fact this runs throughout the entire film. With Prometheus you were aware of who was who, what made them distinctive and how they ticked. With this one, there's nothing outside of a few gimmicks. In fact, of the initial group of six survivors, only three left any kind of impact.
The film is evidently in a hurry to get things over and done with as well, to the point where we have what's effectively a sped-up chestburster scene in the middle of the first act. There's little tension, no questions or even a chance to build up any dread. While the actual scene itself is excellent and quite horrifying, it lacks a lot of the initial momentum needed to help it leave any substantial impact. In fact, the same goes for a lot of major points within this film. These are humans who just learned alien life exists and that a whole culture was destroyed. Their reaction? Nothing. Most of their crewmen are dead, a deranged android is on the loose and the fate of the long lost Prometheus expedition has been established. Their comments, thoughts and ideas? None.
Even these could have been forgiven were it not for the fact that there's just no time spent trying to question or act like these are trained professionals. There are no efforts made to keep an eye out for hostile flora, fauna or lifeforms in general, leading to the two initial burster scenes. When they come across the Engineer ship there's no real sense of wonder or major questions, it just happens and it's forgotten again within moments. These are problems which were highlighted in franchise films decades ago, and combined with the insanely accelerated growth of a xenomorph and the "splitting the party" horror trope coming into play more than once, it's disappointing to be sure. For all the great ideas it had, it honestly would not be surprising to learn that this was patched together from multiple drafts.
Alien: Covenant is decent. It's not the smash hit others claim it is or something to rival the first two films, but it is still entertaining. There's plenty of good horror moments and some very solid scenes, but the links between those bits tend to be very weak. Combined with how the story seems to almost skip steps to reach the fun moments, its flaws are obvious. Still, it's saying something when little to none of that really seemed to lessen my initial enjoyment, and I was hooked from the landing sequence to the end credits.
If you're an Alien fan, grab a few friends, get it at a lower price or on rental, and have some fun. Just be ready to facepalm at a few particular moments.