Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
On 5 December 2104, the crew of the spaceship Covenant are awoken early from their hibernation. Spotting a nearby planet, they land and explore, hoping to start a new colony. But the planet is not uninhabited…
The cast: The opening scene is set before Prometheus, the previous film in this series, and features two characters from that movie. Peter Wayland is younger than we’d previously seen him, so actor Guy Pearce has shed his old-man prosthetics, while the android David (Michael Fassbender) is being switched on for the first time. We then cut to around 10 years after the events of Prometheus and Michael Fassbender appears again. But it’s not David. He’s now playing another android called Walter. (This one has an American accent.) Walter’s keeping an eye on the spaceship Covenant as its human crew and 2000 colonists are in stasis. Then a plot device wakes the crew up unexpectedly and we start to meet them. Here lies a big problem: the cast is just too big. The first Alien movie has only seven people in it, and all were vivid and vibrant characters. Its immediate sequel had many more, but focused on a select few and made sure the others were memorable. Here, we’re bombarded with *15* really bland people we’re supposed to know and care about, and not one of them is given a memorable introduction. It could have been even more, but the captain is killed before he even wakes up. (Oddly, James Franco – often a leading man – was cast for this perfunctory character.) Some come across better than others. Katherine Waterston as Daniels is the closest thing to an Ellen Ripley type: a strong-willed woman who survives until the end. Billy Crudup gives an okay performance as Oram, the second-in-command who has to replace the captain. Comic actor Danny McBride wears a cowboy hat so you can always pick him out as Tennessee. But most of the characters are dully dull. Several of the crew are also paired off into married couples – all straight, mind – and it’s a tiresome struggle to remember which one is wed to which, even with people crowbarring phrases like ‘my wife’ into their dialogue. Much later in the film, after the crew have landed on a planet, they meet David. He’s been stranded there for several years. The movie then heads into batshit-crazy territory as Fassbender has some risible, tedious, two-handed scenes where he plays both David and Walter at the same time. (“Watch me, I’ll do the fingering.”)
The best bit: As in Prometheus, the film comes alive when it feels closest to the original Alien. The first burst of xenomorph action comes after 40 minutes or so. One of the group has been infected by microscopic bugs and starts convulsing and then vomits. He’s taken by two female colleagues to a medical bay aboard the ship and shakes violently; then an alien bursts out of his back and attacks the women. The cutting is good, the music is tense, there’s some smart handheld camerawork, and we even get a couple of moments of black comedy as people slip on pools of blood. You really feel the dread and panic and terror. The film then goes back to being sluggish and underwhelming.
Review: It’s happened before. Someone has a huge success, but then misunderstands why people liked it so much. For example, when George Lucas returned to the Star Wars series in the 1990s he seemed to be under the impression that the world had been charmed by the earlier films’ diplomacy drama and clunky religion. No, George. We liked the swashbuckling and comedy and action-adventure. And now we have Ridley Scott, the visionary director who recalibrated what science-fiction cinema could achieve with 1979’s Alien… who’s under the impression that the monster would be more terrifying if we understood its origins. Um, no. It was so frightening because we *didn’t* know what it is or where it comes from. Alien: Covenant continues Prometheus’s quest to ask big questions about God, the universe, creation and the origins of life – but in such hamfisted ways that it starts to feel like a soppy Christian film. “All these wonders of art, design, human ingenuity,” ponders Peter in the opening scene. “All utterly meaningless in the face of the only question that matters: where do we come from?” Oh, grow up. An even bigger issue, however – as it was in Prometheus – is the stupidity of the characters. In order to believe in and root for fictional people, we have to have confidence in them and yearn for them to overcome obstacles. That’s how storytelling works. But it all falls apart if the characters are so dense they actively create their own obstacles. Here’s a sample of cretinous behaviour:
* The crew change a meticulously planned and researched mission just because they spot a new planet.
* An officer objects to people holding a brief memorial service for their dead friends.
* We’re told the company don’t trust people of faith… by the man of faith who’s in charge of an enormously important mission.
* A soldier wanders off on his own while exploring a virgin planet and seems utterly bored by everything.
* People shove their faces right up close to never-before-seen forms of life.
* The leader of the team is told to hurry back to the ship in an emergency and walks slower than an elderly woman with some heavy shopping.
* A woman puts her naked hand on a man’s bloody scar.
* Characters meet Walter’s doppelganger and don’t comment on it.
* A husband learns his wife is dead and gets over it within two scenes.
* A young couple are so traumatised by their colleagues being brutally killed they go and have a sexy shower together.
Of course, there are some positives. A few of the performances are interesting and the film looks amazing. (Ridley Scott movies always do.) The score also echoes Jerry Goldsmith’s music from the 1979 movie. But overall this is such a disappointment. People get picked off one-by-one and it’s impossible to care about them. The creepy, enigmatic David turns out to have a secret agenda (just like last time). And the film ends on one of cinema’s most see-through-able plot twists ever.
Five flutes out of 10