'Alien: Covenant' Descends Into Madness in a Beautiful, Finessed Kind of Way

Marching to the beat of the same drum as the first films in the series, Alien: Covenant finds extra depth in the existential dread of its divisive predecessor.

Alien: Covenant

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Rated: R
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-05-19
UK date: 2017-05-12

The greatest irony of Prometheus, 2015’s heady Alien prequel, is that the most terrifying thing about it, particularly to most diehard fans of the iconic series, is that it seemingly signaled a far less horror-driven, more philosophically fixated direction for the franchise. Devotees who were quick to decry that the film was a veritable “game over” for the series will be delighted to find that Alien: Covenant, the Ridley Scott-helmed follow-up to Prometheus, returns to the claustrophobic terror of the original films, with hapless humans limping down dark corridors, scrambling to flee from their inky, sinewy, ravenous pursuers in a wide-eyed, sweaty-palmed panic.

For most of its duration, the prequel-sequel is a maelstrom of gunfire, close-calls, bloody sneak attacks, and that signature sense of atmospheric dread the series is lauded for. In this respect, the film feels like a return to bloody glory.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about Covenant, however, is that as deliciously gruesome and suspenseful its horror elements are, some of the best parts of the film can be traced directly to its divisive predecessor. Michael Fassbender reprises his role as British android David, who has established an isolated, Yoda-like existence (tunic and all) on a lonely, rainy planet. Ten years after the events of the first movie, his solitude is shaken with the landing of a colony ship called Covenant, whose designated artificial crewmate happens to be a more advanced android model, Walter, who was made in David’s exact image but has been stripped of any transgressive tendencies by his creator (an uncredited Guy Pearce) and, conveniently for us, has a distinctly American accent. The existential quandaries that arise from the android “brothers’” interactions are elegantly woven by screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper and the incomparable Fassbender, who sells the doppelganger illusion even more than the visual effects, which are so spectacular they’ll give you chills.

These moments of interstellar navel-gazing between Fassbender and... Fassbender... are ethereal and surprising and beautifully acted, but the reality is, philosophical pondering is not what will put butts in the seats come the film’s release. David and Walter are just shy of immortal, which gives them little to fear; the real terror stems from the frail human crewmembers aboard the Covenant and the 2,000 hyper-sleeping colonists they’re harboring.

When a solar flare disrupts the ship’s trajectory, Walter pulls the main crew out of their deep slumber to address the issue. Tragically, the ship’s captain (played by James Franco in a quick cameo, oddly) doesn’t survive the accident, leaving his wife, terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), as second-in-command to new captain Oram (Billy Crudup, terrific), a high-strung, fidgety outsider who fumbles nearly every interaction and winds up insulting almost everyone, somehow.

Oram’s leadership skills are put to the test when the crew receives a stray signal from a nearby planet, seemingly of human origin, which brings them to the drenched, monster-infested planet David calls home. He shelters the crew in the massive ruins of an ancient civilization, a creepy, blackened graveyard he calls home. Inevitably, everything is not as it seems and, with some clever plot maneuvering, we’re ushered through some super well-done slasher-movie scares and heaping helpings of fast, hard-hitting blockbuster action.

The action and scares, the meat and potatoes of the series, are handled well for the most part, though the tone and cinematic sensibilities behind the different set pieces are inconsistent throughout. At the outset, the action sequences are driven by suspense, hysteria, and body horror that, while not as unforgettably grotesque as the classic gross-out moments of the original two films, elicit the same sort of stomach-turning reaction in the moment. An early scene sees two crewmates, played by Amy Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo, trapped in a small recon ship with a razor-toothed, unwelcome visitor. One is locked in a room with the damn thing, while the other frantically sprints up and down the ship’s tight corridors in search of a way to blow the little bugger to bits. The sense of paranoia and panic is overwhelming, the editing keeps you off-balance in the best way, and the situation descends into madness in the most beautiful, finessed kind of way.

The action later in the film, on the other hand, seems more in tune with Disney/Marvel action-adventure spectacle than the moodiness and intimacy of the original movies. It’s a strange thing; the high-flying, epic, elaborate set pieces of the third act are quite gripping on their own, but they come close to dismantling the rarefied, almost ghostly atmosphere the movie worked so hard to build in the first two acts.

This is a minor issue in the context of the larger experience of Alien: Covenant, which is largely excellent. The cinematography, as in Prometheus, is evocative, appropriately otherworldly, and will take your breath away more often than not (the cool, celestial lighting is particularly transportive). The actors do a fine job of coming across like real people in a short amount of time, which pays dividends when they meet their ultimate fate. Surprise standout Danny McBride excels in this respect, and the nuance of Crudup’s performance is invaluable to the story.

Prometheus fans and detractors alike will find plenty of things to admire and geek out over in this successful entry in the Alien legacy, including the much-requested homecoming of the almighty Xenomorph, who was only teased in Prometheus but makes a big impact here. The creature’s return is, in fact, triumphant, as is Scott’s return to the roots of his beloved sci-fi franchise.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.