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Breaking the Covenant

          Sir Ridley Scott definitively returning to the Alien universe should be a great thing. The film he helmed in 1979 is a sci-fi horror masterpiece, brilliantly directed, performed, and with some of the greatest atmosphere, visuals, and perfectly-built tension in either genre. One of my favourite films, it spawned one great sequel from James Cameron, one poor sequel from debut director David Fincher, and one horrible piece of garbage from Jean-Pierre Jeunet. After a couple crossovers with the Predator franchise (one okay, one terrible), Ridley Scott made the disappointing pseudo-prequel Prometheus. His follow-up, Alien: Covenant, is meant to form the connective tissue between that film and the original. 
          Set in 2104, a ship called Covenant is on its way to a planet for colonization. It’s crew consists entirely of couples and is also carrying a thousand other settlers in stasis as well as two thousand human embryos to start a new world. But when they intercept a radio transmission, they find a planet that appears even better suited for colonization. Once there though they uncover alien life that slowly but surely begins wiping out their crew.
          When it comes to the continuity of the Alien series and more specifically the xenomorphs themselves, this film is a mess. Very much like Prometheus, the development of the alien creatures makes no sense. This wouldn’t be an issue if not for the fact both these movies rely on explaining the origin of these classic monsters we never really wanted explained. Most of the biological components of Prometheus are discarded, and instead there’s some convoluted new pathogenic spore that combines with human DNA which results in, not the xenomorph, but a smaller cousin that looks like the dog-aliens from Alien 3. The xenomorph itself appears way too late into the film, and for all the effort to build to its creation over two movies, it’s actually given a pretty uninteresting origin that’s got more than a few loose points. The science and development of the multiple aliens, and the world on which they reside is so full of holes it might as well be a shooting range. The plot’s not constructed well either, with missing or glossed over components and an extraneous last act. Often when the story does venture away from these confusing details, it’s just copying cues from the first two Alien movies. On the one hand I do love some of the familiar tracking shots, scene compositions, crew behaviours, and that beautifully haunting score. But there’s only so much repetition that can work. The very idea of a crew being awoken from stasis to answer a signal on an unknown planet that leads to disaster and many deaths is pretty much a flat-out copy of the first film. And Dany, Oram, David, and Tennessee are at times just obvious analogues for Ripley, Dallas, Ash, and Parker.
          Characters in horror films like this are often hard to get right, not least because you know most of them are just alien appetizers. A couple of whom have had deaths already forecast (thanks trailers!) Maybe because it knows this, Alien: Covenant doesn’t put much effort into defining most of them, and like Prometheus, their actions make them look like altogether idiots. Katherine Waterston is a bit underwhelming as the lead Dany, but isn’t bad. Damian Bichir gets a decent moment or two, and Billy Crudup is old-hand at playing stubborn jerks. The real surprise is Danny McBride. I don’t think I’ve seen him play a serious role before, and he’s actually quite impressive. Michael Fassbender is great as usual playing both his android David from Prometheus and the new model assigned to Covenant, Walter. Generally he plays both characters well, their mystique and uncertain nature coming through, in spite of having to bear the brunt of the insensible plot elements. Though there is one moment between both characters that’s absolutely weird and had no reason to exist except to perturb the whole audience.
          Being a Ridley Scott film, I must admit the visuals are pretty great. The sense of scale works and there are some very nice and luscious shots. There’s a dark and grim atmosphere that Prometheus didn’t have that I’m glad Scott employed. I do wish there was a real person playing the aliens to make them feel more realistic, but these effects work adequately. A real stuntman might not have been possible considering this is easily the most graphic Alien movie to date. There are some very gory deaths in this film, despite it not often being that scary, and it’s definitely trying to take advantage of the R-rating. It’s only a shame this movie didn’t earn it.
          After what he did with The Martian, a veritable comeback after years of poor movies, I was really hoping this would further validate Ridley Scott as one of the great directors. Sadly it doesn’t, and I really hope his next project does. Because despite making the first and best film of this series, Alien: Covenant is one of its worst entries: an incoherent, senseless rehash that leaves the franchise in a more confused place than it’s ever been. 

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