At one point in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, the titular spaceship, hovering in the stratosphere of a hitherto undiscovered alien planet, is witness to an argument among the three crew-members currently on board. Their colleagues are on the planet on an expedition, separated from the ship by a massive plasma storm. Through garbled radio transmissions, they’ve learnt that the expedition is in mortal danger. The on-board AI, referred to as ‘Mother’, warns the captain Tennessee (Danny McBride) that steering the ship down into the storm will violate all safety norms. “We didn’t come out to space to be safe,” he responds
This is a great action movie line. It’s also an incredibly dumb line from the perspective of science fiction in general and this movie in particular.
The Covenant, as we’re repeatedly told, is on a mission to colonise a faraway planet named Origae-6. On board are more than 2000 human embryos, presumably being shipped out of a dying Earth to start afresh. The only reason they’ve come to space is to be safe, quite literally.
Alien: Covenant has many such tiny missteps that may have been considered as minor, unimportant oversights nearly four decades ago, when Scott’s groundbreaking Alien and its excellent (and superior) sequel Aliens, directed by James Cameron, changed the sci-fi horror genre forever. However, in 2017, the landscape has changed. Just this year, we’ve seen both Passengers and Life, two films with very similar plot elements to this sequel to Prometheus (2012). The former involves interstellar space travel with a view to save humanity; the latter, taking a cue from this very franchise, deals with hostile alien forms terrorising a crew aboard a space-ship.
Moreover, we also now live in a post-Arrival world, where the acid test for good sci-fi is now intelligence and reasonable accuracy (of the ‘Neil DeGrasse Tyson deconstructs this’ persuasion).
This installment, therefore, although vastly superior to its predecessor, lacks the qualities necessary to be considered exceptional, despite the presence of two Michael Fassbenders. The Irish actor, who played the ‘synthetic’ android David in Prometheus, appears as another one named Walter in this story, set ten years later. When the crew of the Covenant is awakened from hypersleep due to a catastrophic event, leading to the death of their captain Jacob (James Franco, in a cameo), Christopher (Billy Crudup), a somewhat weak-willed first mate, becomes their de facto leader. Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Jacob’s bereaved wife, faces off against him early on, indicating that some of his decisions are going to spell disaster for the crew.
This is all well and good, in the sense that the very premise of sci-fi horror is based on human beings making bad decisions. However, good films give us — or at least hint at — character motivations that may lead to such bad decisions
Here, the screenplay (by John Logan and Dante Harper), exposits that Christopher’s religiousness contributes in part to these oversights.
However, keen sci-fi fans will probably have several burning questions nevertheless. How, for instance, does Christopher have the authority to take the Covenant off course to a newly discovered planet that conveniently happens to be habitable and close by, and why was it undiscovered before? Why does the expedition set foot on an unknown planet without adequate protection against airborne pathogens (roughly six centuries after Spanish conquistadors were assisted by foreign germs into routing Native Americans)? Why do characters trust David blindly? These are questions to which Alien: Covenant does not have satisfying answers.
As impressive as ever are the excellent creature effects, showing us the origins of two beloved sci-fi monsters: the ‘Facehugger’ and the vicious ‘Xenomorphs’. Fassbender and Waterston (this movie’s Ripley) are the pick of an otherwise ho-hum cast, handicapped by poorly etched characters, with the former providing the movie with its most genuine spine-chilling moments. As an addition to the Alien canon, this movie does its job well enough by filling in gaps in the story and showcasing some excellent action and monster sequences.
As a sci-fi film directed by Ridley Scott, who seemed like he’d returned to form with The Martian (2015), it’s a little too paint-by-numbers.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)