Friday, 12 May 2017

Film Review: The deeply unsatisfying Alien: Covenant damages its own great history

Remember back in 1979 when a film came out that would forever change the way aliens were tackled in sci-fi cinema? I don't remember of course, I wasn't born until a good sixteen years later, but even with that in mind it's tough for me not to long for the early days of this tired franchise. Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant should be great, it has all the hallmarks of a film that jump starts a franchise that's showing signs of struggling. Instead, it winds up woefully similar to Scott's own Prometheus in that all of its interesting ideas succumb to a inescapable sense of pointlessness.

Covenant finds a crew of 15, plus android Walter (Michael Fassbender) and about 2000 colonists, on route to a new inhabitable planet that humanity has discovered. On the way, a solar shockwave wakes the crew and they stumble upon a much closer planet that also shows incredibly promising signs of sustaining human life. They abandon their former directives, and set course for the new planet instead, but what they find there is far from what they expect.

So right off the bat it's frustrating that Covenant's story hinges on a coincidence. The film's script acknowledges this too, with a character proudly declaring that he "doesn't believe in coincidence". Oh, good. I guess we shouldn't too then? What makes this an even bigger issue is the direction Covenant's plot takes, ultimately going into incredible depth as to the history of the Alien franchise's iconic Xenomorph.

I can forgive coincidence in storytelling, but when coincidence leads to two hours of exposition it's harder to justify. After things calm down following a brief hectic burst on the new planet, Covenant abandons thrills in favour of a lengthy talking patch, but ultimately reveals nothing about itself. There's no character development, there's little thematic exploration, there's not even much in terms of plot progression specific to this film. Covenant is rooted in the past to such an extent that it forgets to craft its own story - there's little here that couldn't be explained in a webisode.

A lot of this hinges on how you view the Aliens, too. If you love a little backstory with your horror then Covenant will likely go down nicely with you, but if you'd much rather take your evil, unstoppable killing machines with no explanation and only your mind to imagine the very worst, this is bound to be a redundant feature in your eyes. Unfortunately, I fit firmly within the latter, meaning the bulk of Covenant annoys me more than it intrigues me. Certain fans of the franchise are bound to be glued to their seats during the film's middle act, but if you aren't one of those people, Covenant will bore you to tears.

And if the meaningless fleshing out of the creatures' history doesn't hammer the final nail into the coffin, Covenant's visual handling of the Xenomorphs is just as poor. CGI facehuggers stick out like a sore thumb, the few appearances of the iconic Aliens don't muster up the same sense of dread and horror that they used to. There's a sense that Scott has entirely forgotten how terrifying these creatures can be and is now content to just throw them into lazily executed action scenes and hope for the best. These Aliens used to be jaw dropping, but now the only mouth action they'll induce is a yawn.

Perhaps Covenant's most niggling issue though is how dedicated it is to recapturing the successes of former instalments despite being completely inept at doing so. Scott is very clearly trying to infuse Covenant with elements of Alien, Aliens and Prometheus, but each film's individual strength gets lost in the mix. This film lacks the incessant tension of Alien, the all out action of Aliens and the visual splendour of Prometheus. What we get instead is a film with small splutters of each, but never enough to really satisfy. It never coalesces into a fluid, functioning story - Covenant feels more like a pit stop than a film, just a pit stop with occasional nostalgia. 

The small bursts do come in handy though, as Covenant occasionally lands on something great. The so called Neomorphs are a masterclass in creature design, feral in their movements and brutal in their killings. A fresh take on the iconic "chest bursting" scene is horrendous in its intensity, upping the visual horror with every new second. Michael Fassbender is also on hand to serve up not one but two sensationally good performances, his portrayal of androids Walter and David is ingenious in how he separates the two through tiny details like a hand gesture or a pronunciation. Fassbender saves a large chunk of this film from total mundanity, even when the script threatens to turn itself into fan fiction he remains a compelling on screen presence.

A handful of decent ideas can't save Covenant though, as it eventually botches its final act with a plot twist that feels painfully predicable from the moment it's conceived yet seemingly takes forever to be revealed. Despite its best efforts, the film loses sight of just what makes Alien and Aliens the masterpieces they are - a complete lack of explanation. As soon as you know where something comes from and why it is the way it is, it stops being effective. Covenant brings this franchise right up to that point and tips it way over the edge. Even besides this, the film is just plain dull. Prometheus was a bit of a wobble, but it'll be truly tough to come back from this one.

In A Sentence
Despite some solid scares and a bone-chilling performance from Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant can't escape its derivative plot and woefully misjudged handling of its own franchise's biggest asset.

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