The original Alien film is exactly like the character it’s named after: A perfect specimen, sleek and efficient, that evolves towards its climax in clearly defined stages.
Alien: Covenant (and Prometheus) lack this focus, and feel conflicted between Scott’s exploration of where we came from and the studio’s desire to make a clone of the original. The two tones conflict poorly and the bloated script meanders in too many directions, not sustaining enough tension or drama.
I felt like I was watching two different movies. When one would start to gather momentum, the other would come bursting out of its chest, interrupting the flow. The Engineers of Prometheus are touched upon again in Convenant, but to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Movies are a fast medium and best with a narrow scope, allowing the viewer to fill in the missing gaps with imagination. In Star Wars for example, watching the evil Empire chase the plucky Rebellion is interesting enough without three Prequels explaining every last detail. Explaining the Force as quantifiable Midi-Chlorians is much less effective than Obi-Wan’s mysterious (and incredibly brief) lessons with Luke .
The first Alien was about a blue-collar crew exploring a mysterious planet, discovering alien architecture, and the alien itself. Then they try to survive. Story-time over. Show, don’t tell. It was more interesting to not know where the alien came from. Fear of the unknown is much more powerful than a strange backstory of CGI bald people.
Covenant attempts to tell more of the Engineer backstory but constantly interrupts itself by rehashing nostalgic horror moments from the original. It’s a compromise that weakens the overall impact.
The new crew is hastily introduced and early scenes ask us to care deeply about certain characters we know nothing about. They too often tell us exactly what they’re thinking to progress the plot and characterization, feeling like empty vessels of exposition. Despite the forced writing, the performances are generally quite good, and Danny McBride surprises with his most subtle and serious role yet.
Fair to compare?
You could argue that Covenant is its own movie made almost 40 years after the original, therefore it’s unfair to compare the two. However, when they use the word ‘alien’ in the title, market the alien on the poster, use the original film’s lines/scenes/story/music, I would say they invited the comparison themselves.
Ridley Scott is still one of the greatest at creating sci-fi worlds I love to look at. The sets were great, the alien-bursting scenes looked better than ever, and the universe had Scott’s trademark ‘lived in’ feel.
The aliens were more CGI than I would have liked but in 2017 it’s hard to get around that. I recently re-watched Alien and 99% of those effects hold up today. In fact, I’d say they look better than today’s visuals because practical effects forced them to work within limits of real objects. Today’s technology allows for much more style, but sacrifices substance. A real object will always look real.
The backstory came off better than in Prometheus and I was genuinely intrigued by some of the philosophical questions.
Although the overall experience left me flat, many of the individual sequences were entertaining and memorable
If you enjoy Ridley Scott’s impeccable sci-fi visuals and don’t mind the clumsy mish-mash of recycled Alien scenarios with more Prometheus lore, you’ll find something to enjoy here. Just don’t expect anything close to the heights reached by the masterpiece this movie relies upon.