Movie Review: Alien: Covenant

by thethreepennyguignol

Huh.

When the credits roll on a movie, I’m usually pretty confident in my opinion of it. Yeah, like good wine, sometimes the ideas need a little time to ferment, but I can usually say with some level of certainty whether or not I liked a film or didn’t. But I went to see Alien: Covenant four days ago, and for the life of me I can’t figure out whether I enjoyed it or not.

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I really like the first couple of Alien movies but I’m not particularly precious about them, so I feel like I was the prime audience for Covenant – I wanted some good gory horror-in-space action, but wasn’t going to take it as an affront to films I had liked if it wasn’t that good.

And I’m not going to sit here and pretend that Covenant was anywhere near perfect, but we can get to that in a moment. Following the story of a colony ship destined for a habitable planet, it followed a crew as they went to answer a distress call from a neighbouring planet and found themselves faced with the titular bad guys.  For me, the fact that it leaned hard into the gothic horror elements was such a bonus, with the movie exploiting snaking underground caverns and cyborgs driven insane by years of solitude and philosophical introspection to great effect. Not to mention the fact that Covenant provided me with the hot Fassbender-on-Fassbender action I never knew I wanted, a highlight in a relatively solid cast. It was reasonably well-paced, the story carrying on at a decent pace and deftly avoiding the second-act slump, and the first real action sequence as the monsters claim a few members of the crew was genuinely thrilling, tense stuff. For a movie trapped at an awkward point in the franchise – a sequel to a prequel but still a prequel in it’s own right – it really was better than it had any right to be, and I think the reviews denouncing it as a pile of shit are far, far too harsh on what is a relatively serviceable film.

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Reading back over that paragraph, all of that praise sounds pretty lukewarm. And that’s probably because for everything Covenant did right, it also got a lot wrong. Obviously and most importantly, one of the biggest issues I had with it was it’s use of CGI. I will fight you on this: in almost all cases, real effects are the way to go over computer-generated nonsense, and Covenant is a big argument in favour of DIY-ing your monsters. It wasn’t that the CGI was bad, but rather than we’ve had a couple of movies in this canon which used real effects to create these iconically brilliant monsters, and seeing them CGI’d left the action scenes feeling curiously weightless and ungrounded in comparison. I didn’t think it would bother me as much as it did, but it was a real issue for me and pulled me out of what should have been excellent action sequences, particularly towards the back end of the movie.

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And while I said above that the movie fared pretty well as the awkward phase of the story it makes up, the fact that it is so tightly wrapped around both Prometheus and the later (earlier?) Alien films leaves Covenant never really feeling like it’s own story. Say what you want about the disaster that Prometheus was, but you could watch that as a movie by itself and have it make sense. Much as Covenant attempted to fill in the blanks as best it could, the backstory (and, uh, frontstory?) is so deep that the plot of the movie struggled to stand on it’s own. With a large cast and nods towards deeper philosophical ideas, it felt like there was a better story hiding beneath this one somewhere, but the one we got was so tied up in fitting into it’s franchise that it never got a chance to tell it.

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For all that it’s been one of the most critically-maimed films of the year so far, Covenant a decently strong entry into the Alien canon, and if you’re a fan of the franchise it’s worth a look – but then, if you do like the franchise, you’ve likely seen it already. If you’re not, it’s a harder sell in some ways (the overarching plot confusion, the awkward placement of the story) and easier in others (you’re likely to be less precious about the CGI and the intricacies of the story). Honestly, even after writing this review, I don’t know whether I would recommend this movie or not. What did you think? Are you planning to see it, or have you already? Can you help me figure out whether or not Covenant was actually any good?

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