It's a return to fine form in the aspects that not only make it great science fiction, but also a great adventure and horror movie
Quick, before you go further, watch the two free prologue videos (click on the hyperlinks below) made by the filmmakers to add some cream to the main story of Alien: Covenant, then come right back and read this review.
First is The Crossing, which features the synthetic man David (Michael Fassbender) and Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) immediately following the events that happened in the previous movie Prometheus during the year 2093, on the planet LV-223.
Then go watch Last Supper, which features the full bridge crew, all couples, of the colonization ship Covenant now in the year 2104 (most of these characters, you’ll see in the Covenant movie, too) sharing a lighthearted moment together before they all go into cryosleep, then an inspirational toast that looks forward to the wonders of the new planet and the new life it represents for all of them.
Done? Great! For the stubborn who didn’t watch them it’s no biggie, the pleasures of the main story of Alien: Covenant will in no way be affected by your obstinateness. For those who did, you now have valuable narrative links that will definitely enhance your viewing of this newest addition to Ridley Scott’s space horror canon.
If you’re a fan, what was it that enamored you in the first two movies (never mind 3 and Resurrection)? The heroine’s journey? The defeat and outwitting of such a great evil? The conspiracies and betrayals to bring such a fine beast to heel and turn it into a living weapon?
Go back to that feeling of tasty dread and touch the baseline of its primal energy. I’m glad to report that Covenant returns to fine form in the aspects that not only make it great science fiction, but also a great adventure and horror movie. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
In my head, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is still forever running through the claustrophobic halls of the Nostromo, trying to outrun the grotesquerie from Hell. Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson is beside himself, unbecoming of a Colonial Marine, as he stands beside the ruble of their APV declaring “Game over, man, game over!” And Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is still screaming within the confines of a medical pod, trying to excise the unholy monstrosity that has grown from her womb, threatening to be born, in a death metal inversion of the joys of pregnancy even as the pod’s technology responds like molasses as you urge it to just hurry the fuck up.
This was a mythology born in the hot 1979 B-movie blood of a spaceship as locked room of murders. And now with the prequels, it enters the origins phase, explaining the motivations and the immense madness of that overarching objective. So in many ways, the meditative pacing and texture of Prometheus was necessary.
Covenant now tackles the whys and then, almost as an afterthought, the hows of it. Who created the first Xenomorph? Did Dr. Shaw and David find the Engineer planet and, if so, what transpired when they did? Will there be sex and death within the gap of a few minutes? What are the effects of a backburster on a human body? Why, why, why? Many big questions are answered. A few of the small ones are left without reply, leaving the way open to the sequel.
The Alien franchise now hits its prequels pace finally running, entering the next level of mythologizing with Covenant. Combining the best aspects of the body horror and monster movie genres, Grand Guignol roots with the meta musings and subtle shadings of Prometheus, not only is it full of screams, it is also suffused with ambition and the kind of filmmaking hubris that I find endearing, and absolutely revelatory.
So we open with an empty spaceship. Here now is the colonization vessel Covenant hurtling through space 10 years after the events in 2012’s Prometheus.
All is quiet aboard the ship with the crew and the rest of the 2,000 souls aboard the pioneer vessel deep in hyper-sleep. Only the synthetic man Walter (Michael Fassbender), aka super butler, walks the corridors, alone, checking on the systems and amusing himself until a clusterfuck of cosmic proportions entails him to wake up the rest of the crew: a nearby stellar ignition shreds the Covenant’s solar energy-collection sails, resulting in dozens of casualties and throwing the mission off course.
Off course where? The ship was originally headed to terraform the remote planet Origae-6, on the far side of the galaxy. It’s there that the settlers hope to establish a new outpost for humanity. Among those killed by the accident is the ship’s Captain Jacob Branson (James Franco), now so much human crisp in the cryosleep pod. This leaves the deeply religious Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge and Branson’s wife (now widow) Daniels (Katherine Waterston) as second in command, albeit reeling from the loss of her husband.
The air of insecurity and unconfidence around our new Capt. Oram is thick and leads him to second guess quite a few of his decisions. Sucks for him, because the ship is thrown for another loop. While outside the ship repairing the energy sails chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) hears a cryptic message that sounds like it could be a human distress call.
They track the source of the transmission to a nearby planet and, because of its proximity and great potential for a livable environment, Oram opts to chart a new course to take the ship on an unknown path to the planet where the beacon is broadcasting.
Soon, they are orbiting what appears to be an uncharted paradise, an undisturbed Eden of cloud-capped mountains and immense, soaring trees far closer than Origae-6 and potentially just as viable as a new home. But an ion storm encasing the atmosphere prevents the Covenant itself from reaching the surface of the planet, so a landing party of mixed scientists and security personnel is dispatched.
Tennessee and his pilot crew composed of Ricks (Jussie Smollett) and Upworth (The Blair Witch’s Callie Hernandez) stay behind on the mother ship while the rest of the team led by Daniels, Walter, and Oram, go down to investigate the planet and find the source of the beacon that led them there. You can probably guess what they found there next?
Now for the bad news: Covenant’s sins are the sins of a big ensemble cast (and there are 12 of them on the crew), until the solution to this thick narrative appears: kill them one by one and—voila!—the survivors get the best character development.
The pacing can be uneven in the first 20 minutes of establishing story and introducing characters. But overall, it later balances itself and the revelations are nuanced, but not too subtle or pretentiously clever. This was niftily solved by clever marketing of the “Prologue” short films that have been scattered online like so many face-hugger eggs.
Katherine Waterston’s Daniels stands her own as the heroine who steps up to the plate in a time of chaos and hazard. Parallels to Ripley will be drawn and though nothing can bust the original, I can’t fault Waterson as the empowered gal on this space trip.
Another notable performance is Danny McBride, who manages to be both comedic foil and truly tragic “last to know” straight man, said to be modelled after Major T.J. “King” Kong as played by Slim Pickens in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
But the real screamer of a performance must go to Michael Fassbender, who portrays both the doomed Prometheus’s sociopathic David (snobbish and haughty, has a posh British accent) and the Covenant’s resident synthetic Walter (casual, no nonsense American with a hint of a down home twang).
“Welcome, brother,” exclaims David to Walter, when he has brought the crew to safety and has reasonably explained to the viewer just WTF is going on. This is one of the many moments Fassie acquits himself as a damn good actor. That line is eerie and prophetic, you just know it’s pregnant with meaning, but the mystery of not knowing why and the anticipation of that revelation—which you also know is just going to be awesome or awesomely bloody—is simmering with anticipatory frisson.
Horror can mean atmosphere and escalation of intensity. Body horror is the evocation of a disgust so odious regarding the perversions that can befall an organic being. “The meat, if you will,” says David, when he is first explaining the vector and ecology of the infection. The possibilities of violation (Shaw’s abortion, Ripley’s dreams of chest-bursting) play out in your head, but only truly bear fruit when given a cinematic outlet.
Ridley Scott has given us some of the highest benchmarks of delight in bodily dread ever to grace a science fiction movie, arguably in the realm of all film. Praise him. With this installment, we edge closer towards revealing the mysterious origins of the mother of all aliens: the lethal first Xenomorph and how she came to be.
Alien: Covenant is rated R-13 and is now showing in Metro Manila theaters.
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