Not counting the non-canonical Alien vs. Predator spinoffs, there have now been six movies in the Alien series — four in the story of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and the first two of a prequel trilogy directed by Ridley Scott.
There have been highs and middles, but even the misunderstood-at-best Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection had the benefits brought by two young, hungry directors eager to make their mark, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
As a result, even the less impressive Alien movies have had something fresh to offer. Alien: Covenant, as great as it is at what it does, is the first in the series that doesn’t really have a new thing to say or a new way to say it.
Prometheus introduced a bunch of pre-Alien characters who pretty much all got killed, whether by malicious predator, malevolent machine, or the inability to run sideways. The sole survivors were archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and android David (Michael Fassbender).
When last we saw them, they were leaving the moon they’d almost died on to journey onward to the home of the species resposible for humanity. What became of Elizabeth and David is for the crew of the Covenant to discover, ten years later.
In 2104 (eighteen years before Alien, for those keeping track), a colonizing ark named Covenant is sailing through space for a faraway planet when it’s damaged by a neutrino burst. Android Walter (Fassbender once again) rouses the cryogenically slumbering crew to help with repairs.
While the crew (Katharine Waterston, James Franco, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demían Bichir, and others) is doing so, they intercept a transmission from a planet with even better conditions for human settlement than the one they were headed to — and lightyears closer, to boot. They decide to check it out. We all know how that will go.
The real issue with every continuing movie in the Alien franchise is that when the first two films are masterpieces, even a good sequel seems disappointing. The fact its immediate predecessor was the best since the first two just stacks the deck against Covenant too much. It’s not quite strong enough to withstand it.
What could have come off as the homages they were intended to be instead feel like exposed unoriginality simply because Alien: Covenant isn’t distracting enough to disguise the many sources it samples from. Part of that is the script’s problem, but part is the fault lies with the master Ridley Scott.
Up until now, every Alien movie had its own original voice, through the series’ turnstile of directors. Even though Prometheus was the first helmed by a returning director, so many years had passed between Scott’s second movie and his twentieth that it felt entirely different. Alien: Covenant doesn’t.
It’s the first in the canonical series without its own flavour. There are certainly a few phenomenal scenes, as Scott is too skillful a director to not nail it a fair amount of the time, but much of the final act feels like any other sci-fi action-horror begat over the last three decades, just with better cinematography.
There are a lot of awesome scenes that feel like Ridley Scott tackling Aliens. There are also a number of stupid scenes that feel like Scott tackling Alien vs. Predator. It balances out to still be pretty good overall — but when a series has had almost three masterpieces already, pretty good still feels a little disappointing.