Alien: Covenant (2017)

Having had to see it in two sittings, over a round-trip flight and at altitude, of all conditions, when it was nigh time I saw Alien: Covenant in one go, on a real screen… I’m not sure what happened. I’m not sure what had changed since first impressions were imparted. Have I flown into a vortex and come out another cinephile? Has my fascination with grotesque biology dwindled somehow? When the moment of truth came, and it was time to render a judgment, Covenant was a completely different film. At sea level, in a controlled environment, without crying babies, and infuriating playback controls, it was a lackluster affair. A decidedly substandard fare. A black eye for a once illustrious name in horror cinema despite spurts of engaging moments of sheer madness and unnerving exchanges. Its two halves form a Rorschach image, albeit in negative; the action (intriguing) and dialog (aimless) swapping adjectives once David (Michael Fassbender) turns up, leaving little for the imagination thereafter.

After encountering a freak accident that claims their captain’s life, the Covenant crew is alerted to an alternate destination too similar to their original one to simply overlook now that they’ve awoken from cryosleep, thus none too enamored by slipping back into their sleep pods. Sounds familiar? I know. I felt it was very pouty of them but Origae-6, to quote, has came out of “countless simulations” as the nearest candidate planet yet more pressing for everyone now than a jumbled chain of command are the incessant displays of camaraderie which draw the nerve-wracking ire of Oram (Billy Crudup), acting commander of the colonization mission.

As a man of God and self-proclaimed superstitious weak link, Oram is a continuation of Scott’s deteriorating creative facility. This newfound writer’s block is a phenomenon first shown in Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s silver cross. So a collective reluctance to return to the cryo pods is less a plot driver than a dearth of ideas. And how else is Scott going to demonstrate Oram’s inability to decide between corralling the group back to their original, more sensible route and taking a chance on the suddenly convenient alternative? Why of course by acquiescing to majority vote. That the ages old, industry standard mantra of “safety first” eludes authority figures in just about every Alien film during crunch time firmly establishes the trope, except in Oram’s case, the fallible leader is a sympathetic variation in Scott’s arsenal this time if only it weren’t for the android-in-tow-with-ulterior-motives trope…

The film’s tone and mood shift once David (from Prometheus) makes a day-saving entrance and shepherds the stranded crew to relative safety. Their reward for surviving a beautifully crafted xenomorph attack earlier is an indefinite gate pass for the ruins of a crumbled alien civilization. A ghost town of metropolitan size and splendor. Think an ashen Vatican square with fried breakers (Scott’s eye for set design and scenery command their due plaudits here). Meanwhile a vicious storm is keeping signals from the Covenant from breaching the planet’s atmosphere.

Scott eschews scant sci-fi stylings for a short-lived gloomy and Gothic switch-up, squandering whatever good will earned elsewhere rather liberally. At the necropolis the survivors roam about aimlessly, with David popping up occasionally to rub their worsening predicament in their nose and offer some forced exposition. It is his scenes with Walter and to a lesser extent Oram that steal the show. That those moments also provide some most needed and long overdue gap-filling or world-building to link to the previous film feel hurried is unfortunate considering Scott makes time for a couple of drawn-out action scenes that harken back to the same old formula. Even less forgiving of Scott is how Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is reduced to an uninvolved protagonist role until the action scenes required that he broke the glass.

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