'Alien: Covenant (2017)' is a film with a lot on its plate. For starters it needs to answer the questions posed by its overambitious amuse-bouche 'Prometheus (2012),' and secondly it needs to satisfy everyone's apparent hunger for horror and character development too.
Need I say that's one tricky recipe to follow, and to tackle the dish director Ridley Scott decided to focus on a new group of characters on a colonization mission known as Covenant. The team eventually find themselves exploring a planet littered with Xenomorphs, where an unlikely discovery reveals some more about the doomed Prometheus expedition.
With all that in place and a clear drive to bring a balance between the richness of Prometheus and the harsher stuff that made the original Alien movies so great, the question of this film's success really lies with how well those flavors are balanced. Does it deliver the horror and engaging character stuff that many yearn for, and does it live up to its predecessor's thematic ambitions?
Well, many will likely be pleased to hear that the film probably excels most where the raw engagement side of things is concerned, as the characters and horror elements truly work as a glue that keeps your eyes to the screen, and your bum to the seat - aside of course from the times it all has you jumping out.
Yes on that note there really are some extremely tense and horrific moments here as Ridley Scott delivers terror on a gargantuan scale in a way that no other filmmaker could. In places it rather directly feels like Prometheus turned horror, as each thoroughly R-rated set piece is an equally rich, sprawling sci-fi affair that makes you feel as small as the characters are in their respective situations. This is brought to life by brilliantly-scaled cinematography from Dariusz Wolski and a stand-out score from Jed Kurzel, and the result is a film that packs some of the most horrific and atmospheric scenes in the entire franchise.
The only reason you're so invested in the first place though is because of the characters, who finally get some serious fleshing out from Ridley Scott and his star-studded cast. Katherine Waterston, Demián Bichir and Danny McBride all bring added life to the experience, though the obvious stand-out is indeed Michael Fassbender who plays his role with such incredible ability it honestly takes your breath away.
The scenes he finds himself in are genuinely film-stealing, as not only is his character by far the best-written and most intriguing thing about the whole movie, but Fassbender also has such a handle on his physical acting that you come away with his suspicious behavior etched into your brain far more than anything else.
Perhaps though, for fans of the deeper elements of Alien and of course the hugely layered Prometheus, the other big ingredient here is equally important, and on that flip side you can certainly see that Covenant is trying to delve deep into some interesting ideas once again. There's unsurprisingly a lot of religious themes running through it for example, and it's clear that Covenant has its ideas about life and creation.
The thing is though, one can't help feeling that all of that is slightly compromised by, and equally itself hinders the time it spends with the other things I've talked about. In other words, the fact the film is still so concerned with its themes means we get less time with the horror and characters, but at the same time its focus on those things means it can't delve deep enough into the ideas it clearly has. This not only compromises some of its overall intelligence and some of the more intimate engagement you may otherwise be able to unlock; it also affects the way you can move on from Prometheus' shortcomings as it doesn't tie up too many loose ends.
It is indeed a film that has a lot on its plate then, and whilst it generally succeeds with all of its aims on the surface, you do get the feeling it's restrained slightly where each element is concerned.
So is it simply a case of too much stuff for one film to handle? Well actually its ambition isn't really the problem; after all you don't have to look any further than the first Alien to see similar cogs turning together perfectly. The issue I think, lies more with Covenant's script, as it unfortunately lacks the finesse to tie all of its ambitions into each other.
It really should be better than it is with screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Skyfall, The Aviator) on the project, but unfortunately there's far too many instances where characters simply state thematic ideas that not only feel out of place for them, but also leave the audience slightly disconnected without being able to interpret things for themselves. It's unsurprisingly this too that leaves slightly less time for the character-building or tense moments than one might like, and in the end it's most definitely the cause of the film's compromised elements.
Regardless of that though, 'Alien: Covenant' is still a rounded experience, and its characters and terrifying moments will definitely keep you engaged and on the edge of your seat far more than Prometheus ever did. Sure that and its ideas could have been given more of a chance to shine by its script, but its ambition is admirable, and the way it engages should be enough to stop you from really giving a damn.
In summary then, whilst its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp, 'Alien: Covenant' is a largely more successful film than 'Prometheus' on the surface, and even if it lacks some sophistication, what it looses there, it more than makes up for in raw exciting engagement. Basically, it may not be Michelin-star, but Ridley Scott has managed to cook up one fiery and exciting dish with a lot of great flavors.