Alien: Covenant

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

Every inch of 'Alien: Covenant' is stunning, according to Christian Tesfaye, with exquisite lighting, dialogue, acting and mise en scène, and a moody but unobtrusive soundtrack. But, at the end of the day, the movie is not original and is more or less the movie 'Alien' with different makeup. However, Michael Fassbender's performance is highly praiseworthy. 6 out of 10 stars

The spaceship “The Nostromo” lands on a far-off planet to investigate a distress signal. There, the crew finds a throng of giant alien eggs. One crew member gets a little too curious – sticking his face out too close – when something spider-like grabs him by the mug. Reluctantly they bring him onto the spaceship, where they succeed in removing the alien from his face. All seems well for a moment, but while eating a meal, they find that their friend has been impregnated, and gives birth to the alien through his chest.

That was the exciting and very original plot to Ridley Scott’s 1979 ‘Alien’. Coming out at a time when horror movies had far fewer cliché characterizations, plotting and sequences, the film was a gem. The scene where an alien pops out of John Hurt’s chest is one of the most memorable of all time. It also popularised, together with ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, the female horror protagonist.

‘Aliens’, plural, the sequel, came out in 1986. Directed by a young James Cameron, fresh off his success with ‘Terminator’, not much was expected from the sequel. It was agreed that Cameron could not possibly outdo Scott’s classic. But Aliens turned out to be shockingly good. It took the movie in a decidedly different direction.

Although the film continues, more or less, where the original left off, Aliens was more an action movie than a horror one. It was not as concerned with the atmosphere the way the first movie was, but instead with allegory. In Aliens, the people – with their big guns, arrogant mannerisms and in an environment of which they are unfamiliar with – were the Americans. The aliens – raw and incomprehensible – were the Vietcong.

Two movies followed, ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien Resurrection’, both made by rather impressive directors, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Neither were good and led the franchise to a ground halt. There were some unnecessary revivals, in the form of crossovers with another popular monster, the ‘Predator’ – ‘Alien vs. Predator’ and ‘Alien vs. Predator: Requiem’. The studio, 20th Century Fox, believed that the missing ingredient was more familiarity and less novelty.

They went back to Ridley Scott. They agreed on a prequel franchise, one that would eventually answer where the aliens came from. The first of this franchise was ‘Prometheus’, and on account of Scott’s involvement, was released to great fanfare. It was philosophical, concerned with man’s extreme past. It had a fresh cast and fantastic visuals, but the film was met with only mild acclaim.

‘Alien: Covenant’ continues the story that began in Prometheus. Covenant is the name of a spaceship; its purpose is to transport colonists to a habitable planet on the farther side of the universe. The Covenant’s crew (except the android Walter) is in hibernation when a neutrino burst upsets their journey. The crew is woken up, and some die. After they carry out the necessary maintenance, and before they can get back into hibernation, they encounter a distress call from a seemingly Earth-like planet not far away.

After all those Alien movies, it is more than obvious what will happen next. The crew lands on the planet to investigate, surprisingly enough, this time, without space suits. One by one they either get infected or brutally murdered by the famous Alien monster. But surprises abound when they encounter David, the android from the previous movie.

Every movie in the original franchise is similar to Scott’s Alien, while the crossovers try to evoke Cameron’s Aliens. This is because they are all trying to be good horror movies. They are all trying to emulate Scott. Scott’s prominence rises out of his acute understanding of the atmosphere.

Through effective production design, controlled sets, art and costume directions he maintains full dominion over the audiovisual. He likes to storyboard his movies to an inch of their lives. There is not a camera zoom or pan that will be left to chance. Some will say such detailing constrains improvisation, and it does. But for Scott, more often than not, such impediments do not seem to have much effect.

Alien was only his second movie. He followed it with another highly respected film, ‘Blade Runner’, whose use of a futuristic city is imitated to this day. Blade Runner itself was influenced by Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. Afterwards, he concentrated on more down to earth material. Among his acclaimed were the road movie ‘Thelma & Louise’, the very commercial ‘Gladiator’, the brutal ‘Black Hawk Down’, the highly impressive ‘American Gangster’ and his most recent, very entertaining, ‘The Martian’. Scott is now 79 years old, but productive as ever.

Covenant, visually at least, is the ultimate Scott movie. Every inch of this movie is stunning, and the score is moody but unobtrusive. There are also some very magical scenes. Note the opening scene for instance, in which a creator and his creation discuss existentialism inside a room so white, glacial and spatial it must be a post-modern embodiment of heaven. Or another scene, in which David – the evolved android – teaches Walter – the newly minted android – how to play the flute. The lighting, dialogue, acting and mise en scène are exquisite. But at the end of the day, and as much entertained as I was, Covenant is not original. It is Alien all over again, only with different makeup.

I could not possibly conclude this review without praising Michael Fassbender, who plays David/Walter. Fassbender is by far the most gifted actor we have today; not once have I ever seen him give an average performance. I do not believe a robot has ever been portrayed so effectively. The movements, the facial expressions, his pronunciation, I can only say, wow! Vin Diesel – start taking notes!

By Christian Tesfaye

Published on Jun 01,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 892]



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