David, the android survivor of Prometheus, plays a simple, optimistic tune on a handmade flute, his uncanny-valley visage met with the confusion his Michael, the 2.0 robot that shares his face. The former adores music, the latter unable to understand even the concept of enjoying it. It’s an off-putting moment for the Alien franchise, so focused on dark corners and flowing blood, a strangely serene moment in an otherwise brutal universe.
It also represents Alien: Covenant’s greatest strength. For all its flaws, it’s a film that realizes that part of the original Alien’s pop-culture longevity comes not from the titular xenomorph’s terror but from its otherworldly beauty. Ridley Scott’s camera lingers on its monsters, allowing the audience time to appreciate the H.R. Giger-inspired design. Scott has expanded his visual horizons, and though Covenant still has its fair share of traditional dark-spaceship-corridor-horror, most of its runtime takes place on Prometheus’s bleached-tone mountainscapes. Its environment is populated with the remnants of an ancient civilization, the Pompei’d bodies of its inhabitants strewn about like classical statues, capturing the cosmic horror that, rightfully, goes mostly unexplained.
But apart from its aesthetics, Covenant relies mostly on retread ground. It plays like a greatest hits album of the Alien franchise, at times imitating the creeping horror of Alien, the bombastic action of Aliens, and even borrowing some of the (few) good ideas from Alien 3.
Scott clearly understands what made his franchise great, but is never able to fully recapture it. Alien: Covenant is tonally inconsistent, swapping from bombast to tension to body horror too fast to process. There’s never any time to build tension, to induce the seat-squirming that the best horror can convey, and every time we start to “feel it,” Scott breaks the pace by swapping to the B-plot of Fassbender’s two androids or killing off one xenomorph to move onto another.
Worst of all, unlike Ellen Ripley, who though by no means is particularly complex at the very least provided a strong, engaging focal point, Alien: Covenant doesn’t seem to have any actual characters. Names are thrown out and forgotten almost instantly, the people written to be engaging blurring together to the point where I couldn’t point to them at a police lineup. The notion of pairing up the characters into couples has potential, but in reality feels like a cop-out to create emotional stakes where none naturally exist. The crew of the Covenant are meat to be thrown into the grinder, and their gruesome dismemberments satiate morbid curiosity more than creating any actual fear. Only Michael Fassbender truly delivers, simultaneously playing two androids in one of the most bizarre acting challenges of Fassbender’s career. Because they’re not alive they aren’t threatened by the aliens, and though Scott miscalculates his pacing, he also uses these scenes to allow the audience to ogle the xenomorphs in a “safe” environment.
And ultimately, that’s the only reason to see Covenant. Anyone who’s already seen the other (better) films won’t be experiencing anything new, and with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in theaters, Covenant is a poor second to satiate the urge for sci-fi. But Alien: Covenant creates beauty in horror, shifting the focus from what the later sequels did poorly to what Giger himself did so well. It lives up to its name, crafting a Lovecraftian universe that is not only alluring, but elegantly and uniquely alien.