Crafting a good prequel film can be tricky.
While it is exciting to see backstories of fan-favorite characters or the genesis of a cinematic world, the audience usually knows the outcome of the film. No matter how ambitious, creative, or innovative directors attempt to be, prequels are doomed from the start and are always a slave to canon.
As a result, most prequels (X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Rogue One aside) are merely “creative ways” to reach an assured end and can often feel only marginally connected to the original film that inspired it.
This debacle is largely what plagues director Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi horror film, Alien: Covenant. Serving as a prequel to the original Alien film as well as a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus, Covenant is rife with the horror, gore, thrills and philosophical questions that shocked audiences in 1979, yet it nearly rips itself apart as it attempts to dually answer the questions left by Prometheus and explore the origins of the monstrous Xenomorphs.
Given the shortcomings of the prequel genre as a whole, it is sobering that Covenant is self-referential in its set-up and execution. Set 15 years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant focuses on a group of colonists aboard the spaceship Covenant traveling to the uncharted planet Origae-6 in order to begin their new life.
After a neutrino burst incapacitates the ship and kills a few of the colonists, the remaining survivors hear a distress signal emanating from a nearby planet. They chart their course for it and abandon their mission to Origae-6.
Once they land, they come in contact with the android David, the lone survivor of the Prometheus expedition and discover that monstrous creatures (precursors to the original Xenomorphs) are rampant on the planet.
From the start, audiences know that the crew will most likely meet grisly ends, so it simply becomes a matter of how they shall perish, yet Scott insures that the journey towards the end is entertaining and gripping.
Visually, he retains his penchant for spacious shots that linger on the haunting beauty of space. Director of Cinematography Dariusz Wolski likewise focuses on the tranquility of the alien planet’s atmosphere and carefully documents the geological shifts as the Covenant enters into the atmosphere.
Likewise, the lush and verdant land of the planet compliments the ominous black clouds as well, which instills a sense of beauty and horror. Alien: Covenant excels in slowly immersing the viewer into the treacherous world and from start to finish, manages to imbue uneasiness and terror in every scene. Traces of symphonic and orchestral scores lightly permeate the film as well.
Scott’s eye and vision for visual detail is perhaps best exemplified in the films action sequences. Every Alien film is expected to deliver gory and bloodletting violence, and Covenant is no exception; in fact it is quite possibly the goriest Alien film to date (which truly is an accomplishment).
Crew members are shredded to ribbons and reduced to a pile of limbs and innards, almost always accompanied by a bunch of blood. Chest Bursting scenes return and are amplified by impressive, if not disturbingly accurate, CGI, with the camera never panning away from the grotesque and visceral ways in which aliens rip and dismember their human hosts.
Though the franchise is known for its carnage, it did feel distracting and unnecessary at many points. Instead of fully stretching out a tense and eerie scene, the film would quickly divulge into another splatterfest of violence, and the transition from horror to disgust was quite jarring.
By far, however, the best part of Covenant is Michael Fassbender, who plays androids David and Walter. The dichotomy that exists between them is so robust that it is easy to forget that Fassbender is playing both roles.
Walter is much more mechanical and scientific, acting more like Sheldon Cooper or K-2SO (minus the snark), and he rattles off information and statistics with judicious and pedantic accuracy. David, on the other hand, is a poet and is much more emotional; he has a sardonicism and pride about him that is disquieting.
Both contrast each other nicely; while Walter is aware of his limitations and seeks to find peace with them, David spends much of the movie lamenting on his shortcomings, namely that unlike humans, he does not have the power to truly create anything new.
Seeing the two characters mirror each other serves as the main crux and point of tension for the film: is it better to remain subservient and follow instructions out of duty, or for the sake of innovation, is it worth experimenting and working outside ethical boundaries?
The rest of the crew mostly serve as cannon fodder for the aliens, but Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride are standouts as well, with Waterson channeling a Sigourney Weaver-esque performance. She retained Ellen Ripley’s resolve and ingenuity, while also adding a dose of sentiment and curiosity. The aliens themselves are also captured wonderfully, displaying a snake-like agility and a shark-like ferocity as they flitter about on screen and cause mayhem for the colonists. Xenomorphs return, and Covenant also introduces the Neomorph, its ghostly pale precursor.
Despite new elements that expand the Alien mythology and the recapitulation of older scenes that harken to the times when this franchise was the pinnacle of sci-fi horror, at its best, Alien: Covenant is a sanguinary horror film that though entertaining, adds little to nothing to the franchise.
Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]