Since James Cameron’s Aliens, none of the Alien films have known quite what to do with the titular beast that serves as the series’ most distinguishing feature. As early as David Fincher’s (underrated) Alien 3, the creature’s antics seem perfunctory, thoroughly demystified through familiarity. Indeed, the lifecycle of the beast has become so obvious that later films have felt the need to speed it up in order to avoid any audience impatience; the creature’s gestation and growth, which seemed somewhat drawn-out in the first three pictures, now seems to occur in a matter of minutes.
Little wonder that subsequent Alien films have tried to find ways to divert focus from the creature, or at least find new ways to contextualize it. Covenant‘s predecessor, Prometheus never properly featured the beast at all, content to only gesture at it through distant relatives. Prometheus created a new monster to serve as its focus: an android Frankenstein’s monster grappling with his disappointment in his human creators.
This same monster, Michael Fassbender’s David, serves as the center of Covenant, and his mad artist-cum-scientist proves to be much more terrifying than the CGI beasts that also populate the film (outside of one or two moments, Covenant‘s beasties–some familiar, some vaguely new–are treated with all the ho-hum obligation that characterized the use of velociraptors in Jurassic Park sequels). He also has a much more complex emotional life than any of Covenant‘s vacuous humans (as with Prometheus, the human beings seem to have been drawn using dotted-lines). The film never works better than when we get glimpses of the curious insanity behind David’s ambitious, horrifying attempt to fill the void of his own purposelessness with artistic creation, which Covenant accentuates through his interactions with a new android, Walter, both his double and his foil.
Covenant has other admirable touches when Ridley Scott goes full-on Ridley Scott, recreating Böcklin paintings and utilizing excerpts from Wagner operas on the soundtrack. Covenant has vistas that few recent blockbusters can match, including a haunting necropolis–the Pompeii-like ruins of an alien civilization–wherein much of the story’s action unfolds. These elements add aesthetic grandeur to what is essentially a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau (following after Prometheus‘ variation on At the Mountains of Madness).
Alas, much of Alien: Covenant finds Ridley Scott straining to be James Cameron. Scott has never been particularly skilled at building the kind of clockwork blockbuster sequences that Cameron or Spielberg so excel at crafting. Scott lacks the careful sense of geography, of meticulous setup and payoff, required for big, thrilling, action spectacle. The big set-pieces in Covenant (which generally feel like rehashes of iconic beats from the prior alien features) only have life when Scott locates a striking image. The connective tissue is so perfunctory that it’s inert.
Scott has been open about his intention to make many more films in the series, and, accordingly, Covenant follows contemporary blockbuster convention in teasing yet another installment as it concludes. The lingering questions raised by Covenant aren’t enough to combat the feeling that the series has been suffocated by the staleness of its own conventions.