The Movie (2.5/5)
I love the first two movies in the Alien movie franchise. I think both, together as an experience belong on every filmgoer’s list of all time greats. Ridley Scott’s Alien is this perfect blend of science fiction and horror that results in an exercise in both intrigue and tension with a sprinkle of action to top things off. It introduces us to a future society that’s more crusty, industrial, and layered than its late 70s sci-fi peers, and served as a fantastic introduction to the presence of Sigourney Weaver as the survivor Ripley. It’s sequel, Aliens, directed by James Cameron, defies all expectations laid out by Scott and his team, repurposing components of the first film to make a balls to the wall action spectacle full of one liners and rip-roaring machine guns that escalates into a brilliant, intense finale. Weaver returns to fend off the now iconic Xenomorphs once more, and in a rare occurrence, scores an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her fierce performance as Ripley, a credit to both her incredible skills and Cameron’s focused vision for what the follow up to the incredibly successful Alien should be.
That was, however, 1986, and since then nobody who has sat behind the wheel of an Alien feature, including Ridley Scott himself has really seemed to vibe in the world set up by these two incredible blockbuster films. Alien 3 was plagued with issues and arrived dead on arrival under the inexperienced hand of David Fincher, Alien Resurrection collapsed under scripting and budget issues, and Prometheus came up short on promises of a prequel that would help explain not just the origin of the Xenomorphs, but mankind itself. All three of these follow up movies had the right pieces for greatness, but stumbled in the delivery in significant enough ways that they’ve pretty much been picked apart since their respective releases. So, when Scott and his team unveiled Alien Covenant, with a brand new cast full of capable actors and actresses such as Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, as well as a promise to avoid the pitfalls of Prometheus and its distant relatives, I was mildly optimistic. The advertising campaign, which included a 6 minute prologue teaser and a couple of great trailers were engaging enough that I trucked out to see Covenant opening night with measured expectations, and a sense of anticipation for what I hoped would be a return to form for the Alien franchise. So, I guess the question is, did it succeed? Let’s find out.
Alien Covenant follows the crew of a Wayland-Yutani deep space colonization ship, Covenant. Crippled by a solar anomaly, it’s crew is awakened and greeted with a distress signal on a nearby planet. Led by the ship’s captain, Chris Oram, and first officer Janet Daniels, they embark on a mission to seek out the distress signal and investigate the planet. Once there, they discover that the planet’s been infected by a pathogen, one that cripples the infected and spawns a horrendous creature from within them. Trapped by the monsters and the planet’s atmosphere, they accept the help from the mysterious android David. They quickly realize however, that everything is not as it seems, and must band together, not only to save themselves from the monsters, but from whatever nefarious plans David has in store for them as well.
Directed by the man himself Ridley Scott, co-written by the guy who co-wrote Logan, a 97 million dollar budget, and led by an all star cast of B-tier Hollywood stars such as Michael Fassbender as both David and the new android Walter, Katherine Waterson as Daniels, Billy Cruddup as Captain Oram, and even Danny McBride as the ship’s pilot Tennesee, Covenant has all the dominoes lined up for a killer entry into the Alien franchise. It has the dark, cold, desolate planet full of alien spacecraft, dangerous androids, and a new variation of the Xenomorph creature that is both terrifying and a phenomenal homage to the original H. G. Giger alien designs. It’s well paced, and has some terrific action sequences that rival the best that both Cameron, and a much young Scott were ever able to produce in their own previous entries. All of the dominoes are in place…..but they don’t fall quite the right way.
Maybe its the fact that, in an attempt to give the crew an excuse to exit cryosleep, they’re awoken by a contrived solar flare that ends up destroying the cryosleep tube of the Covenant’s assigned captain. That tube happens to contain James Franco, who delivers one of his finest, most reserved performances of his career, but it hints at a crew led by an actor with some semblance of a personality. Or maybe its that the Covenant’s expedition to the unknown planet is led by Billy Crudup’s character, who early on mentions his religious beliefs as a source of tension between him and the crew, but is never allowed any time on screen to develop such an idea, robbing him of any intrigue. Maybe, just maybe its because we get a brand new spaceship crew full of interesting faces, but never really get any names or ideas of who they are outside of the three or four main characters mentioned above.
Actually, those problems aren’t the real issue; they’re minor when compared to the main issue that Alien Covenant brings to the table: Ridley just couldn’t leave all of the weird threads he started in Prometheus out of this movie. If it wasn’t for the insertion of the android David from the previous film, Covenant could have simply been an Alien movie, and it probably would have been pretty good. Instead, Ridley and his creative team dedicate an entire act to explaining away the mystery of the Xenomorphs by roping the crew of the Covenant into his evil lair. It’s here that we’re treated to weird, but surface level philosophical scenes about the nature of man’s continued existence, hard to follow explanations about how David used genetic engineering to create the Xenomorphs we know and love, and an incredibly comic scene featuring Fassbender as both David and Walter teaching each other to play the recorder, where David promises to…..you’ll get there on your own – I won’t blow the joke. Eventually, Ridley and his editor Pietro Scalia remember that Prometheus kinda sucked, and start to cut in more Alien-esque horror moments, but by then the mystery of the monster has been lost.
Beyond the Star Wars prequel-esque issues that Covenant manages to saddle itself with though, is a pretty average remixing of all of the plot beats that made the original Alien so satisfying, and if you can ignore the android storytelling wonkiness, you’ll find a movie with many of those satisfying moments once again. They drop down on a foreign planet, find the monsters, escape the monsters, and just when you think Rip-Daniels is free, another one pops up just to keep tensions high. There’s a little bit of Aliens’ action sensibilities mixed in for extra flavor too. Waterson fills the requirements laid out for her by Weaver’s performances in the original Alien films more than adequately, tearing apart Xenomorphs and cursing like she was born to do it, and Fassbender hams it up as both androids in the best ways, playing with different accents and facial expressions to help us differentiate between his two characters. McBride surprisingly manages to drop his comedic persona, bringing a blue collar charm to his performance as Tennesee. As for the rest of the cast, well, as I said above, they’re just sort of lifeless, screaming target practice for the Xenomorphs. We don’t ever really get to see them shine, or say anything meaningful. They just die – allegedly Scott had a cut of the film that was 30 minutes longer or so, but felt comfortable cutting it back to the lean 122 minutes we have here. I suspect much of the dialogue and character moments they were given ended up on the cutting room floor, and the film is much weaker as a result.
In the end, Covenant feels like a missed opportunity. It’s certainly entertaining, especially during the sequences where our crew finds themselves up against Xenomorphs, but Scott and his writing team just couldn’t let Prometheus go. They had to make this movie answer for its father’s sins, and as a result it weakens not only this movie, but the entire franchise as a result. I fear that things will only slip even further off the deep end with the promise of a future installment teased as the film concludes, but after wading through Covenant a second time on home video, I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to see it opening night like I did with this one.
The Video (4K: 4/5, 1080p: 4/5)
Alien Covenant was shot digitally using the Arri Alexa XT and Mini cameras using spherical lenses and cropped in post-production to create a final 2.35:1 aspect ratio image. The film was then mastered in 2K resolution for theatrical release. The film is presented on 4K UHD in upscaled 2160p resolution, maintaining that 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio.
At first glance, Alien Covenant doesn’t exactly make a strong case for its use of the 2160p resolution and HDR10 encoding. The film has been leached of most of its color, and takes place mostly at nighttime, or in the dark interiors of the Covenant. The image is sharp, but with a hint of noise, especially during some of the film’s darker exposures, such as the sequence where the crew attempts to escape David’s lair. It looks good, but it never really pops off the screen.
When compared to the 1080p Blu-ray however, the difference is subtle, but makes for an overall stronger presentation. Black levels and contrast are measurably improved, video noise is much sharper, and the film’s sci-fi color palette is a little brighter thanks to the HDR10 color capabilities. Both images are sharp as nails, but detail, especially in close ups and shots with quick movement is noticeably more visible in the 4K UHD presentation. Neither transfers scream reference quality, but I was generally pleased with the 4K presentation this film had to offer.
The Audio (5/5)
Alien Covenant screams onto 4K UHD Blu-ray with an exclusive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack on the Blu-ray disc counterpart included. For review purposes, the Dolby Atmos mix was played through a 5.1.2 Atmos surround sound configuration.
Covenant hits home with one of the finest Dolby Atmos sound mixes I’ve been exposed to to date. Almost immediately we’re greeted with deep, rumbling subwoofer action, and a creative and active use of the entire soundscape. Dialogue and sound effects are mixed into the stereo channels and surrounds in a way that is not only realistic, but serves to effectively heighten tension during the film’s more intense moments. The added height channels are used subtly to reinforce the carnage taking place on screen without feeling contrived or artificial. Whatever faults the visual presentation of the film has, its more than made up for with this fantastic Atmos mix.
Special Features/Packaging (4/5)
Alien Covenant has been released to home video by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in a standard black UHD Blu-ray keepcase and accompanying slip cover. The front artwork for both the case and the slipcover feature a black and grey depiction of the final breed of Xenomorphs featured in the film, looking all scary and terrifying and stuff. The back artwork features a shot of Captain Oram observing one of the classic Xenomorph pods with a flashlight, with a review quote and paragraph about the film superimposed on top. Below that is a list of features for the 2 disc set, and copyright information for the release. The slipcover features a few extra shots from the film, and theatrical credits for the release are only present on the keepcase itself. Not exactly inspiring work from the folks at Fox, but it gets the job done.
Onto the features:
Audio Commentary – Featured on both the standard Blu-ray and 4K UHD Blu-ray. Director Ridley Scott performs commentary for the length of the film, discussing how the plot was constructed, themes from the film, and walks us through the decisions he made as a director in terms of defining performances, etc….
Deleted and Extended Scenes – 12 deleted or extended scenes that were cut from the film. It reveals a little bit more of some of the characters, especially James Franco’s role in the film, and gives us insight as to what Ridley felt wasn’t necessary to get the film into theaters.
USCSS Covenant – a series of 3 clips that detail the processes that Weyland-Yutani used to create Walter as well as pick the team, as well as the, “The Last Supper” prologue clip. All used to advertise the film before its release and generate hype.
Sector 87 – Planet 4 – Another series of 3 clips, this time detailing the aftermath of Prometheus. It cover’s David’s journey to the planet, and how he began working on the genetic experiments mentioned in the film. It actually ends with a surprising connection to the later films in the Alien franchise, something so cool I wish it had ended up in the film somehow.
Master Class: Ridley Scott – a 55 minute documentary on making the film, as well as its connections to Prometheus and the other Alien movies. There is some phenomenal behind the scenes footage from the film’s production, intercut with all sorts of interviews and discussions from the people who worked on the film.
Production Gallery – a series of stills taken during the production of the film.
Theatrical Trailers – 2 theatrical trailers for the film, as seen during the months leading up to the film’s theatrical release.
Honestly, it’s nice to have all of the pre-release material under one roof on disc, and combined with the deleted scenes and 55 minute documentary, Alien Covenant makes for a compelling purchase based on the qualities of the extras included.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
After listening to the commentary, and watching the included documentary on making the movie, its clear that Ridley Scott REALLY wanted to explain away the mystery behind the Xenomorphs. That was what he sort of tried to do in Prometheus, and something that he sees through to the end in Alien Covenant. Unfortunately, he also tried to do this AND make a great Alien franchise entry, and those two concepts seem to be mutually exclusive. Cut out all the lame world building and explaining though, and you have yourself a fairly competent Alien remix. Waterson and Fassbender deliver solid performances in the respective roles, and the film has great production values and construction, but they can’t save the Alien Prequel series from falling prey to Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Syndrome, and it looks like neither can Ridley Scott. Either way, Fox has delivered a competent home video release of the film, with a solid 4K UHD presentation, fantastic Dolby Atmos sound mix, and a decent chunk of interest pre-release material and extras to keep hungry fans of the film satisfied. Recommended, but ONLY if you really liked the direction Prometheus was headed in. If you didn’t? You might just want to rent this one.