Release Date(s)2017 (August 15, 2017)
Studio(s)Brandywine Productions/Scott Free (20th Century Fox)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for the film. Proceed with caution.]
Ten years after the disappearance of the Prometheus expedition, the colony ship USCSS Covenant is en route the habitable planet Origae-6 when a stellar burst forces the crew to be woken from hypersleep by their android caretaker, Walter (Michael Fassbender). After their captain is killed in a fire, the survivors must pull themselves together to make hasty repairs to the ship. But before they can resume their mission, they receive a strange signal from a nearby world, a signal that appears to be human in origin from a planet that may be even more habitable than their intended destination. Naturally, the crew decides to investigate, unaware that the signal is a lure and the planet a trap set by an all-too familiar face, that of the Prometheus’ own android, David (also played by Fassbender).
Before I continue, I should note that it’s very difficult to discuss Alien: Covenant without spoilers, so please be aware that spoilers follow, though I’ll try to keep them vague.
Still reading? Okay…
The good news is that Alien: Covenant is a better film than Prometheus. At the very least, it knows what it wants to be – a genuine prequel to Ridley Scott’s original Alien and also an origin story – and it’s much better than the previous film at interweaving those two goals into a coherent narrative. Fassbender is absolutely stellar here in dual roles; if you liked him in Prometheus, you haven’t seen anything yet. The production design is terrific, Scott is at the top of his game as a director of this genre, and half of the film, the B-story involving Walter and David, is kind of extraordinary. The problem is, that B-story is in service to an A-story that feels like an Alien franchise greatest hits reel.
Scott says in the documentary (included the Blu-ray) that one of his goals was to scare the shit out of his audience. That’s odd, because – in terms of aliens-killing-astronauts plots – we’ve seen most of this before. Scott could perhaps be forgiven for not having seen all of the Alien sequels, or the many bad Alien rip-offs that have been made over the years, but the writers don’t have that excuse. Some of this material is just lifted shamelessly: the reception of a strange transmission, the rough ride down to a planet in a dropship, the various birth-bursting scenes, the heroine’s attempt to blow the Xenomorph out an airlock while wearing a spacesuit, etc. Despite a solid cast, which includes Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, the main narrative is all very obvious.
But the bigger issue is this: Alien: Covenant has a ‘splaining problem. Giger’s original alien creature was so exceptional because it was utterly unknowable, unstoppable, unexplainable – in other words, alien. So why would you want to take away that mystery by building a mythology around it, no matter how detailed, sinister, and disturbing? Another problem this film has is that it repeats the mistake of Alien 3. The lead protagonist from Prometheus is… well, I don’t want to say a non-factor, because Elizabeth Shaw most certainly does factor into this film in a deeply unsettling way. But she’s definitely a non-character. Alien and Aliens – the great films in this franchise – weren’t about the creature; they were Ellen Ripley’s story. Scott seems to have decided that the real stars of his prequels are the creature itself (we even briefly see through its POV in this film) and a psychopathic AI with a God complex. Which, good as Fassbender is, is kind of depressing. Parts of Covenant are extraordinarily ambitious. There are some big ideas here. But they feel wasted in a film that is otherwise terribly familar territory.
The film certainly looks great in 4K. Alien: Covenant was shot digitally using ARRI Alexa XT cameras via the ARRIRAW codec (at 3.4K). Visual effects appear to have been rendered in 2K and the finished Digital Intermediate was 2K. This image was given a color grade for High Dynamic Range (HDR-10) and the result was upsampled for release on 4K Ultra HD in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Upsampled or not, result looks terrific. Covenant is gorgeous, just exquisitely staged and art-directed, as you’d expect from Ridley Scott. This is a dark and moody film, shot using mostly practical lighting, so contrast is extremely important. Shadows and highlights are incredibly detailed, with gorgeous texturing. Colors are rich and vibrant. Computer graphics, on both flat-planels and holographic projections, are bold and bright. It’s a very nice image.
Primary audio is available in an outstanding English Dolby Atmos mix that’s near reference quality. It’s highly atmospheric. When you’re on the bridge of the Covenant, for example, subtle computer and com sounds filter in from all around. Music cues flutter in to envelop you too with mysterious themes that hint at Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score (as well as the Prometheus score), and also to build edgy tension at just the right moments. The height channels are used almost constantly to complete the establishment of different sonic environments – you’ll hear them engage especially during the landing sequence, the exploration of the crashed Engineer spacecraft, and, of course, whenever the creatures attack. Dialogue clarity is excellent and the LFE provide a nice foundation to the mix. It really kicks in during action sequences. Additional audio mixes available on the 4K disc include 5.1 English Descriptive Audio, 5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital, and 5.1 DTS in French, Castilian Spanish, German, and Italian. Optional subtitles include in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish, French, Castilian Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Chinese, and Cantonese.
In terms of special features, the 4K Ultra HD disc includes only a feature-length audio commentary with Scott (with available subtitles in several languages). It’s not a bad track, but it’s totally off the cuff so while you do get some interesting insights, it’s a bit random and rambling. The package includes a Blu-ray Disc version of the film (in 1080p HD) with the same commentary that also adds the following extras (all in HD):
- 12 Deleted and Extended Scenes (17:37 total – Prologue: Extended, Walter in Greenhouse, Oram and Daniels: Extended, Walter Visits Daniels, Daniels Bedroom Flashback, Jacob’s Funeral: Extended, Ledward’s Fall, Crossing the Plaza: Extended, Daniels Thanks Walter, Rosenthal Prayer, Walter Reports Back, Stairs to Eggroom: Extended)
- Master Class: Ridley Scott documentary (in 4 parts – 55:30 in all) – Story, Characters, Setting, and Creatures
- 3 USCSS Covenant promos (Meet Walter – 2:20, Phobos – 9:09, and The Last Supper – 4:37)
- 2 Sector 87 – Planet 4 clips (The Crossing – 2:34 and Advent – 6:41)
- David’s Illustrations Galleries (Flora, Fauna, Shaw, Specimens, and Alien)
- Production Gallery (Ridleygrams, Conceptual Art, Creatures, and Logos and Patches)
- 2 Theatrical Trailers (1 – 2:26 and 2 – 2:04)
A couple of the deleted scenes are pretty good. The documentary is interesting but a bit glossy (though at the very end of the piece, Scott gives you a pretty strong hint of what’s coming in the next film – if it ever gets made). The best of this material by far are the two Sector 87 – Planet 4 clips. The Crossing reveals a little bit of what happened to Shaw and David after the end of Prometheus. Advent, however, is actually kind of shocking. It’s David’s macabre transmission back to Weyland Yutani explaining his experiments to… well, I won’t say it. But it leaves no confusion whatsoever about where the Xenomorph came from, nor what the fate of certain characters is (and is likely to be). The package also includes the usual Digital Copy code.
Alien: Covenant isn’t terrible, but neither is it great. It’s arguably the third best of film of the Alien franchise, behind Scott’s original and James Cameron’s sequel, so that’s something. The film is definitely worth watching and does have its merits, especially when viewed in 4K Ultra HD with HDR. But given the success of his recent The Martian, I do wish that Ridley Scott would invest himself in the creation of a new and truly original science fiction film world, rather than continuing to revisit this one. It’s getting a little predictable.
- Bill Hunt