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Alien: Covenant Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)

The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an unchartered paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a terrifying threat beyond their imagination, they must attempt a harrowing escape. (From Fox’s official synopsis)



As any friend of mine can tell you, I believe firmly that there is only one bad movie in the Alien franchise and it is Greg Strause’s AVPR: Aliens vs Predator - Requiem (2007). That is assuming that the two movies featuring Predators/Yautja/Hish-Qu-Tens count. All of the things that define the series – from graphic violence and the dingy, H.R. Giger aesthetic, to the combination of B-horror and pulp sci-fi storytelling, the convoluted continuity, and the characters’ history of bad decisions (basically anyone not named Ripley makes the worst choices in these movies, over and over) – is genuinely delightful and I will forever defend the likes of David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997), and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). I’ll even defend the multitude of blatant rip-offs from the 1980s, including Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (aka: Alien Contamination, 1981), B.D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror (1981), Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (aka: Horror Planet, 1981), Allan Holzman’s Forbidden World (aka: Mutant, 1982), Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro (1982), and Ciro Ippolito’s Alien 2: On Earth (Italian: Alien 2 Sulla Terra, 1980). What I’m saying is that my opinion on the subject of Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017) might not be entirely trustworthy.


Alien: Covenant was better received than Prometheus by ‘classic’ Alien fans, in part because it dialed back into more familiar territory. However happy some people were with the changes, the attempt to appease core fans spread the film thin and is the film’s greatest weakness. With minor tweaks, Alien: Covenant could’ve been either a really good Prometheus sequel or a really good Alien prequel, but, because Scott (and company) tried to have it both ways, the final product doesn’t quite work as either. Personally, I didn’t want an Alien prequel in the first place, so I find the tacked-on fourth act the one obviously bad thing about the movie. There’s no good reason, aside from briefly recalling the 1979 original, to cram an extraneous shower scenes and 15 minutes of booting xenomorphs into the vacuum of space between the more logical climactic action sequence, in which the survivors escape the cursed planet, and the natural coda, in which it is revealed that the villain’s plan actually succeeded*. These sequences (among others) reek of the same pandering that J.J. Abrams has been peddling for the better part of a decade, rather than the more nebulous nostalgia on display in Prometheus. If I wanted to see a well-made, modern replay of Alien’s major narrative beats, I’d just watch Daniel Espinosa’s Life (2017). ...which I have and it was boring.



Fortunately, Alien: Covenant is a better Prometheus follow-up than Alien lead-in. It’s even a pleasant surprise, given how long it takes before David the sociopathic android shows up to explain the plot. Unfortunately, the coolest of the threads connecting back to Prometheus have been largely delegated to brief flashbacks, promotional tie-in videos, or deleted altogether. This is, sadly, kind of expected, given what we know the fluid and continuous storytelling method employed by Scott over the course of the two movies. Make no mistake, Scott is the key driving factor in this narrative process, the credited writers – John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen (story by), and Michael Green (story by) – were, like Prometheus’ Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, probably acting as glorified stenographers and story editors. Scott’s writing room dominance is made very clear in the behind-the-scenes documentary and subsequent interviews. I assume that Scott chose to remove the bulk of David and Prometheus expedition survivor Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) experiences following the events of the first movie (most of which found their way into the promo videos and deleted scenes) in an effort to separate the two films. Shaw deserves better than a cameo as a dead body and the question as to whether or not David premeditatively murders her or genuinely mourns her passing (in his own strange way) is too intriguing to be thrown away on a shocking reveal. For the record, much of Prometheus’ mythology was only included in the deleted scenes section of the home video release. In both cases, this was either a strange marketing choice, an attempt to make the already ambiguous plot completely obtuse, or, most likely, both.


The best thing about Alien: Covenant, besides its gleeful, geek show gore and Michael Fassbender’s wonderful dual performance (love that auto/homoerotic flute scene), is that it isn’t the expected Alien backstory. Sure, Scott could’ve bucked the franchise’s rules and turned out a truly smart, hard sci-fi thriller with action, scope, and emotional stakes, but, grandiose interview claims aside, Scott has never seemed interested in making anything more than another impeccably designed, creepy-crawly horror movie. Alien: Covenant matches the other two Scott-directed pictures in the series as a simple and violent body-count movie that poses a lot of Big Questions it isn’t particularly interested in answering. Some people are understandably frustrated by this, as they have been with the director since the earliest days of his post-Alien career (for instance, Blade Runner [1982] was generally considered daft nonsense when it was originally released). Maddening though it may be, I find it fascinating that, when offered the chance to explain the story behind the purposefully enigmatic first film, Scott managed to make two even more cryptic and thematically messy prequels. Yes, the answers given at the end of Alien: Covenant streamline some of the narrative tendrils between Prometheus and Alien, but they also stir up a hundred more questions – questions I’d personally be happy to see answered in future installments. Perhaps we should stop calling them Alien prequels, though, since the David the sexually frustrated robot is clearly the more compelling unifying element. He’s the anti-Ripley for this more apathetic, emotionally frigid off-shoot of the original franchise. Perhaps the two of them can even face-off someday? Alien 5/Prometheus 3: Ripley vs. David? I’d watch it!



Video

Alien: Covenant was shot using Arri Alexas digital cameras, yet, unlike Prometheus, it was not shot in native 3D, which is too bad, since Prometheus is the single best theatrical 3D presentation I’ve ever seen. In fact, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (who shot Scott’s last three movies) take an effort to make Alien: Covenant appear more organic and film-like than the very cold, hyper-detailed, and desaturated Prometheus. Actual grain is at a minimum, but the dynamic range, harsher blacks, and muddier compositions all add grit to the overall look. However, this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is consistently sharp enough that the important fine details are rarely lost in the gloom. In addition, the relatively eclectic style creates a very dynamic location-to-location look – from the sterile, blooming glass of Weyland’s offices, to the busy, electric lighting of the Covenant ship and the candle-lit catacombs of David’s homestead. The texture levels change accordingly with only minor halo effects and noise to contend with. The diverse palette is beautifully recreated, especially the vivid blue/teal/green highlights, and black levels are deep without absorbing too much of the color around them.


Audio

Alien: Covenant is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound and meets the expectations of an Alien franchise film in terms of range, directional support, and unique sci-fi sound effects. Dialogue is clear and consistently centered, along with a number of incidental effects. The quiet moments are deathly silent, which supports sudden, startling, but often harmless sounds throughout the channels. This way, the aural environment is perpetually threatening, even before monsters start bursting out of people. Spaceship jet engines and explosions workout the LFE while the xenomorph critters zip and skitter in and out of the stereo and surround speakers wonderfully. Composer Jed Kurzel (who composed music for four of Fassbender’s last nine movies) utilizes pieces of Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien compositions and the major themes from Marc Streitenfeld’s Prometheus music throughout his unsettling score, which deftly underlines Scott’s images without leading or overwhelming them.



Extras

  • Commentary with director Ridley Scott – This is a typical Scott commentary, full of behind-the-scenes information and explicit explanations of implicit events, as well as somewhat annoying narration of on-screen action. The track is best when the director is rambling about his creative and narrative influences, and descriptions of ideas that were deleted from earlier versions of the story.

  • Twelve deleted and extended scenes (17:37, HD) – These are mostly brief character moments, rather than big plot pieces and mythology (don’t worry, there’s still a lot of that in the featurettes).

  • Master Class: Ridley Scott (55:30, HD) – This relatively extensive behind-the-scenes documentary is split into four parts with a play-all option. The cast & crew discuss the production, the Big Ideas, Scott’s hand-drawn storyboards (aka: Ridleygrams), shooting scenes with two Michael Fassbenders, constructing/designing sets/locations, and costume/creature design. Once again, Scott is clearly in charge of the story and characters, as well as the images and tone.

  • Production gallery

  • Two trailers



USCSS Covenant:

  • Meet Walter (2:20, HD) – A faux ad for the Walter model of android.

  • Phobos (9:09, HD) – Footage of the crew undergoing psychological stress tests.

  • The Last Supper (4:37, HD) – Footage of the crew (including James Franco) have a dinner party before going into hypersleep. It’s basically another deleted scene.

SECTOR 87 - PLANET 4:

  • The Crossing (2:34, HD) – These brief scenes of Shaw and David’s trip to the Engineers’ world was used as a promotional piece and include footage of not used in the final film.

  • Advent (6:51, HD) – In this gory video diary from David, the android explains his goals, his scientific method, and offhandedly verifies that he murdered Shaw when she refused to work with him, then stripped her body for parts. Given [i]Covenant’s[/i] weak box office, this might actually end up serving as the third film in the prequel series, because it ends with the indication that Daniels will be the host for the first queen alien. This also indicates that David has sent all of this information back to Earth, which might be how Weyland-Yutani knows where to look for xenomorphs in the main series installments.

  • David’s illustrations image gallery



* I should acknowledge that the whole fourth act reveal that an alien made it aboard the ship after an otherwise logical climax is a long-standing franchise tradition, making an appearance in three of the original four films.


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