The following review is spoiler-free.
“Alien: Covenant” is a Prometheus movie with an Alien coat of paint. That’s the most fitting way to describe it.
As much as the film’s marketing and title tried to distance itself from “Prometheus”, this movie is still a sequel to the 2012 Alien prequel. So, first and foremost, I recommend watching “Prometheus” before seeing “Alien: Covenant”.
“Prometheus” was an interesting movie, and the same can be said for “Alien: Covenant”. They both have grandiose, confusing, and sometimes pretentious themes. They also have a great cast and stunning visual effects.
What “Alien: Covenant” does better than “Prometheus” is horror, action, and visceral gore. And when I say visceral, I mean it.
Of course, “Prometheus” didn’t have many of these things in the first place, and “Alien: Covenant” does not focus on the xenomorph nearly as much as its marketing makes you believe. Instead, the main focus of “Alien: Covenant” is a return to the themes of playing God that are first introduced in “Prometheus”.
Overall, “Alien: Covenant” is a better movie than “Prometheus”. It strikes a better balance of horror, action, and interesting themes, and makes more sense than the convoluted “Prometheus”. Nonetheless, “Alien: Covenant” has far too much going on and suffers from a major identity crisis that keeps it from being any more than okay.
The source of the identity crisis actually stems from the xenomorph (the titular “Alien”). Without going into spoilers, the xenomorph constantly plays second fiddle to the movie’s real antagonist. The presence of another villain completely takes away any tension from later scenes with the xenomorph. This other villain makes the creature seem like nothing more than just a pawn in the plot.
This shortcoming with the xenomorph is what ultimately makes the film seem more like a “Prometheus” movie than an “Alien” movie.
Another part of the movie that suffers is its extremely slow first act. It takes 30 minutes before the action begins to pick up. Given that this pacing marks a huge resemblance to the original “Alien”, bearing through a similar first act is difficult.
To the film’s credit, I was pretty nervous that “Alien: Covenant” would be a carbon copy of the original “Alien”, but once the DNA of “Prometheus” begins to emerge, “Alien: Covenant” stands out as something different in the Alien franchise.
My other major qualm with “Alien: Covenant” involves the human characters. They make quite a few dumb decisions, and while that is often the case with horror movies, “Alien: Covenant” tries to be too intelligent in its themes for me to give it this excuse. The human characters also fail to provide some heart to the film. All of these characters are married before the movie begins, and when the deaths inevitably occur, the emotional aftermath seems forced because the audience has not actually observed these relationships.
While “Alien: Covenant” has quite a few weaknesses, it does many things right. The movie may never be scary, but it can be very tense. The visual effects are also quite good, except for one instance when the xenomorph slips down a ladder. As aforementioned, the gore in this movie is stomach churning in the best way possible. It isn’t overdone, and when something bloody happens, it certainly has the desired effect.
While the story and mythology of the “Alien” franchise can be confusing, especially with “Prometheus”, the new elements added in “Covenant” are truly interesting. I was surprised by the plot of “Covenant” and I praise it for subverting my expectations. Some twists are pretty predictable, and the movie could have done a better job of hiding them, but nonetheless, the movie’s plot is really exciting (if you can wait about 40 minutes for it to truly reveal itself).
The performances in “Covenant” are great, especially from Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride. Michael Fassbender, the only returning actor from “Prometheus”, absolutely steals the show though. His performance is undoubtedly the best part of “Alien: Covenant”.
Part of what made the original “Alien” so great was its simplicity. It was a sci-fi horror showdown between the Nostromo’s crew and a menacing, almost unstoppable alien.
“Alien: Covenant” lacks this simplicity. It’s both a “Prometheus” and “Alien” movie, and while it does both portions pretty well, the complex themes and mythology of “Prometheus” conflict too much with the simple horror-action of “Alien”. The horror, effects, and acting are great. Michael Fassbender in particular deserves immense praise. But the slow first act, dumb character decisions, forced emotional aspects, and conflicting antagonists rob the movie of its potential greatness.
If you are interested in a sci-fi movie with a few great gross-out horror scenes, as well as interesting themes about mankind playing God, I would recommend “Alien: Covenant”. But if you want a strictly all-xenomorph “Alien” movie, much like its advertising led you to expect, “Alien: Covenant” is not for you.