Advertisements have a tricky job to carry out. First, the advertisements must sell a movie, and get people excited. Second, it is a good idea for an advertisement to be aesthetically pleasing and a work of art unto itself. Third, very few people want an advertisement to give away too much. And finally, an advertisement should set audience expectations so that they know what to look for in order to get the most out of its film. Advertisements don't always carry through on that last function, in which case it is the job of the reviewer to give a more exact pitch for the movie and inform people on what desires they should have before going in in order to be as satisfied as possible.
So before I break down the film, allow me to first address the perception of the film that has been built up through its marketing department. There have been some mixed messages. The studio clearly wants people to believe that this is a return to form, and did a lot of marketing with the Alien, knowing that it would make the movie sell. Whoever designed the poster for the movie managed to create a true work of art, one of the greatest posters of the year, indicating that the film had a heavy focus on the eerie proto-religion that the Engineers had with the aliens.
Personally, the trailers for the movie didn't excite me much. It was just another Alien movie, which had been done to death. The only thing that looked different was that people would get gory in the back instead of in the front. That didn't seem particularly inspired to me. Fortunately, I can say that those advertisements did not give away much of the story of the film, and that it wasn't a mere rehashing of the various Alien movies.
As for the poster, I loved it. That got me excited. It hinted at a continuation of the themes of Prometheus, and to take me into the disturbing, occult realm of the Engineer's religion. I really liked the religious aspect of Prometheus and wanted to see a full series dedicated to it, because it was good science fiction. There was something very primal about it that made it so unnerving.
However, that poster, with all the beauty of its themes and its aesthetic design, had nothing to do with the film. Let me repeat: the poster has nothing to do with the film. Nothing in any way whatsoever. Perhaps it gives us an idea of what the director wished it could have been about, and what it might have been in its first drafts, so it may reveal that much about Covenant, but otherwise it might as well be the poster for another film, one that I truly would love to see someday, if Ridley Scott is given a chance to make it.
If you want a proper set of expectations for Covenant, go in expecting something that carries on the tradition of being a genre shift. The first movie was a claustrophobic horror movie about an unexplainable menace. The second was an action movie. The third was an emo film. The fourth was a bad movie (oh, and I think it was trying to be a Western or something). AVP was PG-13 fan fiction. Prometheus was a classic sci-fi commentary on religion, higher powers, and man's place in the universe. Alien: Covenant introduces some very new elements into the mythology, and a new kind of conflict. What that conflict is, I won't say, but I'm telling you to expect a new kind of story.
Covenant does continue some of the deep thinking of Prometheus, but they aren't as relevant thematically because most of the characters aren't out in space seeking answers. These thoughts don't lead to a quest, and they don't strike me emotionally as much as Prometheus did. After seeing Prometheus, I definitely had a lot of thinking to do. What if we were to travel a great distance to seek God, only to find out that not only did God not exist, but His nearest equivalent was the most terrible thing that we could imagine, so frightening that it made us sick, and wish that we had rather not known? I am a huge fan of Prometheus for prompting such a strong emotional and spiritual reaction in me, and discovering a new primal fear that the other films hadn't touched upon. While Covenant carries over some of those themes, it does not exploit them as its main theme, and doesn't use them as a means of accentuating the primal horror.
Instead of being driven by spiritual questions and unknowns, Covenant's main theme has to do with character development. At the end of the day, I actually think that this is what the film is all about. This does involve some discussions on faith and belief, as with Prometheus, but in the case of this movie those questions aren't asked to the audience, but rather to the characters so that we become invested in them. Character development in this movie is important enough that I'd say that you should be more interested in that than the aliens. In my opinion, the aliens are almost incidental. Almost. They're still obviously very important, but if I were to go watch the film again, they would not be the main draw.
That's not to say that past Alien movies didn't have an important human element. All of them did, especially the ones that we all universally like. However, this does approach the humanity of its characters in a new way, and it creates a new kind of conflict. I won't tell you which characters to look out for, because I don't want to give anything away. I went into the movie having no idea how relevant each character was, or who the main characters would be, and I would like people to go in the same as me.
With all that talk about what the advertisements didn't give away, I should admit that they did give away some fairly important things. Some neanderthal in marketing decided to give away many of the death scenes, so right off the bat I knew that certain characters were doomed from the start. That did ruin some of the experience for me. The other advertisement, a web featurette called Crossing, gave away a major plot detail that I would have considered a spoiler, although in fairness is does give people a much more honest portrait of their future viewing experience. I would personally discourage people from watching any of the featurettes, and only watch them later as deleted scenes.
Due the the genre shift, I didn't really consider it a horror film. It is certainly the bloodiest of the Alien films by a slight margin, but I don't consider it as creepy. It will creep some people out, but it didn't scare me even a tenth as much as the original Alien did. So don't go in with the expectation of being scared. If by chance you are, then consider that an added bonus. The advertisements suggested that it might be a horror film, especially when they show death scenes, but it's definitely more sci-fi, and furthermore, because of those scenes in the trailers, it makes it impossible to be scared when characters die.
Even the deaths that didn't occur in the trailers were a bit predictable, because people still walk off on their own. It's excusable at first, before they realize that they're in danger, but after the action gets started, it becomes kind of dumb. It only bothered me at certain points, and overall I would say that the people are smarter in Covenant than they are in Prometheus (perhaps that's because they're have a less obnoxious demeanor and actually act like they're taking their mission seriously), but a lot of people who hated Prometheus for this reason will probably still hate this movie for that reason, so if you're one of those people, just accept it as a fact of life that horror victims will be stupid before going in to this movie. If you don't think you can accept it, then there's no reason for seeing it, and you'd better pass this time around.
My biggest criticism for the movie has to do with Ridley Scott. I liked the job that the writers did, and the actors, and for the most part I really liked the job that Ridley did. After all, the film is beautiful. It has very good cinematography, and he does an excellent job of directing darkly-lit scenes. I always appreciate it when directors can do that. However, it is not tonally as distinct as his previous to films in this franchise. It doesn't have the same sense of cinematic atmosphere. At times, if it wasn't for the cinematography, I thought that you might have changed Ridley Scott with another blockbuster director and found a similar result. Perhaps it isn't Ridley's fault, but the result of executive meddling. I'm not really sure. But in some ways, this definitely feels like a blockbuster film released in 2017 and isn't as distinctly a member of the Alien franchise. That isn't to say that it doesn't have plenty of atmosphere! It's just that it doesn't have as much as Prometheus and Alien. It also saddens me to say that it doesn't have any distinct, memorable music queues, as with Prometheus and Alien, although it does acknowledge those two by using both of their themes throughout the movie, indicating that this film is where the two films begin to meet. As a lover of film scores, though, I wish that this film had its own fully developed theme to go with it, especially one that would emphasize the thematic differences between this and past films.
Speaking of atmosphere, there's a flashback in this film. I don't like flashbacks in general, but since they have never been used in this franchise before, I especially didn't like it here. It's not that the flashback was done terribly, but I do think that it made this movie a little bit more like the average blockbuster and not quite as distinct as the other Alien films.
Overall, I'd say that it has a lot of the atmosphere of Prometheus, and we're getting the Ridley Scott from that film, but people are going to be debating whether or not we are to think of this as a Prometheus sequel or an Alien prequel. It picks up more immediately from Prometheus, and its characters are more closely tied to the Prometheus timeline. It feels like a Prometheus sequel in a lot of ways, but as many fans of Prometheus have pointed out, it answers almost no questions from Prometheus, and reveals more about the movie Alien.
Regarding the answers that it does give us, I would say that the questions are more related to characters and details of the plot of the series, and not so much metaphysical questions that play into the horror. Alien, for example, gave us questions about what we would be better off not knowing as we explored deep enough into space, and Prometheus gave us questions about what we would rather not know as we began to explore ourselves and our origins. Both are a bit disturbing. Covenant's questions aren't quite as mysterious and are things that we can expect more concrete answers on, questions on where the story and the characters are going. Some people might dislike it, but it works for this particular film, since I do think that Ridley Scott understands how this one is different.
Alien: Covenant might not answer all of our questions, and in fact it has sabotaged some of our such hopes, but it does leave a big footprint in the Alien universe, because its story has some far-reaching ramifications. Although I wouldn't say that its themes are as deep as its predecessor's, the actual story is a little more ambitious. In the previous films, the immediate consequences in their stories was the safety of the crew members. Ultimately, once one takes away the deeper themes, they boil down to survival stories. Covenant branches out a little more than that, and it absolutely affects the way that we are to see any films set after it, which is one reason why I think that fans of the series probably ought to see it.
There are a final couple of things for me to say:
First, Michael Fassbender was the best part of Prometheus and Ridley Scott, the writers, and the studios all knew it. That man deserved an Oscar for his role in that film, where he was last seen with his android head ripped from his body, but otherwise still functioning. His role as David is what first brought him to my attention. Yes, he has been excellent as Magneto, and he has received Oscar nomminations for other roles in 12 Years A Slave and Steve Jobs, but I believe that David was truly his best role to date. This is the one role that he takes the most complete ownership of. He wasn't featured much in Alien: Covenant's advertising, but everyone behind the making of this movie knew that fans loved David and made sure to do him complete justice. The last time we saw an amazing character brought back after having his head ripped off, it was in Alien 3 and it was a bit of a disappointment. However, I can assure people that David is a pure pleasure to watch, and that Michael Fassbender is given a chance to shine. Like a god.
The other performance that I must call out is Billy Crudup's. From what I saw in the advertisements, I thought that this actor was going to be completely wasted in this movie, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had seen Billy in some other things, but never bothered remembering his face. However, I fell in love with the movie Rudderless, in which he stars and gives a performance that many actors would kill for. It is also possibly my favorite indie film in the last five or so years. Since then, I've paid attention to all of his upcoming films. He also had the most fortunate opportunity to star in The Stanford Prison Experiment, another great indie film. If there's anyone like me who would have watched Covenant just because of Billy Crudup, but was afraid that his character would be insignificant and forgettable, I think that the writers gave him a decent amount of character, and that this role helps his career. It won't be iconic like David or Ripley, but there's plenty of scenes where I found myself appreciating the character.
Overall, I liked it. The people who want to get the most out of seeing this movie are the ones who will be okay with changes to the formula. There were some changes to what I thought an Alien film should be that, a decade ago, was once adamantly against, and thought that Alien films should never go in such a direction, but surprisingly it did embraced these changes with enough deftness of acting, writing, and directing to pull it off. I'm excited to see where the Alien franchise goes from here. I am also excited to someday see a deeper exploration of the proto-religion seen in Prometheus, because the poster for this movie makes me realize just how cool that would be.