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Of all the films in the Alien series, Alien: Covenant is the one about which I have the most to say. I am going to dissect it pretty thoroughly in the following paragraphs, but first, let me get my subjective opinion out of the way first, just so you know where I'm coming from. On the whole, I love Alien: Covenant and feel it doesn't get enough credit for the things it does well, but that doesn't mean I believe it to be a flawless masterpiece. It has a few problems--some of them pretty deep--and yet, despite them, it is a huge step up from Prometheus and easily the best film in the series since James Cameron's Aliens. I consider it a crime that Ridley Scott doesn't appear to be getting a chance to finish his story, as I feel like he was really getting into his groove here.
That disclaimed, it is instructive to break down the narrative of this movie into its three acts, mainly because few three-act movies have such distinctive differences between each one. The film's first act concerns getting the Covenant to David on the Engineer planet, while the second is a gothic horror with a deliciously over-the-top David standing in as the mad scientist, a Dr. Frankenstein-type villain in his dark, enormous, cathedral ruin of a home. The third act is the movie sold to audiences in the film's marketing, a quick retread of a lot of the tropes of the Alien series, a kind of bone being throne to fans of the Xenomorph who were most disappointed by its absence in Prometheus.
The Xenomorph gets back to its slasher roots
Let's start with that final act, which is basically a short version of Alien. Honestly, there's not much to say about it. Nothing is particularly offensive to the canon, and it is marked by a few neat ideas and cool visuals. I love everything about the shower scene, and the airlock sequence is pretty great, especially with how it handles decompression. It's quick and to-the-point, which makes it feel more like an afterthought than an organic part of the story being told. Of course, it all hinges on the final "twist" that David has replaced the android Walter (though I can't imagine there were too many people surprised by this), which is only annoying because he clearly doesn't have a hole under his chin as David should. Still, his walking into the cryo-chamber with Wagner's "Das Rheingold" blaring in all its orchestral glory is a fantastic moment, a wonderful culmination of what Scott was trying to do with this movie.
Where I think the movie is at its weakest is in its first act, which repeats many of the same mistakes as Prometheus: unnecessary plot contrivances (there are a lot of superfluous steps leading to the discovery of Shaw's signal), forced conflict (the new captain complains that people don't accept him because of his faith, even though no character ever does judge him for it), unanswered questions (so how come the decade-long survey missed the Engineer planet?), and characters who decide they don't need to wear any protective gear on an alien world (but at least they bring guns this time). As to that last point, which is probably the film's biggest nitpick from its critics, I am slightly more forgiving this time around since the lack of helmets actually bears narrative fruit. In other words, if the characters did wear protective gear, the plot wouldn't be able to progress without some additional step put in place in a story that already has too many unwarranted steps.
This scene is intense
Where the first act really works for me is when the neomorphs finally make their appearance. The sense of surprise and panic feels totally genuine and visceral, and even though Faris acts like an idiot and blows up the ship, her reaction to the stress of the moment is utterly believable. A lot of people would act about the same under similar, extreme circumstances, and thus, the plot develops organically instead of requiring character-defying contrivances. There's also a lot happening in a short amount of time, with confusion and terror dominating every character's reaction to the moment. As such, the horror actually works, at least for me.
The first act of Alien: Covenant also contains its own version of the black goo--now more of an aerosolized spore--which at least acts consistently (albeit a bit too quickly and conveniently for the plot) in how it does essentially the same thing to the two people it infects. It feels less like magic plot juice and more like something with an internal logic of its own. I appreciate that, and combined with how David defines the substance later, it almost retroactively makes its random usage in Prometheus seem a little more cohesive.