Following up a successful movie with a sequel or in this case three sequels and now two prequels is always a tricky thing. Some may prefer to let the original stand on its own, while others might have been left wanting more of the same while still others want to see the original's themes and concepts expanded upon. 1979's Alien is a movie that I think still works very well on its own- its sequel Aliens brought in much more action, while the two after that continued the story but not with much of a point. Then Prometheus went back before all of these, trying to explain just where these aliens came from in the first place. This latest effort picks up about ten years after Prometheus ended, though it first begins with a prologue flashing back to where Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) first brought the synthetic human David (Michael Fassbender) into the world, telling him that his main reason for existing is to help find out just where humans came from.
David of course went on the Prometheus voyage in the previous movie, last seen with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw but never heard from again by anyone else in the story's universe. Here a new ship called the Covenant (hence the title) is making another exploratory voyage, with an identical synthetic human named Walter (also played by Fassbender) helping out the human crew consisting of male and female couples. They are hoping to find a planet on which to start a new human colony (bringing along another 2000 humans in deep sleep along with about 1000 embryos) and have such a planet in mind, but first a solar flare causes some problems on the ship resulting in the death of their captain before he even gets a chance to appear onscreen (although he's seen briefly later in a home video, played by James Franco in an uncredited role.) His wife (Katherine Waterston) is devastated but vows to continue the mission in his honor, with Oram (Billy Crudup) taking over as captain. The ship then picks up a "strange unknown transmission" that comes along often in sci-fi movies, and decides to follow it- landing on an Earth-like planet with plenty of plant life but noticeably zero animals in sight. Still, they think it'll make a nice place for their colony and go about exploring.
It turns out that the robot David had crashed on this planet with Dr. Shaw shortly after Prometheus ended. While Ms. Shaw apparently didn't survive the crash, David has the directive to always keep busy programmed into him and for the past few years has been doing a lot of scientific research on the elements found there. He's quite pleased to have this new human company join him along with a "brother" robot. Though the humans are quick to trust him, he might just have some sinister intentions. It also seems that the plant life on this planet harbors the seeds of the creatures that became the cause of all the problems in the original four movies- the crew inevitably runs into a few of them here with the expected results. From this point the movie seems almost like a re-hash of at least the first two movies, although it's also trying to create a backstory for those. Having re-watched all five of the previous movies before viewing this, the awkwardness of making a prequel several years after the original became very apparent- the visual effects are obviously more advanced than those in the earlier films that chronologically take place later, and director Ridley Scott has obviously picked up a different visual style with Prometheus that is light years ahead of the original Alien. A problem that I've had with CG effects in movies ever since they began is that they often look more like cartoons added into the live footage, and sometimes end up making entire shots look like a video game. While there are many CG effects here, I was relieved to see that the most critical creature moments were largely achieved with good old-fashioned practical effects, done well enough so as not to look "fake". The music score borrows heavily from both the original movie and Prometheus which also helps to tie things together. Although Prometheus was shot in true stereoscopic 3D (not post-converted like many 3D movies have been) and Ridley Scott made two other movies in 3D between that and this one, Covenant is disappointingly shot and released in flat 2D.
Aside from Waterston's character, most of the human crew here is rather one-dimensional. I had to laugh at one gruff male character being named "Tennessee" (played by Danny McBride), an obvious but possibly unintentional nod to the first movie's "Dallas". Fassbender steals the movie in his seamless dual robot roles, but that brings up another dilemma looking back to the original. That movie featured a robot amongst the human crew but none of them knew about it until well into the story when things had already gone wrong. The use of robots isn't kept a secret at all from the humans in these two prequels, so we're now left with an untold storyline about them between here and Alien which may or may not be answered in future movies. Covenant wasn't very well received in its theatrical release and has shown up on disc rather quickly- with the movie having been a summer release and the disc arriving before the season's end.
With this being my first review of a 4K Ultra HD title and having watched only a handful of other discs in this format prior, a bit of explanations and disclosures are in order. While it's said that improved black levels are a big advantage of the format, I have found that my TV- an LG 75UH8500- doesn't really have great black levels itself, despite supporting both the HDR10 format (used on this disc) as well as Dolby Vision, one of the few displays so far to do so. As this TV holds separate adjustments for each picture format, setting it perfectly has been more of a challenge than it was for 1080 and standard-def material. While I mainly kept the same values for the HDR10 settings, it was clear from the 20th Century Fox intro on this disc that the colors were simply wrong- and not being able to find any standard color bars (Sony's 4K discs do still have a hidden section of test patterns, but color bars aren't even included there) I had to eyeball things more than usual.
That being said, I haven't yet been "blown away" by the 4K format, its improved resolution certainly not as huge a leap in quality as Blu-Ray (and HD-DVD) were over standard DVD, which was like getting a brand-new pair of glasses after using old ones for too long. The opening scene shows the two characters at a distance rather often, which makes details on them all the harder to get across in lower resolutions, and I was quite impressed with how clear they appeared on the 4K disc. Comparing the scene to that on the included 1080p Blu-Ray disc though, that disc still looked almost as good. I will of course need to watch more 4K titles to have a clear opinion of the format, but being a huge fan of 3D I've seen the 4K format's inability to display that a huge setback. The main reason I bought my 4K TV was for its improved 3D over my older set, and with LG having announced that their models this year won't include it I wanted to get one while I still could. Ideally we'd be able to have 4K resolution in 3D at the same time, but as it stands I don't see this increase in resolution worth giving up 3D for, and a large number of 4K titles are 2D presentations of movies that were originally shown in 3D. I guess it's a happy accident that Covenant for whatever reason ended up being shot in 2D, making that a moot point in this case.
While the lack of 3D is a step backwards after Prometheus, the digital photography in the 2.35 ratio is still very sharp and clean, especially compared to the rather gritty 35mm of Alien. Again, this will make it a bit hard now to buy that movie's being set later in time. Many of the other aesthetics of Prometheus are still present, mainly a muted color scheme leaning towards a light blue. There are a number of scenes that take place in the dark and lit minimally- both the 4K and standard Blu-Ray discs still showed enough detail so as not to disrupt the narrative, even if the black levels on my TV are not all that they could be. (I have kept all of the "local dimming" options turned off, as their side effects are far more annoying than not-so-perfect blacks.)
The 4K disc presents the main audio in Dolby Atmos, encoded as a 7.1 TrueHD track. While I bought an Atmos sound system along with my new TV and installed it with two additional speakers, my limited space has been a bit of a challenge as to where to put them. I bought two upward-firing speakers as I had heard these produced the effect of ceiling speakers, but after watching this movie it's clear that at least in my location they don't actually do that- sitting on top of my regular front left and right speakers, the sound clearly came from them and not the ceiling or anyplace higher up. The soundstage seemed a bit wider than usual but that could have just been a placebo effect. I've since found a few other places I can put these speakers and will see what provides the best results in the future.
In any case, you would expect a good sound mix from a movie like this and it pretty much delivers. Dialogue is clear (far more so than it was in Alien, which had an almost documentary feel to it) and the action scenes are more bass-heavy than overly loud. If I noticed anything from the Atmos mix the way my speakers were set up, it was that they emphasized the ambient sounds as well as the omnipresent voice of the ship's computer "Mother".
The Blu-Ray disc includes the audio in 7.1 DTS Master Audio without any further enhancements. As has often been the case with Fox releases, there are far more languages supported than indicated on the cover. The 4K disc has dubs in both Latin and Castilian Spanish, French, German and Italian, and if you change the "Disc Menu" setting on your player to Japanese you'll be able to access a track and subtitles in that language with the other non-English options missing- I've seen this on a number of other Blu-Ray releases from both Fox and Warner. Hearing-impaired subtitles are included with subs in the previous languages plus Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Cantonese and Mandarin. The regular Blu-Ray gives you Portuguese along with Spanish and French, with subs in those languages plus Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish. Both discs also include an audio description track.
This release is quite extras-heavy, though not as much as Prometheus which had more than five hours' worth spilling onto an extra disc. Both discs include a commentary track from Ridley Scott where he discusses a few scientific concepts that made it into the storyline but also spends much of the time simply narrating what's going on in the movie. The Blu-Ray disc has a number of deleted scenes including some actual screen time for James Franco. A nearly hour-long "Master Class" gives an insight into the writing of the story and the movie's production, and there's a gallery of production stills and conceptual art. An amusing still gallery called "David's Illustrations" shows a large number of scientific pictures and diagrams that David made during his time alone, assuming that everything in the movie actually happened. Further providing a bit of extra fun harkening back to the DVD format's glory days are a few quite elaborate segments done just for the disc: a commercial for the "Walter" robot, footage of the ship's crew taking individual stress tests, and "The Last Supper" which shows the crew partying for a bit before getting down to business. Finally two theatrical trailers are included.
Overall reaction to Alien: Covenant has been mixed so far and will likely remain so as more people see it at home. I found the 3rd and 4th entries in the series to be mostly unnecessary and just milking things with the original able to stand on its own, but Prometheus provided a different perspective on the Alien universe with this being an adequate continuation. Most likely I'll warm up more to this one after repeated viewings, having appreciated Prometheus that way after being a bit confused by it at first. The lack of 3D here is a bit of a let-down (it was used very atmospherically in the prior movie with no obvious gimmicks) and the production overall seems to have been dialed back a bit from Prometheus, but is still very nice to look at and fans will likely appreciate it in 4K resolution.
(Pictures in this review were taken from the included Blu-Ray disc.)