Home > Reviews > ALIEN COVENANT – Jed Kurzel

ALIEN COVENANT – Jed Kurzel

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Alien Covenant is director Ridley Scott’s second prequel to the 1979 masterpiece Alien, following on from 2012’s Prometheus. In this film, which takes place fifteen years after the end of the previous one, we follow the space ship Covenant, which is ferrying several thousand human colonists to a remote Earth-like planet. However, an accident aboard the vessel kills the captain and forces other crew members to wake from stasis and carry out repairs; then, after they intercept what appears to be a distress call from a nearby planet, the new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate, despite the objections of both his second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and the ship’s android Walter (Michael Fassbender). After arriving on the planet, Daniels quickly finds her misgivings to have been correct, and before long the crew is fighting for its life.

At this point, the executives at Twentieth Century Fox should take the Alien franchise out of Ridley Scott’s hands and give it to someone else while his legacy remains intact. On the one hand, I totally understand what Scott is trying to do; he’s attempting to turn the Alien series into some sort of epic narrative, offering ruminations on the origins of life and a treatise on humanity’s inherent self-belief that they are the masters of the universe. He integrates art, philosophy, and classic literature into what is, essentially, a horror film, giving it a deeper meaning. However, although he still clearly has the chops to pull off something visually spectacular, his handling of this more ambitious narrative is becoming increasingly incoherent to the point where the original movie is being diminished. Despite all its lofty conceptual ambitions, the actual characters in Alien Covenant remain woefully dense, doing stupid things for stupid reasons in order to progress the plot, just as they did in Prometheus. I won’t go into much more detail in order not to reveal spoilers; suffice to say, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup have joined Charlize Theron and Idris Elba in the Alien franchise Hall of Fame for dumb decision making.

Scott’s lack of a clear vision also extends to his handling of the film’s music. After the debacle of Marc Streitenfeld’s score for Prometheus, Alien Covenant was originally supposed to be scored by Harry Gregson-Williams, who came in late and wrote the ‘Life’ theme for Prometheus, which ended up being the cornerstone of that score. However, Gregson-Williams left the project late in the day, summarizing the reasons for his departure as a mixture of scheduling and creative issues, stating that “schedules and one’s expectations of scoring a film don’t always fit and this one wasn’t going to work out.” Instead, the score is by Australian composer and rock musician Jed Kurzel, whose stock in Hollywood appears to be on the rise off the back of his music for 2015’s Macbeth and 2016’s Assassin’s Creed, both of which also starred Michael Fassbender, and were directed by his brother Justin Kurzel.

I personally found the music for both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed to be intolerable, with the latter coming across as an especially egregious missed opportunity that eschewed the scintillating tones of many of the video game scores in favor of boring drones and dull, endlessly looped percussive action music. The same can be said of Alien Covenant; objectively, it’s probably the best score of Kurzel’s career to date, and is roughly on a par with Streitenfeld’s score for Prometheus, but it pales in comparison to anything from the original Alien series. At this point I would usually make a comment about how comparing this score to music by greats like Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and Elliot Goldenthal is unfair, but in this case this isn’t true. Although Goldsmith’s theme from Alien was subtly included in Streitenfeld’s score during the “Friend from the Past” sequence, it is quoted much more liberally by Kurzel here, forming the cornerstone of several prominent sequences, and as such the comparisons are not only appropriate, but essential.

Cues like “The Covenant,” “Sails,” and especially “Planet 4/Main Theme” are quite impressive, with grand and stately performances of Goldsmith’s trumpet theme, albeit often accentuated by more contemporary synth ideas and echoing heartbeat pulses. There are also regular allusions to the more icy, isolated sound that both Goldsmith and James Horner brought to their Alien scores, with meticulously metered oscillating textures that shift between strings and woodwinds, underpinned by groaning, low brass; these are especially prominent in later cues like “Wheat Field,” and the subsequent “Grass Attack”.

The problem, really, is that I’m not sure what Scott and Kurzel are trying to say with all this. If they are trying to create some sort of auditory link between this film and 1979’s Alien it doesn’t make sense because, if you remember, Goldsmith’s score was utterly butchered in post production, and large swathes of it were removed in favor of classical pieces by Howard Hanson and others. In the subsequent films neither Horner nor Goldenthal nor John Frizzell used it either, so it’s not as though they are adhering to any strict thematic architecture across the franchise by using it here. In the end, these parts of Alien Covenant feel like a fan score, something someone threw together in an attempt to re-insert Goldsmith’s rejected music back into the franchise because it ‘sounds cool,’ but with no real regard for conceptual application or context. It’s maddening, because although the music itself is fine and it’s nice to hear that theme again, anyone with knowledge of the Alien franchise’s music will find the decision to use it in this narrative perplexing.

In terms of Kurzel’s original contributions to the score, the most notable appears to be a new ‘alien motif,’ a scratchy, tormented-sounding 2-note metallic idea that first appears thirty seconds into the opening cue, “Incubation”. As motifs go, it’s impossibly simplistic – more of a sound effect than anything inherently musical – but Kurzel at least uses it consistently to depict the lurking threat posed by the various incarnations of the xenomorph. Further performances in cues like “Neutrino Burst,” “Spores,” “The Med Bay,” “Grass Attack,” and during most of the finale, allow the sound to insert itself into your subconscious as a marker for the monsters.

My criticism, really, is that most of the music that surrounds it is terribly dull and simplistic. For long periods of time Kurzel’s music is a droning, groaning, ambient affair, filled with little more than simple orchestral chords, electronic pulses, fluttering synth effects, and sampled sound effects including bells, chimes, and even breathing. Cues like the aforementioned “Neutrino Burst” and “Spores,” as well as pieces like “Launcher Landing,” the intolerable “The Med Bay,” the dreadful “Payload Deployment,” “Face Hugger,” “Lonely Perfection,” and “Bring It To My Turf” really test the listener’s tolerance and patience, assaulting them with endless sequences of little more than moaning, whining, and chugging, occasionally enlivened by a high scraping string texture that is intensely irritating.

Of course I understand that this is a horror movie; the music has to unnerve and unsettle, and convey a sense of tension and dread. Pretty melodies and sweeping themes are not welcome. But, even within those confines, it’s still more than possible to show some flair, some compositional acumen, to use the orchestra in interesting ways, to make the electronic samples and synth textures shine in intelligent ways. Goldsmith did this, Horner did this, Goldenthal did this, and many other composers in the sci-fi horror genre have done this too, but Kurzel seems not to have been able to craft anything more than noise. For the most part it’s terribly disappointing.

I say for the most part because, to be fair, the score does have a couple of bright spots. Both “A Cabin on the Lake” and “Chest Burster” feature a wistful piano melody, augmented by synth drones, which is intended to reflect Daniels’s hopes of a new life in the colony, and the sorrow she feels at that dream being snatched away from her. Elsewhere, both “Dead Civilization” and “Survivors” feature an idea which sounds like a variation on Harry Gregson-Williams’s “Life” theme from Prometheus, but which this time has been warped, twisted, strangled, tortured, and augmented by what sounds like a manipulated or deconstructed vocal effect. If this is a statement on the fate of the Engineer civilization – death, as opposed to life – then it’s a clever piece of musical commentary.

There are also two standout action sequences, “Cargo Lift” and “Terraforming Bay,” which underscore the climactic confrontations with this film’s breed of xenomorphs. Both cues are underpinned by relentless percussion ostinatos, beefy and prominent brasses, and almost dance-like string figures, as well as the persistent electronic textures, and the scraping Alien motif. The music in these cues is still very simplistic in its construction and technical compositional content, but there is a primal energy about it that is nevertheless compelling. The 5-note brass motif that kicks in around the 3:00 mark of “Cargo Lift” is one of the standout moments of the score, while the “Futile Escape”-style Horneresque strings at 3:38 make for a nice little hat tip.

However, despite this, I can’t shake the overall feeling that Kurzel’s music only works when he’s quoting Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. When he’s just being himself the score is, for the most part, terribly, painfully dull, lacking Goldsmith’s dramatic sense, and lacking Horner’s technical know-how or balls-to-the-wall adrenaline. The other problem with this, as I mentioned, is that the Goldsmith quotes merely reinforce Kurzel’s compositional inferiority, while simultaneously creating a confusing musical narrative link between this score and the mostly-rejected score from the 1979 film to which the next film will (hopefully) lead into. I’m still not convinced that anything other than fraternal nepotism is responsible for Kurzel’s film music career; the only significant films he has scored for anyone other than his brother are 2014’s Son of a Gun, 2014’s The Babadook, and 2015’s Slow West, and none of them lit the world on fire. As such, Alien Covenant simply reinforces my overwhelmingly negative view of him as a composer.

Buy the Alien Covenant soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Incubation (1:07)
  • The Covenant (3:25)
  • Neutrino Burst (2:57)
  • A Cabin on the Lake (1:55)
  • Sails (3:18)
  • Planet 4/Main Theme (2:06)
  • Launcher Landing (1:19)
  • Wheat Field (1:39)
  • Spores (2:17)
  • The Med Bay (7:25)
  • Grass Attack (3:16)
  • Dead Civilization (2:51)
  • Survivors (1:35)
  • Payload Deployment (1:46)
  • Command Override (1:47)
  • Face Hugger (3:56)
  • Chest Burster (1:24)
  • Lonely Perfection (3:21)
  • Cargo Lift (4:44)
  • Bring It To My Turf (2:05)
  • Terraforming Bay (3:02)
  • Alien Covenant Theme (1:42)

Running Time: 59 minutes 08 seconds

Milan (2017)

Music composed by Jed Kurzel. Conducted by Cliff Masterson. Orchestrations by Hugh Brunt, James Brett, Adam Langston and John Ashton Thomas. Original Alien music by Jerry Goldsmith. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley. Album produced by Jed Kurzel.

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  1. harshal patel
    September 18, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    no man this movie is master piece and i have watch all 7 part of this alien series and also watch this Prometheus and covenant and am fan of this both movie. i think this is much batter than previous series. this movie reflect brilliant creativeness and and revel imminent future. how magnificent use lord Byron and shilly dialogue symphony mozart and Wagner creativeness. and jed music is perfect without any subtle flaw. all soundtrack depict annihilation and great melancholia.

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