ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
The Plot: Set ten years after the events in 2012’s Prometheus, Alien: Covenant tells the relatively bleak story of the titular deep space vessel, Covenant, and its mission to deliver thousands of couples, and tens of thousands of human embryos, to a habitable planet colony seven years from Earth. When an accident during transport kills the ship’s captain, the freshly awoken command crew (Fassbender, Waterston, Crudup, McBride) must decide the next move for the expedition. Continue on for another few years and risk losing others to the malfunctioning ship systems, or explore another planet entirely – one they hadn’t known had existed till they were rousted out of cryo-sleep and started detecting a strange transmission from its surface. A transmission in the form of a feedback loop that sounds suspiciously like someone singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ crackling out into the vacuum of the universe.
The Film: We should make one thing extremely clear right out of the gate in this review – Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant is Prometheus 2. Trust me that’s a good thing. In a stroke of either psychosis or arrogance Scott chooses not to abandon his impugned 2012 prequel Prometheus just to appease the fussy populous of Alien fanatics and film aficionados with Alien: Covenant. Although Alien: Covenant should take care of that crew well enough on its own. Though Prometheus was a mixed bag for most viewers – a kind way of saying it’s a sophisticated mess – it easily offered the most interesting direction for this franchise since James Cameron released Aliens back in 1986.
Prometheus dared to dream. It dared to dig too. Deep as it turned out. Unearthing more questions than answers unfortunately.
During the last five years I’ve come to terms with what Ridely was attempting to say with Prometheus. Why the director shrugged off all other sequel projects – Blade Runner, the still-just-a-rumor (thank god) Gladiator sequel, and a second chapter to Robin Hood, a film that straight-up concluded in an unresolved cliffhanger – to make an expensive existential prequel to Alien minus the classic ‘alien’ monster. The fact is Ridley’s an old man now. (80 years old this November) He’s pondering the end of life and maybe what’s after. Mortality is the central player of Prometheus. Its dominant influence permeates nearly every frame of the film.
There’s a telling scene in Prometheus where David the android is peering into Dr. Shaw’s dreams while she’s in transitory hyper-sleep (lovely image this – using science fiction as an apparatus to explore not just space, but inner-space as well) and in that dream Shaw’s Father (Patrick Wilson in a short cameo, there’s another big name cameo in Covenant that I won’t spoil for you) replies to his daughter’s question about where the dead go: “Everyone has their own word. Heaven. Paradise. Whatever it’s called it’s someplace beautiful.”
David, being a synthetic and quasi-immortal, accepts that this metaphysical concept of an eternal soul’s existence in an ambiguous next world isn’t worth trading in the certainty of an eternal life in the actual world. Later in the film when he examines the decapitated head of an engineer – for all intents and purposes, the God of his God – David states “Mortal after all…” He’s less than impressed.
When you begin to go down that road philosophically, whatever morality you may have been originally programmed with genuflects before the throne of mortality. Life trumps probity – at least in the world of synthetics.
In Alien: Covenant’s first scene we witness the birth of David – or at least the first time the android opens its eyes and begins processing life. His maker, Peter Weyland is there to deliver him into consciousness, and to answer his questions. Weyland, played again by Guy Pearce, is a younger man in this scene, prompting the realization that Ridley Scott was thinking well past Prometheus when he cast Pearce to play the ancient entrepreneur in the first film. Here Pearce plays his age. He asks his pet machine to choose a name for itself. The machine then takes its name from Michelangelo’s David. Thus mankind’s near-perfect creation finds its name in the renaissance – the historical pinnacle of mankind’s greatest creative achievements.
David quickly realizes an inevitable truth, and openly acknowledges to his creator that his creator shall grow old, shall one day die. And David, the fruit of his labor, shall continue on without him, possibly infinitely. Weyland bristles. Then he orders David to bring him his tea. The synthetic Ubermensch is thus forced back into subservience to its decaying programmer. Its observation on hold for now.
But only for now.
Alien: Covenant has much to say about creation. Creation as a biological chain reaction between God and gods – Prometheus’s engineers. Between the engineers and mankind. Between mankind and hyper-intelligent AI hominids like David. The David model’s obsession with art, film, and music (Richard Wagner this time – adding to the Aryan themes Ridley Scott is toying with with his blonde-haired, blue-eyed androids) is a byproduct of his fascination with creation and, in turn, the creative impetus of existence. Even this colonial expedition of the Covenant, with its cuddly couples and cryo-storage fetuses is a manifestation of the creative impulse.
Worlds are waiting to be built out in the recesses of space. Life begets life, begets artificial life, begets life in places where life doesn’t exist. Maybe should never exist at all.
Until this film we don’t know who or what was responsible for the dark spark that brought the existence of the xenomorph species into the creational chain of this universe. Which is, I’m guessing, the reason why everyone was so excited for the prospect of Prometheus in the first place. As it would turn out Prometheus offered more questions than answers – Covenant offers, not only answers, but wholly satisfying answers. Answers that lead to a completely refreshed perspective on Prometheus and indeed 1979’s Alien.
There are, fortunately, technical fixes Ridley Scott got a handle on to assure his new Alien film wouldn’t be as uneven an experience as Prometheus ultimately turned out to be. The editing is much cleaner this round, the writing less deliberate, (“It’s Christmas, captain, and I want to open my presents….” – D. Lindelof) the final act a balance between thrilling terror and abject nihilism.
The most critical asset to the success of these new Alien prequels has been Scott holding on to Michael Fassbender – playing David in Prometheus, and in Alien: Covenant taking on the role of David’s progeny Walter. Walter’s more of a grunt than his forebearer. Less flair, more blunt-force doggedness. In any case Fassbender creates two of the franchise’s best characters – if not the best character, sorry Ellen Ripley – and hefts nearly all of the weight of both of these movies, creating excellence and vitality out of the vacuum of modern science fiction.
But we’ve spoken on androids enough. You’re here for the aliens. So is Ridley Scott… thank the tall, bald, alien gods.
Alien: Covenant is a horror film first and foremost. Technically the genre is still science fiction, but in the same slight of hand David Fincher exhibited in Alien 3, sci-fi is more trimming than foundation – foundation being gothic horror. Covenant is much more in tune with the medieval, much more in tune with the mythological, than it is with anything remotely secular. In that regard it’s rooted in the antiquated old devilry of Lovecraft and Hammer films.
The command crew of the Covenant stumble upon what is essentially a haunted planet. A once thriving world now in a state of severe decline. Great stalks of wheat grow on the surface, but their coloring is ashen. This breed of wheat seems less likely to support a community, and more likely to poison it during its developmental stage. The water on the planet is freezing – or at least feels freezing on screen. The forest climate suggests this place should support life, but the sky above it is full of lightning. The atmosphere around it bearing the weight of a great uninhabitable marsh. This world feels absolutely haunted. There’s something very, very wrong here.
Of course there is. That’s why we bought a ticket to take this familiar ride a second time in five years.
The Covenant ship is laden with potential breeding couples and human embryos in cold storage. This just means Scott can create as many widows and orphans as necessary – and he does – in an effort to impact an unsuspecting audience with as much emotional extortion as he can – and he does that too. These are not the punchy, quick casualties of Cameron-era Alien. The loving couples of the Covenant expedition are broken apart, anatomically dismantled, and savaged in gory flurries of hyper-violence. And yet these alien killers – crowd favorite xenomorph and their eerie alabaster-skinned cousins, the neomorphs – aren’t feeding. That would indicate a position in the universal ecosystem. These creatures are killing because they’re creationary anarchists, producing ripped apart corpses instead of offspring. Exterminating life as quickly as they come upon it.
It’s so good to have them back.
The Verdict: The existential splatter film you requested has finally arrived, shredded red meat hanging from its dual maws. Alien fans finally get the prequel they wanted from Prometheus five years ago. Prometheus apologists finally get the much needed fix they’ve been requesting for that film’s unresolved issues. Alien: Covenant is a win for both audiences. It’s also the best thing to happen to this franchise since the first two films. Apologies Mr. Fincher.