Alien Covenant

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.)

In 1979, Ridley Scott unleashed Alien on unsuspecting moviegoers, creating something that would end up becoming iconic in the process. Scott, a filmmaker with a background in graphic design, took what was essentially the type of B-movie that cluttered up drive-in theaters and turned it into something greater – a haunted-house picture set in space, dripping with atmosphere and dread, heightened by grotesque creature designs from nightmare-expert artist H.R. Giger.

Alien would turn into a franchise, although Scott stayed away for most of it. He returned for the sort-of prequel Prometheus, one of the most polarizing films of his career. Fans expecting another Alien were sorely disappointed, as Scott no longer seemed interested in the simple, dread-inducing terror of his 1979 film. Instead, the filmmaker wanted to use the Alien mythology as a framework on which to build a more complex, existential examination of the origins of humanity.

Scott could’ve walked away from the Alien franchise after Prometheus, but instead he seems committed to riding this out to see how far it will go. He has returned with Alien: Covenant, which loaded its trailers and promotional material with the familiar xenomorph alien that fans are familiar with. This film, Scott seemed to be saying, would be the Alien-type film Prometheus was not. It was a trick, though. The filmmaker had more complicated, complex ideas in mind. They don’t always work, but you have to at least appreciate his willingness to experiment with them at this stage in his career.

Spoilers follow.

Alien Covenant 1

More Human Than Human

The greatest trick Ridley Scott ever pulled was convincing audiences he was making a new Alien film when he was actually making a subtle sequel to Blade Runner. Much of Alien: Covenant has more in common with Scott’s 1982 cult classic than with Alien. Covenant even opens in the same manner as Blade Runner: with an extreme close-up on an eye, followed by an android being put through a test similar to the “Voight-Kampff” test from Blade Runner. The android here, of course, is David (Michael Fassbender), the chilly robot from Prometheus. Here we are witness to David’s “birth,” as he’s brought online by his creator, Peter Weyland, played by an uncredited Guy Pearce, who thankfully isn’t buried under old-age prosthetics as he was in Prometheus. In this beautiful but cold and sterile environment, Scott is setting up his film in a distinctly different manner than the other Aliens, revealing to us that this film is not about human beings, or even aliens. This is a film that belongs to David – an inhuman creation struggling to understand his place in a vast universe.

Weyland has designed David to be perfect; to learn, and think, and possibly even feel. He’s not a tool or a blunt instrument to be exploited for labor. Weyland asks David to play something at the piano, and David jumps into playing a piece from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.” David has had no practice playing this piece, of course – he just knows how. He’s been engineered to be not only human-like, but better than human. More human than human, as Blade Runner might put it. But there’s one main distinction between David and human beings that he’s quick to point out: “You will die,” David tells Weyland. “And I will not.” The revelation seems to disturb Weyland, and he quickly orders David to pour him a cup of tea in a lame attempt to assert his dominance over the android.

After this intro, Scott jumps into more familiar Alien territory: a crew on a grungy ship, slowly and unknowingly traveling through space to their certain doom. It’s a jarring jump from the intro, because at times Scott seems to be attempting to straight-up remake Alien, even going so far as to have Covenant’s composer Jed Kurzel recreating Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score over the opening credits. But the characters on board ship Covenant aren’t the long-haul space truckers of Alien, nor are they the rough-and-tumble Marines of Aliens. Instead, they’re colonists, like pilgrims aboard an intergalactic Mayflower, searching for a new home. They have a destination plotted out. Their destination is a remote planet dubbed Origae-6, and the Covenant has 2,000 colonists and 1,000 embryos onboard. While the crew and the colonists sleep, the ship is maintained by Walter, another android also played by Fassbender, adopting an almost American midwestern accent to contrast with David’s posh British one.

An accident suddenly interrupts the ship’s voyage, leading the crew to be violently awakened from their cryosleep. In some cases, very violently awakened: in one of the film’s cheekiest moments, James Franco’s character – the captain of the ship – is burned alive in his pod before he even utters a single line. It’s a fun bit of stunt-casting on Scott’s part, making us assume Franco will have a bigger part only to burn him to a crisp before the film has fully begun. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, the wife of Franco’s character, who is understandably traumatized by her husband’s demise. The whole crew is traumatized, of course, and the mission is now in the hands of Oram (Billy Crudup), a nervous self-proclaimed “man of faith” who clearly doesn’t seem ready for his new role.

While the crew works to repair the ship and get back on track, they receive a ghostly distress call in the form of a woman’s voice singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Never before has a John Denver song seemed so ominous, but the crew is intrigued, and when they realize the transmission is coming from a nearby – and previously undiscovered – planet, they all seem eager to investigate. All except Daniels, who voices objections. Oram rejects her concerns, and the crew descends to the planet. Many of them won’t live to regret it.

alien covenant 3

Entrance of the Gods Into Valhalla

The events aboard the Covenant are fine, but you can tell they’re not where Scott’s heart lies. He doesn’t rush to get to the second half of the film, but once he’s there, it’s clear this is the material the filmmaker truly wants to focus on. It’s here that Alien: Covenant becomes a completely different film – a big, bold gothic horror story set in space, the type of tale that would make Percy Shelley – and Mary Shelley, for that matter – swoon. This is the section of film that will likely turn off fans hoping for another Alien film, but it’s actually the most intriguing segment of Alien: Covenant.

On the planet, Alien: Covenant devises several nasty ways for the crew to meet a bloody end. If you thought the classic chestburster sequence from Alien was unpleasant, Scott tries to top that twice. First, he concocts a terrifying, tense sequence in which a character becomes infected with an alien parasite only to have a creature known as a “neomorph” – a kind of albino precursor to the xenomorph – burst out of his spine. Almost immediately after this sequence, another character has another neomorph come rupturing out through his mouth, as if he’s regurgitating a monster. It’s nightmare fuel, and this lengthy sequence shows that Scott still has what it takes to terrify.

The crew members who survive are rescued by a cloaked figure who is, of course, David. David takes the crew back to his home, a vast necropolis – a tower housed in a courtyard full of petrified corpses. It looks like something straight out of Gustave Doré’s paintings depicting Dante’s Inferno. David tells the crew that he and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) were the only two survivors from the Prometheus mission 50 years ago, and that they landed on this planet after the ship they were on accidentally unleashed a bioweapon on board, killing the planet’s inhabitants.

David seems uninterested in the human members of the Covenant, but he takes a particular interest in Walter. He invites Walter into his Frankenstein-like workshop, full of billowing curtains, flickering candles and anatomical drawings that would look perfect framed at Guillermo Del Toro’s house. David is downright seductive towards Walter, and if you’ve ever wanted to see Michael Fassbender shamelessly flirt with himself, Alien: Covenant has you covered. The flirtation sequence gives Scott a chance to highlight the differences between David and Walter: Walter can follow commands, but he, unlike David, cannot create. David finds this revelation far more tragic and upsetting than Walter does; he’s almost heartbroken at the potential Walter lacks. This sequence once again highlights that Scott is most interested in David – David is the tragic antihero of the Alien prequel saga. He’s the Roy Batty, violently reaching out for more life while being unconcerned with the lives he takes in the process.

David reveals to Walter that the bioweapon that destroyed all life on the planet was not unleashed by accident – he unleashed it intentionally. He also killed Elizabeth Shaw, using her body to further his ghastly experiments. David has spent the ten years on the planet conducting research and creating life – monstrous life that will eventually develop into the xenomorphs we all love and fear.

The neomorphs begin knocking off the Covenant crew, and Oram foolishly finds himself a victim of the facehugger after learning David’s true nature. “Take a look,” David tells Oram after showing him a basement filled with the familiar Alien eggs. “Perfectly harmless, I assure you.” Before you can say “John Hurt,” a xenomorph has burst forth from Oram’s chest and set its retractable jaws upon the survivors. Daniels tussles with David, who nearly has the upper hand until he’s stopped by Walter. Daniels flees, and Scott then reverts the film back into familiar Alien mode, which is unfortunate. One gets the sense that Scott realized the audience might be growing tired of all the gothic melodrama he’s been building up and wanting standard chase scenes. Some fans may desire this, but the film starts to run out of steam when it enters its final, predictable act. You want to stand up and shout at the screen, “Bring back the weirdness!”

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a writer who frowns a lot. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, /Film, Mashable, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413