ALIEN: COVENANT — Ridley Scott’s Muddled Exploration of Gods and Monsters

Come for the Xenomorph, stay for the Fassbender

Covenant. “A formal alliance or agreement made by God with a religious community or with humanity in general”. Also the name of the ship carrying a new band of unsuspecting souls into the jaws of your favorite H.R. Giger creation. More than that, it embodies the themes director Ridley Scott sets out to explore, as well as his intent to correct course, in response to the backlash to Prometheus, the Alien prequel that set out to (perhaps unnecessarily)fill in some backstory. While Covenant does indeed harken back to the 1979 classic, it feels a compromised vision, one that feels more familiar but lacking ambition, where aspects of the film intended to deal with headier ideas have ultimately been compromised.

Set 10 years after the events of Prometheus, the ship Covenant is en route to its destination, a planet hundreds of light years from Earth, site of a new human colony. Under the control of an automated pilot and an android Walter (Michael Fassbender), the ship is damaged during a solar recharge, requiring the human crew to be awoken from hibernation, a group of couples, who are charged with ferrying over 2000 souls to their new home. After the loss of their Captain in the incident, second in command Oram (Billy Crudup) takes charge and once repairs are complete, makes the decision to investigate an unusual signal they find emitting from a nearby planet, one that seems far more favorable for settlement than their target site, 7 more years away. They head to the planets surface to survey its viability as a colony as well as well as determine the source of the transmission they encountered. Upon arrival, they find a surprising connection to the lost ship Prometheus, as well as something far more disturbing, precipitated by the android David (also Fassbender) who has somehow found his way to this world.

To quote Ash from Alien “I admire its purity”. That’s my sentiment about the original, a pinnacle of its genre. I also admire Scott’s ambitions to explore these headier themes. But was this the right way? The Prometheus mythology dilutes the horrifying simplicity of Alien in a way, the twisting of a franchise to service two masters.

So now we get Alien Covenant. A prequel to Alien and sequel to Prometheus, a flawed but fascinating piece of filmmaking. It straddles both, but services neither too well. A captivating opening sequence where we meet David, online for the first time gives way to an immersive first act punctured with moments of intensity. The middle is a rumination on faith and purpose, something I’ll get into later in this review. The final third sees intelligence flushed out of the nearest airlock and action kicks in. It certainly veers closer to the original film in terms of atmosphere, imagery and tropes. It’s akin to a greatest hits rehash at times. The religious themes of Prometheus, a search for the creator, is continued here, albeit in a veiled way. The film is certainly a lurch back to the roots of the series and a shame in many ways that the mythos began in Prometheus is skulking in a dark cave, rather than being front and center.

The body horror components are well done, even if they do feel lifted or just updated from what we’ve seen before. Jump scares, hobbled crew members running, an attack in a corn field, impress, but really, these are just scattered moments of intensity, nothing close to the the sustained claustrophobic tension in Alien or breathless adrenaline rush of Aliens. Ridley Scott’s promises to “scare the shit out of people” falls woefully short. There is some egregious CGI work on display, notably in the newly born Neomorphs, a pasty precursor to the Xenomorphs we’re more familiar with. Their latter fully grown execution, in particular a one on one scene with David, are effectively chilling.

The most unsettling part of the film is undoubtedly the closing moments, depicting the machinations of a individual and his future plans, rather than any lethal alien killing machine. It’s the cumulation of one of the plot threads that weaves in The Island of Dr. Fassbender. Body horror, genetics, engineering, and experimentation on the aliens as well as various hosts. It’s this bleak horror, more than the visceral type that that permeates the film and is one of the more applaudable achievements of this entry.

The horror aspects stumble somewhat because of one of the biggest flaws in the film, the human element. The crews of the Nostromo and Sulaco are familiar to us all. Characters every one, the Covenant crew is a largely forgettable bunch, despite the great cast. Traits such as religious conflict or the much publicized ‘couples’ aspect are thrown into the mix, each could be explored in interesting ways, but instead feel like vestigial remnants of an earlier draft. The stupidity of characters in Prometheus is often matched, weird behavior such as people nonchalantly wandering through the scene of a mass genocide is also evident. There’s a real lack of connection between the characters and material and subsequently between the audience and these characters. Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is a solid if forgettable lead. Danny McBride’s Tennessee is a standout, certainly the most well-rounded character in the film. Ridley Scott owes a great deal to Fassbender though, in a dual role performance that elevates the film whenever he’s on screen.

Fassbender is the fulcrum, the saving grace of the film, a villainous presence for the ages and the figure upon which rests Scott’s real interests. An aspect of Prometheus is that our ‘creators’ felt we were mistakes and sought to wipe us out. The ‘alien’ this pathogen that they created is likely regarded int he same way. David is part of this flawed lineage and connects with the creatures as something of a similarly spurned cousin. It’s a change in attitude from the android, having undergone some epiphany in his travels, deciding to wipe out those he wanted to meet and understand. In this, Covenant opens up the narrative to venture into discovering one’s purpose, David striving to cross the boundary from creation to creator, becomes an engineer himself. The Wagnerian/Nazi parallels are slathered on thick, but are undeniably haunting. It also drives home how Gods are subject to the whims and erratic nature of what they create. With this in mind, and with Fassbender on board, I’m on board for what Scott has up his sleeve next for these films, but I will be approaching with caution. Certainly more caution than Oram approached that ruddy egg.

Alien Covenant feels less like a natural continuation of the Prometheus tale, and instead an abrupt course correction in the series. Which is exactly what it is. The result is a underwhelming mishmash of undeniably stunning, yet familiar imagery with the neutered philosophical ponderings of Prometheus. Flashes of brilliance, notably from Fassbender, but ultimately underwhelming.

Alien: Covenant is released in the US on May 19th

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