Alien: Covenant Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
In 1979, the science-fiction and horror genres were changed forever by the arrival of Alien. Vicious, cold and paranoia inducing to the extreme (much like the title character) Sir Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is a film of uncompromising brutality and surprise even to this day, remarkable given its near forty years since release, and remains the directors best work (sorry Blade Runner). The franchise has delivered diminishing returns each time it has stepped out of the darkness since- Aliens is an incredible film also, and I am a fan of Alien 3 (heresy, I know)- but generally the power behind the original film has become lesser over time because of what came after it, despite the film itself being undoubtedly still incredible. So, it’s hardly any wonder that Sir Ridley decided to step back into the universe he helped create all those years ago.
Problem is, that step was Prometheus in 2012. An ambitious, visually stunning film, often marred by strange writing choices from infamous scribe Damon Lindelof, I was regardless a big fan of the film, and fully behind the sequel set up at film’s end with Noomi Rapace’s Shaw and synthetic David (now just a head in a bag) setting off in search of the Engineer home world, Paradise. However, Sir Ridley clearly was aware of the mixed, often extraordinary backlash against his vision, and as development of this new film continued it seemed to change from a film following Prometheus directly (originally subtitled Alien: Paradise Lost) and morphing into what Alien: Covenant eventually has become- a film which has exponentially more in common with the original Alien. For better or worse, Covenant has dropped some of the Prometheus elements. But there are some with still resonate stronger than ever with what is to come in Sir Ridley’s grand vision.
You see, Alien: Covenant is a film that isn’t really about the xenomorphs, or the new types of ‘morph, at all- this is a film, and possibly even series, that wants to talk about and explore its most fascinating character- and performance- in Michael Fassbender’s David. One of the highlights of Prometheus, Fassbender’s synthetic was an enigmatic force throughout the film, as early as his establishing scenes when he watches Lawrence of Arabia and begins to style himself after the lead character as he skulks around the dead quiet ship. Secretly, this franchise appears to not have been about Elizabeth Shaw’s journey at all. Prometheus, Alien: Covenant and whatever comes after concern a robot with the universe’s grandest God complex.
David’s scenes in Alien: Covenant are without doubt the most compelling in the film. Stitched back together by Shaw in The Crossing online prologue (which you may have missed, so seek it out here!), over the decade spent marooned on the Engineer home world he has been corrupted into an abomination hybrid of mad scientist and pure evil, with little regard for life he regards as lesser in the face of his experiments. It’s all very The Island of Dr Moreau, as we discover slowly, carefully, what David has been up to in the years of being stranded. David is a synthetic that has developed far beyond even independent thought- he now seems himself as a creator, a God himself. He has met his creators, and his creators’ creators, and they’ve both bitterly disappointed him. We see this in the opening scene, welcoming back Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, as David comes online, and begins to question his synthetic immortality almost immediately. Weyland will die, he will not- why is he the subservient individual? When you can wield the power of a God, and create like your creator- but create better, David can wipe the slate clean. It certainly leads to a lack of surprise that David has become what he has by Alien: Covenant, when practically every being he has interacted with- human or otherwise- having tossed him aside as irrelevant, when he has so clearly shown his ability to be so much more. Except Shaw.
Shaw’s fate in Alien: Covenant is a grim one. Rather than dying in the crash as he tells the Covenant’s synthetic Walter (his “brother”), she has in fact been used as a tool for his experiments, possibly the worst ending imaginable for a character who was played so beautifully by Noomi Rapace, distinct enough from Ellen Ripley but still feeling like an Alien universe character. It’s a truly heart-breaking moment when you see her grave and then corpse, with the triumphant Prometheus theme playing mellowly in the background- but maybe it’s just the most fitting end for her in the brutal reality of this universe. Shades of Hicks and Newt abound. It drives home just how damaged and disillusioned David has become, able to discard the one person who ever truly cared for him and use her as a tool for him to create, such is his desperation to prove his own worth- as better than those who came before him. He’d rather, as he tells Walter, “reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”.
But, all being accounted for, Alien: Covenant is a film that is blooded more in the original films DNA than Prometheus. Starting with a shot evoking the original straight off the bat, as the miniscule in the face of the great unknown ship flies through space, with the title folding in and echoes of Jerry Goldsmith’s original score blare out, you’re immediately clued in with what to expect. There’s a new ship, new crew, but it’s all feeling very familiar. That’s no bad thing in my mind, however. There’s enough here for Covenant to stand distinct. The main gimmick behind those on the ship- all couples- adds an interesting twist to proceedings, and the core cast of characters range from capable to memorable. Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is more cut from the Ripley mould than Shaw was, but she’s still different enough to make her path, stricken with grief early on when a freak neutrino blast kills her husband (James Franco with a sizzling performance) which wakes the crew and sets them on their path to Paradise when they receive a distress signal.
Praise to has to be given to Danny McBride as Tennessee, a space cowboy in the way that would make Jamiroquai proud. Many were sceptical of his abilities to carry a dramatic role, but he’s a standout- a swashbuckling, intelligent and charismatic character who compliments the rest of the crew well. The rest of the cast, including Billy Crudup’s Oram, are more hazily sketched out, but there’s enough cute little character moments to build investment in them in a way that Prometheus seemed to forget to do at times. It means you’re invested in what’s about to come when the, ah, running, and the, ah, screaming begins when the crew touch down on Paradise and all hell breaks loose.
Of course, the title is ALIEN. And oh boy, do you get them. Possibly the most frightening and tension fraught sequence in the whole film comes with the infection and subsequent birth of the new type of ‘morph, the neomorph. There’s a horrific sense of dread playing on the formula Alien established built, and the closest the film comes to recapturing its lightning in a bottle. From the slow panic building through the crew as that infected fall ill (to say the least) with the score from Jed Kurzel (the score is a real accomplishment for the film and can stand happily with Goldsmith’s Alien) complimenting alongside in the background, building pure horror which lasts till the birth of the creatures and the chaos of the explosion of the lander. It’s a scene which brings back that fear of the unknown, that brutal sense of unknowable force, that was so key in the original Alien. Yes, a creature close to the original xeno shows up near the films climax, and there are some gruesome deaths, but no sequence comes close to this one in the horror stakes.
A large amount of people’s enjoyment on this film will come purely down to how they receive the most seismic plot point of the film- that David was the one who created, at least this strain, of xeno creatures. For some, it takes the key mystery from the creatures away, but for me it wholly fits with the aesthetic they are going for with the David character. It works for me because you’re never going to fully recapture the fascination with the original creatures, and by making their supposed creator even more monstrous than the creatures themselves, it adds an element of twisted power that is just utterly compelling. The philosophical musings the film ruminates on see the film at its best regardless, and you really see the truth behind Sir Ridley’s vision here, the true film he wants to make- about creators and their creators. The scenes when David and Walter interact are strange, unnerving but completely fascinating. It’s truly a tale of two Fassbenders, as he plays off himself to absolute success. It tells you something when perhaps the most magnetic scene of the film sees Michael Fassbender teaching another Michael Fassbender how to play a flute.
I’ve seen the film twice now, and I truly believe it doesn’t lose its power. You may know the inner workings of the plot on a second viewing, but it allows you to dive into the films talking points and draw your own conclusions for questions that remain after the credits roll. And there’s plenty of questions, strong ones, rather than deliberate avoidance like Prometheus oft did- who knows now what the ultimate future of the series will be, whether we’ll get more Engineers, and how the series will eventually tie into the original as Sir Ridley intends. While the title may have changed from Paradise Lost for the film, this is a film very much about that- about the paradise lost for the crew of the Covenant when landing on the planet, and ultimately their sealed fate with David riding victorious aboard the ship by film’s end- and about any delusions of paradise those who are created see. David doesn’t care about that- he just wants to create the perfect organism and assert his superiority upon all life.
There’s a lot left to discover in this series, with a strong sense of finality and continuation in hand with each other. It’s a blockbuster concerned more with musings on life and creation than vicious monsters, and in that sense, it deserves to be a Prometheus sequel. The fire of passion Sir Ridley clearly has for this series still burns, and I’m intrigued to see what step he takes next!
“Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!”