This review of Alien: Covenant contains spoilers.
Ridley Scott has always been happy to chat about his early career in advertising, and apparently made 2000 commercials before shooting his debut movie The Duellists (1977). One of his guiding principles has always been to give people what they want, and this has served him well, giving him critical and commercial success across a career that has been longer and more varied than virtually any filmmaker alive. Although never guaranteed to lay a golden egg, Scott has made successful entries in almost every genre, and straddled the divide between auteur and journeyman like few others.
This willingness to please lies behind the strength and weakness of Alien: Covenant in equal measure. After the muted response to Prometheus (2012), and many fans’ highly vocal frustration at not seeing the Xenomorph resurrected in all its glory by its legendary first director, Scott and his writers (Jack Paglen and Michael Green (story), John Logan and Dante Harper (screenplay)) sat around the table afterward with one overriding thought: put the monster back into the franchise, front and centre. If that’s what they want, that’s what they’re gonna get.
And Alien: Covenant delivers. Before I go any further let me put my cards on the table and declare myself a fan of Scott’s sci-fi and fantasy movies. Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Prometheus with all its deficiencies – these have all enraptured me from youth to maturity.
Alien: Covenant will be no different, and its delirious cocktail of ideas, preoccupations and horrors will give me fat to chew on for years to come. But its joys and successes are matched by frustrations and failures that make the film a confounding ride for an Alien fan. Elation and deflation blur, making it a hard movie to get to grips with.
It’s always a challenge to make an ensemble cast appear more than a collection of monster-fodder red-shirts with one or two main characters floating on top. Covenant succeeds more than Prometheus; the motiveless stupidity that ruled that crew is thankfully absent here. The Covenant is populated with couples, and the grief felt amongst those that lose their significant others brings poignancy to the mayhem. It’s nice to see a male same-sex couple in the mix, subtly characterised.
The Covenant is a colony ship, the first of its kind. In the aftermath of a freak neutrino burst that causes damages, a signal of apparently human origin is detected, and the crew are led to a previously-unknown planet, that seems to offer more promising prospects for colonisation than the one they were originally headed for. But, wouldn’t you know it, things go awry shortly after landing, and the bodies begin to fall.
Michael Fassbender is outstanding once again, in two roles this time: the android David, last survivor of the Prometheus, unreliable witness, Lucifer archetype; and Walter, the more compliant successor to David’s dangerously independent, now unhinged AI.
For those who have been paying (perhaps a little too much) attention, Scott’s best movies contain their own visual motif that crops up again and again, unusually foregrounded and curious to behold, an abstract layer of meaning – I’m tempted to say ‘poetic’ meaning – occurring on a different level than the story (seek out my essay on this subject on my ‘thoughts of murnau’ blog, for more). In this case the visual motif is: airborne particles. The black goo spores are the first example. They float and dance in the air far longer than is necessary for such a tightly-edited movie. The dust motes in the sunbeams around Ledward shortly before he disturbs the spore is another noticeable instance. The clincher comes in the climactic scene in the terra-forming hanger, when the final boss xeno is ejected into space (that’s the way the big kahunas always go out in the Alien franchise, right?). The glittering dust is so prominent that it’s puzzling: why is it so visible? If you ‘get’ Ridley, the explanation is clear: you’re noticing his visual poetry.
There is a shed-load of monster action (almost entirely edited out of the state-approved cut for China, sadly). The big beast (of which there are two in Covenant) is joined by the Neomorphs, a wild variety issuing from the Engineers’ goo. These are nasty little tykes, whose ‘births’ are some of the bloodiest moments in the movie. Disappointingly, the fanfare surrounding the extensive use of practical effects in Covenant doesn’t seem to have avoided the fake – though state-of-the-art – CGI appearance of most of the aliens and gore. What is lost in modern horror is the power of suggestion, of the implied image that will always be nastier than what you see on the screen. Ridley Scott is far too classy to offer up sloppy or lazy scenes, but he is still tempted to rely on CGI when a clever edit and a shadow would have you jumping out of your seat.
And the amount of beast action – which is Ridley giving the audience what they didn’t get in Prometheus – has two unfortunate consequences. Firstly, it leaves far less time to explore the world of the Engineers. Secondly, Ridley wants to build on the themes of Prometheus, and is clearly more interested in this part of the movie, but ends up rushing the last reel. The final scenes on board the Covenant are cut to the bone, and run so fast that they squander the tension they might have generated. The movie’s fast-and-loose attitude to the alien life-cycle is another example of rushing things. It takes a just few seconds of an incomplete facehugger ‘kiss’ to impregnate Lope – it took hours to impregnate Kane in Alien. Also, the xeno emerges fully-formed, though in miniature, from Oram, after another very short interval. This is all narrative expedience, but it creates inconsistencies with previously-established lore that is exasperating. They make Covenant feel like a fairground ride designed for instant thrills.
The short flash-back sequence showing David arriving at the Engineer’s world (known as ‘Paradise’ because of the movie’s working title, and its use of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost) is tantalising, and stands as a vestige of what the movie would have been about, if Prometheus had been received differently. Dr Elizabeth Shaw is not shown, and has probably already met her end at David’s hands. I for one would like to have found out a lot more about the Engineers and their home (though this may not be the only one): how their civilization worked, what they believed, why the Star-Beast appeared in their mural on LV 223. Scott has hinted that we will find out more about the engineers in the sequel to follow, whose working title is Alien: Awakening.
Appearing as a deus ex machina saviour, then as a sprite, David leads the beleaguered landing crew through the ruined, corpse-strewn city of the Engineers: Olympus meets Hiroshima. Why these Engineers were not dissolved by their exposure to the black goo (like the sacrificial Engineer at the beginning of Prometheus) is another niggle. It was David who lavished their own weapon upon the Engineers, we learn, as it was David who killed Shaw and subjected her remains to his bizarre experiments, like a sociopathic Vesalius with mother issues (the Frankenstein reference is obvious, too, made more so by David’s recitation of a Shelley poem). This is one of the most disturbing sections of the movie, although it restores what has always been the heart of the series: Freudian, misogynistic horror. This may not be comfortable for those fans who think it’s all popcorn-crunching fun, but rage against ‘Mother’ has always lurked beneath the surface of Ridley Scott’s Alien, as well as Blade Runner. What drives the aggression of the xenos? Why is the computer system called ‘Mother’ – an indifferent mother who will not halt the self-destruct sequence, prompting Ripley’s fury? Why does Leon in Blade Runner react to the question ‘describe to me your mother’ with gunshots, the interview tape of this moment replayed over and over by Deckard? Why does David answer Oram’s question ‘what are the eggs waiting for?’ with the word ‘mother’? All David’s beasts do in Covenant is devour and destroy. Their fury is aimed at ‘Mother’. Daniels calls the beast a ‘motherf*cker’, not a random expletive.
Added to this is the sexual horror. David pins Daniels down and, though he knows nothing of sex, threatens her with rape, echoing the android Ash’s actions in Alien. Sitting alongside this is Scott’s repeated theme of male creation, and how it generally goes horribly wrong. Like Tyrell in Blade Runner, Peter Weyland has created a son who has eclipsed and turned against him, as he has also turned against the god-like Engineers. Now mad with hubris, he prefers to ‘rule in hell’ rather than ‘serve in heaven’. Lucifer ascendant.
There is so much detail, and so much allusion to poetry, myths, ideas, and Ridley’s other sci-fi classics, that I could go on and on. The script feels over-stuffed in places, and a little less of everything would have made for a more mysterious, ominous movie. That said, repeated viewings will bring out a lot more juice than most sci-fi movies of recent years (the execrable Life for example).
So, although it is not without its frustrations and deficiencies, Alien: Covenant is quite a ride. Now in his 80th year, Ridley Scott is as energetic, ballsy and confounding as he has ever been. Roll on the next installment!