(This article contains many, many SPOILERS for Alien: Covenant. Of course it does, I mean, man, I’ve waited five years for this film. I’m going deep on this one.)
Audiences hunkered in their cinema seats, ready to watch Alien in 1979 were expecting only one thing: to be entertained. Trailers really did tease back then. They were geared to manufacture excitement for a scary night at the movies. That is – fundamentally – the goal of a film like Ridley Scott’s original. It is designed to make you sweat and get your pulse racing. Its purpose? To tell a story worth telling through characters whose actions you cannot wait to see unfold.
Cut to nearly 40 years later and we are presented with a different proposition. It’s impossible to debate the Prometheus sequel / still-a-fucking-Alien prequel, Alien: Covenant, on its own merits. Not because we as audiences are ill-equipped to lead that debate, but because the film comes saddled with a two-fold conundrum for viewers. Watch the film and try, if you can, to experience it as those fresh-eyed audiences in 1979 did. Or, experience it desirous of information, of back story, of knowledge to plug up gaps in a complex, flawed mythology. (I say, flawed because of its inherent design. Movies, comics, games all contribute to the official “canon” of the Alien movies. For the majority of those, the creators don’t always adhere to what came before.)
The latter option is where I mostly find myself (mostly), trying to straddle the want to be in the moment, lapping up the visceral thrills of an opening night B-movie while at the same time I want answers, dammit! Now we are in the midst of a prequel trilogy it’s difficult to divorce yourself, as a spectator, from that stance. Quite simply, we want to know what the fuck is going on.
Covenant dials up the horror in an attempt to hone in on what made the first film great: atmosphere. This time, the confined quarters of the Nostromo – that gloriously dingy piece of shit which made the perfect backdrop for the beast – are traded for a weird mix of lush, verdant landscapes, Weyland Corp’s sterile modernity and gothic horror sarcophagi. Three distinct locales – all in which people die horrifically bloody deaths. I mean, the gore is off the charts: people convulsing for an age before their spines split, birthing gelatinous sacs of baby aliens (known as protomorphs). Other, equally unlucky characters, are eaten by these creatures. Another has her head torn off.
Alien, this ain’t.
Scott might have crafted that movie, a flawless exercise in deriving tension from a single location and a tiny cast – but in the intervening years, his eye has grown less concerned with curating fear. Sure, there are moments in Covenant where I was on the edge of my seat shouting “Fuck, dude, NO!” and rolling my eyes, but that’s less a sign of Scott’s adept niche for designing masterful moments of genuine terror, and more to do with our prior knowledge of how the Alien movies work. A lone woman bathing away from the rest of the crew? A juddering POV shot approaching? She’s a goner.
In addition to the opening score being an outright homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s work from Alien, the last hour alone hinges entirely on that prior knowledge. It “steals” moments from all four movies in the series, as if to remind us that it knows that we know we’re watching an Alien film.
What good can be said for Covenant? It looks stunning, some of the characters are terrific and the mythology got a major information overload.
Ten years have passed since Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and David’s head commandeer a Derelict ship to track down the Engineers’ home world in search of answers. Covenant opens with a new crew manning a colony ship headed for a habitable planet to populate with human life. Complications arise during the lengthy trip and the crew wake prematurely from hypersleep, hear a distress signal (from a planet that somehow escaped their detailed scouting mission), and are led by their Captain down to its surface to investigate.
Some of the biggest gripes fans had with Prometheus were less concerned with the ambitious world-building, and more rooted in basic cinematic traditions being ignored. The point of character, and character development, is to weave together story and plot via action.
For example = we learn in Alien that Ripley doesn’t take shit when she chews out Brett and Parker for slacking off. Later on when she takes the lead in the crew’s mission to wipe out the beast, we believe her to be capable of doing so. Why? Because she exhibits behaviour (chewing out the guys) and it’s her subsequent actions (bravery through action) that are true to her character that steer the plot.
Prometheus approached that from the other way around and so does Covenant.
Here, we struggle immensely to find that same richness of personality and believability of reaction because of a few simple factors: there are 15 crew members of the Covenant, most of which die off before we learn their names, and they die because their actions betray who we are led to believe they are. Granted, this crew is akin to the crew of the Nostromo (space truckers) not the Prometheus (researchers, explorers)…
… but still. This crew might not be “trained to explore” – whatever the fuck that may entail – but they will no doubt have undergone rigorous psychological testing prior to embarking on such a lengthy, dangerous, life-changing mission. Yet they all abandon reason immediately. Misc. crew member #1 wanders off for a smoke, steps on something that unleashes the airborne pathogen. Same for misc. crew member #2. From thereon the silliness escalates. It’s this that irks me most of all. I can handle mythological slip-ups and dodgy continuity errors (sometimes), but characters existing just to die? It’s boring.
But it’s all a likely result of the backlash Prometheus received. Scott’s original intention was to steer Prometheus 2 even FARTHER away from the 1979 movie, into its own bespoke universe. It was only when fans were pissed about the lack of xenomorph that he reneged on that and agreed to incorporate the beast. It’s likely this is the cause for Covenant being so betrothed to the idea of bringing in the creatures early: bowing to demand. That’s why the crew is 15 – so we get to see these new beasts hunting and killing.
And what of these creatures? David fathered the beasts, a horrific bioweapon harvested from human DNA and christ knows what else he found on the Engineers’ homeworld. He’s a boy angry at his daddy for not being the strong, stoic leader he thought he was. Really Weyland just wanted to live forever like his android “son.” When he dies at the hands of an Engineer toward the end of Prometheus, David becomes enraged: my father is weak, a beggar demanding immortality at the feet of his creator. And that creator? Tried to fucking kill me.
Covenant’s opening scene, a beautifully-shot reverie, provides a blueprint for David’s motivations. He wants to understand not simply what he is, but WHY he is. The parallels between his and Weyland’s desires are identical. Why was I made? What is my purpose? For David it is to mimic what his father tried to do – create life – but better. In David’s skewed perception of sentience, that means harnessing power to create a monster that feeds his ego: in his opinion, it is the perfect organism.
Now we know that David is indeed the man responsible for creating the Protomorphs and Neomorphs – the two new creatures introduced in this film. Are they the exact same beasts spawned from the exact same type of eggs, of which Kane saw thousands, in Alien? No. There’s still a fair few years of evolution until that specific iteration of the creature is developed. That’s why when Misc Crewmember 1 has a creature burst from his spine, it.. Well, bursts from his spine. Or the second guy, who has one emerge through his throat.
Or Captain Oram. He is attacked by a facehugger – which shoves a proboscis down his throat to impregnate him. Shortly thereafter, he awakes and a chestburster pain-stakingly cracks through the bone and muscle of his chest, killing him. It stands tall on his torso and greets David as if it were his father. Make no mistake: this is not the same creature that burst from Kane’s chest, so it’s likely that its lifecycle too is also different (that’s why it didn’t take as long to reach maturity.)
Regardless, there now exists a couple of gigantic holes in the continuity:
1. How in the ruddy blime does one of the Engineers’ ships land on LV-426 filled with eggs?
Seriously, this is a big one. If David created the xenomorph ancestors and killed all the Engineers then how do the Engineers happen upon a bunch of the proper xenomorph eggs? The only possibility I could come up with is that a group of Engineers out at a military outpost (like the gang from the first movie who were on LV-223) return to their home planet, discover everyone is dead, find a chamber full of eggs, cart them onto a ship and fly off in pursuit of the android who killed them. They crash on LV-426 because the eggs hatch and facehug them mid-flight.
2. Err.. what about Alien v. Predator?
The problem here is the timeline: in Alien v. Predator shit happens in Antarctica 100 YEARS BEFORE COVENANT. And even then the xenos have apparently been dormant beneath the ice for centuries.
That’s not all. You might recall Lance Henriksen was in AvP. He played Charles Bishop Weyland – the founder and CEO of Weyland Industries. In Prometheus, Guy Pearce plays Peter Weyland – the founder and CEO of Weyland Corp. After coming onboard to begin a rewrite of the script, Prometheus screenwriter Damon Lindelof raised this issue with Scott, but he was disinterested in sticking to continuity established in AvP. So, that’s that.
(Bonus trivia: Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote the first Alien, worked on the AvP movie story yet his ideas were not included. What were they? Oh nothing. Just that the Predator was in fact the final stage of the Alien lifecycle.)
So what do I think? Covenant isn’t bad. It’s just not great. For a film steeped in a franchise that’s so rich in mythology, it forgoes originality in favour of gore and homage. It’s a decent night at the flicks, but it won’t give you sleepless nights.