Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant” (2017)
In Alien: Covenant, the titular Covenant is a spaceship carrying colonists (and frozen human embryos) from Earth to an earthlike planet in a faraway galaxy. Walter, an Android, assists Mother, the ship’s computer system, in guiding it to its destination. A serious mishap requires them to wake the rest of the fifteen-member crew. While repairing the ship, they receive a message from a planet in a relatively nearby solar system. The ship’s captain decides (over the objection of his second-in-command) to investigate the source of this transmission, as it seems to be human in origin. What they find on the planet at first looks like paradise; further exploration, however, puts them in immediate peril. This danger has something to do with the now-iconic Xenomorph monsters, but not exactly what the familiar story setup might lead fans of the Alien movies to expect.
Before I get further into this review, however, a couple of caveats are in order. First, even before it was shot, Alien: Covenant had almost no chance of impressing fans of the Alien franchise as much as the first few installments of the series did — in particular, the first film. The concept behind Alien (1979) was new, fresh, and original when the film was first released. Nobody outside of the production team, cast, and studio execs knew what was about to hit unsuspecting and largely unprepared audiences. By contrast, with this sixth feature-length film (eighth, if the two Alien/Predator flicks are included) in the Alien universe, we all know (or think we know) what’s coming. Second, Alien: Covenant is part of a planned trilogy that has as its goal the full revelation of the Xenomorph’s origins. More specifically, it’s a sequel to a prequel, Scott’s Prometheus (2012).
Partly due to its position in the Alien franchise production history, Alien: Covenant has a hybrid nature that generates both positives and negatives for the viewer. Following on (ten years later) from the action of Prometheus and heading towards the beginning of Ripley’s story in Alien, it presents elements from both films’ worlds. On the one hand, we have Michael Fassbender’s android character, David, from Prometheus; on the other, a prototypical Ripley in Katherine Waterston’s Daniels. Along these lines, Scott attempts a return to the bloody gore of the sci-fi/horror sub-genre that was so effective in 1979’s Alien.
However, instead of highlighting a one-on-one showdown between woman and xenomorph, Alien: Covenant is very much focused on conflict between androids. David and Walter first treat each other as “brothers,” but then find that their ethics are completely incompatible. These choices allow Scott to develop a paranoid theme about the dangers of AI while at the same time serving up a good bit of horror action in the form of chest-bursters, face-huggers, and the fully-developed ‘adult’ monster. There’s more than enough gore for the average horror fan, although grueheads might feel that some punches have been pulled.
On the downside, however, it seems as if Scott can’t decide which direction he wants to go on the timeline of his own filmography. Since the ontological concerns of Prometheus are freely mixed with a dose of the violent action from the first Alien film, the suspense and terror that Scott generates from his megalomaniac AI character, David, are tempered by exposition in which David explains his worldview to Walter. Also, an AI acting independently in ‘evil’ ways is less palpably horrific (in my viewing experience) than a nefarious android operating in the service of an evil corporation, such as portrayed by the character of Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien.
The end result of all of the above is a good but not great movie. It lacks the relentlessness of the original Alien, although it tries to move in the direction of that film. Yet there is little of the sheer terror and suspense of the original, likely due in part to the more philosophical focus of Scott’s more recent work. Perhaps it’s not fair to expect (especially given my first caveat above), but I wish this film had scared the crap out of me like its 1979 ancestor did. Still, it does accomplish what it set out to do — to explain the origins of the Xenomorph. If you can’t wait to find out who created this monster (and how and why), you’ll have to visit your favorite local movie palace in the near future.
Alien: Covenant began a wide American theatrical release yesterday, when I watched it in a multiplex. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd.