Film Review: The thrilling "Alien: Covenant" loves its monsters more than its humans
Director Sir Ridley Scott (the visionary responsible for Blade Runner, Gladiator, and The Martian-- what a career) began the Alien series with the simply titled Alien in 1979, a film about a creature in the dark murdering ill-equipped blue-collar space miners. In that film, the Alien was at its most frightening when, as a mature penis-shaped specimen, it expertly blended in with the architecture of the spaceship, or when, as a spidery vaginal-shaped baby, it attached itself to people's faces and face-fucked like the survival of its species depended on it. Of course, both moments prey on our collective fear of the dark and fear of sexual violence. To this day it remains the gold standard of science and horror fiction.
But due to its immense popularity, the creature was given a cool name (Xenomorph), and has also been the subject of innumerable parodies and sequels (and certain spin-offs like the short-lived Alien vs Predator series, were so bad they may as well have been parodies). Nothing dulls fear like familiarity.
So when Scott returned to the series in 2012 with Prometheus, he ditched the primal horror and sexual grotesquerie in favour of The Big Questions, the Why of it all. It was about a crew of scientists who discovered a clue pertaining to the origins of humanity, and the Xenomorphs seemed to play a part in both mankind's origins and ultimate destiny. Prometheus dragged the Xenomorphs out of the primal and into the realm of existential. The fear of rape and of the monster under your bed was replaced with the more thinking man's fear of whether faith and science can co-exist. And, no longer a mystery, the Xenmorphs were revealed to be the middle children of the universe, caught between God and Man. It was ambitious, a magnificent spectacle, treated with the kind of earnestness that most hardcore science fiction fans crave, and sometimes utterly daft. Perhaps because of all those good things, the bouts of daftness and overall ponderousness - it seemed far more interested in asking questions than providing answers -- pissed a lot of folks off. For my part, I found it to be a disappointment, albeit an interesting and artful one.
So, five years later, Alien: Covenant. Although it's got the word “Alien” in the title, it has a lot more in common with Prometheus in terms of tone and themes. Set ten years after Prometheus, Alien: Covenant follows the crew of the Covenant space vessel, who are carrying onboard thousands of embryos, as they are tasked with completing a colonisation mission. On the way to their destination, they intercept a distress signal from a different planet. They encounter the planet's only surviving inhabitant, the synthetic android David (Michael Fassbender), the lone survivor of the Prometheus crew. On this uncharted planet, the Covenant team make a horrifying discovery with catastrophic implications.
Thankfully, this is a better film than Prometheus, more focused and thrilling, and is at least as lush and imaginative. Its predilection for pretentiousness – Covenant quotes the poem Ozymandias and name-drops Wagner quite a few times – might irk some. But there's something to be said for a story that often takes detours into the lowbrow delights of mad scientists and their capricious, blood-curdling experiments, all the while it acts high-minded and such. When the pretentiousness and lowbrow gruesomeness intersect, Alien: Covenant proves to be a singularly haunting experience.
However, the film is still plagued by the same human problem that marred Prometheus: Mostly in that this film is very interested in the broader concept of humanity – i.e. our capacity for creation and destruction, and how they are often one and the same – but isn't terribly interested in crafting compelling human characters. However, it must be said that Katherine Waterson as Daniels and Danny McBride as Tennessee are quite good here, and are able to rise above a script that regards them with indifference. There is also an attempt to imbue more tension and emotional stakes by comprising the Covenant as a team of married couples, but this comes off as a shortcut to pathos when a few of them inevitably burst apart in a shower of blood and gore, courtesy of the eponymous creature.
Speaking of the creature, it's been quite some time since we've seen the Xenomorph terrorise and prey on hapless humans. Due to aforementioned limits of technology, the original Xenomorph moved with cold, deliberate purpose. But that wasn't a bug, it was a feature – it made it seem more like the Grim Reaper. But thanks to some neat modern trickery, the Xenomorph is no longer a tangible puppet but is instead a digital one composed entirely of 1s and 0s. In 2017, it moves faster than the human eye can track, and has the spasticity and maliciousness of a particularly deranged child. It's not nearly as frightening, even if the kills are more disgusting than ever. The newest addition is that now we can see the Xenomorph between infancy and maturity, and it's welcomingly gross and creepy as shit, looking like a bipedal labia and all. But much of this comes past the halfway point, so if you're going into Covenant solely for the freakshow of slimy Alien action, well, re-adjust those expectations.
So with a crew whose fates you aren't terribly invested in and featuring a creature that is mostly middling, what's to love? Fassbender as the synthetic androids David and Walter. It's a fantastic dual role. Fassbender, perhaps best known for his intensity and authority, is allowed to showcase a dynamic range here, to the point where it's literally not distracting at all that he is talking to himself. Covenant is just smart enough to give the lion's share of the thematic focus to him.
In fact, the film begins with a flashback involving David and his human creator/father Waylen (Guy Pearce) sharing a conversation. The scene emphasises David's curiosity and creativity, as he uses both to make beautiful music, while we know (those familiar with Prometheus, anyway) he'll use those same impulses for nefarious purposes. Fassbender is also Walter, a more advanced android model, and a member of the Covenant who, much unlike David, is incapable of cutting his strings and creating an identity. But he isn't homicidal and burdened with a God-complex like David is, either, and it's implied that he is capable of affection that goes beyond his programming.
The trio of David, Walter, and the Xenomorphs plays something like a psychodrama in which all three of God's unintended children stumble about in search of purpose and sustenance; it's no accident that the best action scenes involve David and Walter trading superhuman blows and the Xenomorph ripping apart any living thing in its way, or that the character interplay is most interesting when David and Walter's ponce-y sociopathic drollness and good-natured innocence are juxtaposed, respectively, and when their two modes of living inevitably violently collide. But much of this juiciness is in the middle of the film, and so you have to wade through some stilted if beautifully composed scenes and inert drama to get to it.
Alien: Covenant is undoubtedly uneven, but the good easily outweighs the bad. It will provoke a range of reactions across the board, and will be the centerpiece for many debates. I suspect that the only inarguable thing about Alien: Covenant is that it looks beautiful.