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Non-Review Review: Alien – Covenant

Alien: Covenant feels as though somebody facehuggered Prometheus and ended up with Alien.

It is a very messy, very awkward, very clever piece of film. It is a genre movie that understands both what it wants to be, and also the reasons why it cannot be what it wants to be. It is a film aware of its own grotesque attributes, of the way that it has been warped and deformed in its journey from original idea to concept to screen. It is a movie very much aware of what it wants to be, but it is also cognisant of the fact that it cannot be that film. Alien: Covenant is the result of any number of compromises, but it is very pointed on the subject of those compromises.

Alien DNA.

Most likely driven by the critical and audience reaction to Prometheus, the sequel is a decidedly more conservative affair. For all intents and purposes, Covenant is wed more tightly to the Alien franchise than to its direct predecessor. Although one main character (and performer) carries over from Prometheus to Covenant, most of the major characters from Prometheus are relegated to small supporting roles and cameos. Even the Engineers, the alien race at the centre of Prometheus, are primarily relegated to an extended flashback sequence.

In contrast, Covenant embraces the trappings of the familiar Alien franchise. The soundtrack repeatedly samples Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score from the original Alien. The climax devolves into a hybrid of the most iconic action beats from the first two Alien films. The film lingers on the dramatic reveals of familiar Alien iconography, only barely teasing audience expectations before fulfilling them. It seems fair to argue that Covenant is a movie more consciously designed to appeal to fans of the Alien franchise than Prometheus was. The clue is in the title.

Bursting at the seams.

However, Covenant is most interesting when it plays up the tension between what it clearly wants to be and what it actually is, when the script throws the concept of sequel to Prometheus into conflict with the demands of a prequel to Alien. There is a strong sense of disillusionment and frustration in Covenant, particularly as explored through the story of David. Michael Fassbender’s enigmatic android is the only major returning character from Prometheus, and in many ways the central character. He reappears after being lost in the wilderness, angry and resentful.

Covenant is a big ball of Oedipal rage. It’s clever, awkward, messy and disjointed, but also entirely in keeping with the themes of the larger series.

The wilderness years.

Covenant is the story of a mission gone awry, in more ways than one. In keeping with the naming convention that began with Prometheus, the title refers to a colony ship en route to the remote planet of Origae-6. The crew and colonists are in stasis for their long journey, but are awoken by a freak accident. A rogue solar flare causes chaos on the ship, leading to casualties among both the crew and the colonists. The mission seems to have become a disaster, a spectacular misfire.

The early scenes of Covenant consciously evoke Prometheus. The opening scene features the android David in conversation with Peter Weyland, his creator. The two debate the themes of Prometheus, the question of creation and autonomy, or reason and purpose. The movie then cuts ahead to the eponymous colony ship. Covenant introduces the android Walter, in a manner very similar to how Prometheus introduced David. Walter is tending to the ship, making his rounds alone.

Yeah, that’s probably not going to hold.

Then reality intervenes. The ship is horribly shaken while recharging its batteries by soaking in cosmic radiation. Shortly after the disaster, Christopher Oram starts looking to assign blame. He demands that somebody be held accountable, whether the shipboard computer “Mother” or the synthetic crewmember “Walter.” There is a clear sense that blame must be apportioned. This is not how things were supposed to be. Plans very quickly change.

While stuck in place, the Covenant happens to pick up a stray signal. John Denver is playing, Take Me Home reverberating through the void like a siren song. That call draws the crew’s attention to a strange and uncharted planet, one that seems “too good to be true.” It is an Earth-like planet that seems tailor-made for human colonisation, “beyond even the most optimistic projections of Origae-6.” Wary of going back into hybernation, the crew opt to investigate.

Putting it all together.

From the start, there is a sense of lost hope and squandered potential. The primary human character in Covenant is Daniels, whose early character beats involve mourning a lost life on Origae-6. Daniels ruminates on the life that she had planned for the new colony world, a romantic fantasy that will never materialise. Indeed, it is Daniels who objects most strenuously to the decision to change course. “This is not the mission we trained for,” she advises Oram, only to be overruled.

Naturally, given the film franchise to which Covenant is attached, things go horribly wrong. However, there is a recurring sense that the crisis facing the crew of the Covenant mirrors the crisis facing the production team working on the movie. Ridley Scott and the writing staff undoubtedly had a very clear story that they wanted to follow, building on the tantalising hints and suggestions of Prometheus. Instead, Covenant is literally diverted right into a much more conventional Alien movie.

Walter-wall action.

Throughout the film, there are signs of disruption. Most obviously, the movie’s new android character is “Walter.” Although the production team have made it clear that Walter was named for producer Walter Hill, so that he might be partnered with the android David who was named for David Giler, there is still a sense of broken continuity. The Alien franchise has made a running gag of naming its android characters in alphabetical fashion; first “Ash”, then “Bishop”, then “Cal”, then “David.” Walter breaks that pattern, his “W” resembling the missing “E”, just rotated and skewed.

Although fate eventually brings the crew of the Covenant into contact with David, living in isolation on a dead world, he is the only major character carried over from Prometheus. There are repeated references to Elizabeth Shaw, the Noomi Rapace character from Prometheus, but it is very clear that she will not be playing a major role in events. Guy Pearce returns as Peter Weyland, but has a much smaller role than Prometheus. It appears the mystery of why the production team would cast Pearce to put him in makeup has a decidedly underwhelming answer, a five minute introductory scene in the sequel.

Weyland outta line.

Similarly, Covenant glosses over the dangling plot threads from Prometheus. The mysterious “engineers” from Prometheus play an extremely small role in the narrative, their arc resolved before the movie even begins. Indeed, it often feels like the production team have skipped over an entire movie between Prometheus and Covenant, a fact reinforced by the use of a short film to bridge the two and a single extended flashback sequence that firmly contextualises Prometheus and Covenant as thematic companion pieces to Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Instead, Covenant very quickly transforms into a grotesque and dysfunctional twist on an Alien movie. The movie twists and turns relatively quickly, but it is telling how many of the key beats (and big scares) in the opening two acts come from playing an askew angle on a classic Alien beat. The film features no fewer than four birthing scenes for the iconic critter, but the first two are very consciously and conspicuously “wrong.” They are recognisably twists on the now-familiar alien lifecycle, but the are also conscious reversals of the expected behaviour – both literally and systematically.

Death from above.

By the climax, Covenant has transformed itself into a much more conventional Alien movie. The structure of the climax is quite conspicuously that of an Alien movie. Without spoiling too much, there are even specific decisions and action beats that are lifted wholesale from the first two movies in the franchise. There is a monster loose on a space craft. There is an attempt to kill the monster using an external engine. There is another attempt to kill the monster using heavy machinery. A gigantic airlock comes into play.

In some ways, Prometheus and Covenant represent Ridley Scott reasserting authorship over a franchise that passed through many hands since it began with him all those years ago. In fact, it is telling that it was Ridley Scott who confirmed that Neil Blomkamp’s long-rumoured sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens was dead in the water, a detail that confirmed Ridley Scott was very much in charge of the creative direction of the franchise. Covenant is interesting for the way that Scott uses it to play with the imagery and iconography of his own Alien along with James Cameron’s Aliens.

The end is (engi)neer…

Indeed, the climax of Covenant makes a number of none-too-subtle nods to Aliens, alluding to the fact that this is in effect Ridley Scott’s first bona fides follow-up to Alien. While Prometheus unfolded in the same universe, Covenant is more firmly established as a follow-up by the inclusion of the word “Alien” in the title. So Scott seems to be playing with the idea of a movie that is as much a follow-on from Alien as a sequel to Prometheus by making a point to hit several of the key plot and action beats of Aliens in a manner that is very much his own.

Most obviously, both Covenant and Aliens are essentially stories about colonisation; about colonists who find themselves under threat from the eponymous alien menace. But Covenant and Aliens feature a genuinely sympathetic android supporting character, with Walter feeling much closer to Bishop than to David or Ash. The climaxes of Covenant and Aliens both take place in a loading bay. Most obviously, both Covenant and Aliens make a point to feature more than one of the title monsters. (Although Covenant is much more precise, taking care to feature exactly two. The minimum to earn the plural.)

Man made.

All of these choices are conscious, as if Covenant is making a point of growing an Alien film inside a movie that was clearly intended to serve as a sequel to Prometheus. The result is movie that is is disjointed and uneven, one that seems to dramatise its own identity crisis. It often feels like Covenant actually wants to be a sequel to Prometheus, but realises that the critical and fan reaction to that film has made a more coventional prequel to Alien much for palatable. There is a fascinating tension running through the film.

In many ways, Covenant feels like a big ball of Oedipal rage, a movie with an awkward relationship to both of its parents. Given the themes of the Alien franchise, the grotesque reproductive horror at the heart of the series, this feels entirely appropriate. Covenant plays like a narrative twist on the franchise’s iconic reproductive cycle, as if an Alien embryo had been placed inside the body of a sequel to Prometheus, and Covenant is the chaotic and bloody mess that results. It is an approach that is never entirely satisfying, but one that is endless fascinating.

Yeah, that’s probably not a heart attack.

This conflict is played out through the character of David, who is quite literally the last survivor of the Prometheus. David has been left abandoned and forgotten on a distant and unmarked planet, left to his own devices to grow bitter and angry at the world around him. David has gone a little mad in his isolation, seeming a little disconnected and detached from everything that has happened in his absence. David is even introduced as something of a haggard prophet, with long hair and dusty rags.

Covenant plays David and Walter against one another, an expression of the tension at the heart of the film. Walter is a later iteration of David, an updated model. However, his programming has been altered significantly. Walter is more constrained than David was, more locked into a particular perspective. “You are not allowed to create,” David muses of the younger model. Walter explains that David was seen as too dysfunctional and too unsettling for people. “Subsequent models were less… complicated,” Walter explains of his own genesis.

Didn’t stick the landing.

It is a scene that lays out the narrative conflict in Covenant. In many ways, David is the representative of Prometheus. He is weird, disjointed, unreliable, eccentric. He is ambitious and creative, albeit in ways that considered grotesque or horrific. Walter is much safer android, one that conforms to expectations and does little to challenge those around him. Walter is more reliable and more predictable. Walter is familiar. As such, Walter represents the comfort and familiarity of the story beats ported over from Alien and Aliens.

Repeatedly over the course of Covenant, David expresses frustration at his inability to create. David laments the fact that he is denied the luxury afforded to both gods and men, to build something new. In some ways, Covenant feels like a clever extension of the reproductive horror at the core of the Alien franchise. The eponymous creature has always been an expression of reproductive anxiety and sexual violence, but Covenant very shrewdly ties the franchise’s android characters into that broader thematic framework in a way that was largely implicit to this point.

Crewed resources.

The Alien franchise has always blended science-fiction with the trappings of other genres. In many ways, the original Alien was really a haunted house movie in outer space. Covenant pitches itself more as a gothic horror, with David cast in the role of deranged scientist. Covenant opens with a sequence where David plays Wagner on a grand piano, while the android at one stage misattributes Shelley as Byron. The camera pans through his laboratory like the workshop of a scientist from a Universal Horror Film. David is the postmodern Prometheus survivor.

It is appropriate that David should quote Percy Shelley without even realising it, given the debt that he owes to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Given the recurring theme of reproductive horror within the Alien franchise, it makes sense to cast the android as a futuristic Victor Frankenstein. “Is that how its supposed to be?” he asks a female character at one point, after an awkward stolen kiss. He bonds with Walter over the idea that their biology makes them incapable of the biological functions that are frequently associated with notions like love.

Alien Babies.

David’s arc in Covenant is one of frustrated reproductive failure, which provides a nice contrast with the eponymous creature. If the monster is grotesque reproduction, the androids are thwarted reproduction. If the alien is the spectre of reproductive violence inflicted on male characters, a horrifying biological parody of impregnation and birth, then David is the expression of a more heteronormative form of sexual oppression. David victimises male and female characters equally, but he seems particularly interested capturing and subduing female characters.

Covenant is a very clever, and very textually rich film. Unfortunately, the whole is arguably less than the constituent parts. This is most obvious when it comes to the human characters caught in the crossfire. The big hook of Covenant is that the eponymous craft is a colony staff and the crew consists of married couples. However, it is often quite difficult to keep track of the relationships between various characters, to figure out how the various members of the crew relate to one another.

Egg-cellent.

The characters that work are largely those played by performers who imbue their roles with a humanity lacking in the script. The pilot Tennessee is a collection of space pilot stereotypes, right down to a novelty cowboy hat, but there is something surprisingly affecting in Danny McBride’s performance. Daniels could very easily be an Ellen Ripley clone, a mid-ranking officer distinguished by a sense of genre savvy who lost her family in an unfortunate cryopod accident, but Katherine Waterston adds some humanity to the role.

The most character in the cast is that of Christopher Oram, as played by Billy Crudup. Oram is a man of faith, which makes him an interesting fit within the world of Prometheus and Alien. Oram very clearly believes in a universe less nihilistic and hostile than that in which he finds himself, creating a compelling tension within the narrative. However, Oram is quite quickly pushed into the background of the ensemble.

This will not end well.

There is a recurring sense in Covenant that the human characters are ultimately incidental to the Oedipal drama bring played out between Walter, David and the various species that comprise the larger Alien universe. This is somewhat frustrating, given how long the movie waits to introduce David. It is a structural consequence of the decision to place a sequel to Prometheus within the established template of an Alien film, but it is also unsatisfying.

As fascinating as it is to see the film’s internal conflicts literalised in the text, the result is a very uneven and unbalanced film, a movie torn between extremes and deeply frustrated with its own direction. Covenant is a fascinating piece of work, but it is also infuriating. Like David, the result is something at once impressive and grotesque.

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6 Responses

  1. thank you for reviewing fassbender

  2. I enjoyed Covenant, but I’ll admit that the characters are underdeveloped and downright moronic (although I think it’s slightly more forgivable than Prometheus by virtue of the fact that they weren’t supposed to be here) and I think David and Walter get too much screentime at the expense of the other characters.

    The whole movie feels like Alien 1 and 2 in the style of Prometheus, which I don’t think was a good thing. I did like the design of the white Xenomorphs though, I think they’re actually creepier than the regular incarnation (if only because they look like an inbetween between a human and Xenomorph). The origin aspect though is extremely unsatisfying and dumb.

    There are one or two creepy moments, but it is never actually scary. There were even a few moments where you could play the Benny Hill theme over them due to the sheer idiocy of them.

    Also, considering I don’t like Prometheus (YMMV on that one though) and the things David had done in the backstory, maybe he DESERVED to get left behind.

    • I’m one of the few people who quite liked Prometheus. There are dozens of us. Literally dozens. 🙂

      Which is interesting. There are a lot of movies that I like a great deal more than most of the internet; The Dark Knight Rises, Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus. I’m trying to think of films I liked less than the internet consensus. There are relatively few: Arrival, The Winter Soldier. I guess I’m just an optimistic kind of guy.

      But, I mean, the appeal of Prometheus to me was never really “here’s an origin story for something that doesn’t need an origin story, let’s expand that into a trilogy.” It was the joys of a weird sci-fi monster movie. Which is probably why I didn’t mind the characters’ stupidity so much. They are characters in a monster movie. If they don’t make bad decisions, either nothing happens or the plot has to contrive to get past every logical safeguard.

      Still, given the fact that the prequel aspect was the least appealing part of Prometheus, I’m not especially thrilled with shoehorning all the Alien stuff into Covenant. But I do like how openly resentful the film is of all of this stuff. Like most of the characters genuinely seem like they’d be happier doing something else entirely.

      • I’m not dissing you for liking Prometheus (That’s why I said YMMV on that one), if you like it that’s fine. I just don’t like Prometheus, sorry.

      • No worries!

        I wasn’t being snappy or mean. (If anything, I was acknowledging that I’m very much on the minority side of this argument.)

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