It took me some time to reconcile that, although serving as a series of prequels to the original quadrilogy, Ridley Scott’s latest two installments in the series he spawned almost 40-years ago are entirely their own saga, replete with their own, unique, preoccupations and focuses. Fans of the original series will be happy to know that Alien: Covenant (as its name would suggest) shares more in common with the beloved first two films than the divisive Prometheus (which angered fans with its ambitious scope, grandiosity, mythologizing, and philosophizing). However, despite Scott’s return to familiar tropes, grisly gore, and the infamous Xenomorphs themselves, Covenant still shares more in common with Prometheus, and even Blade Runner, than it does other series entries.
As with Prometheus (a film which I ardently defend), Covenant seems more ambitious thematically than it has time to thoroughly explore, resulting in some of its ostensible preoccupations being quickly discarded after being tossed about in an exchange of dialogue. The “Covenant” itself, a reference to holy matrimony, is a space craft carrying thousands of colonists trekking into space towards a hospitable planet (their journey is, of course, diverted to a far less hospitable planet) in order to build and populate a new human civilization. This compelling premise, of thousands of couples and cold-stored embryos in trays being transported across space, is mentioned only in passing, never dwelt on, and subsequently used to anchor audience investment in characters who haven’t received ample development (however, unlike Prometheus, there are at least a decent handful of realized characters here). Furthermore, after 2013’s Exodus: Gods of Egypt Scott once again returns to this theme of religion that he’s been playing with in his last few features, but never thoroughly exploring in any successful way, through the crew’s tentative captain (Billy Crudup), forced into the position after an accident results in the death of the original captain. His faith is mentioned, I believe twice, and never returned to save for a few powerful religious images later on in the film (Scott remains, at the age of 80, a supreme visual stylist).
Speaking of Scott’s skills as a craftsman, Covenant is probably the most visually gorgeous blockbuster we’ll see this year, and for all of its artistic compositions and images, it is Scott’s knack for sustained tension and schlock and gore that is most shocking. Covenant’s best set piece takes place after the crew has landed on a seemingly-hospitable planet from which they received a distress signal. As they do in this series, characters begin to act somewhat stupidly, but the degree to which Scott escalates the set piece into pure terror is efficiently fast and relentless as threat after threat after new threat are introduced at break-neck speed, and Scott often eschews his careful, smooth camerawork for handheld that enhances the claustrophobia and immediacy. Here, we’re introduced to the “Neomorph,” via a twist on an infamous birthing sequence, a truly creepy variation on the Xenomorphs of old, not yet fully perfected into the predator from the 1979 original. There is bloodshed.
The body count, and the time allotted these slasher-esque sequences, in Covenant is pretty high, but Scott seems much less interested in the aliens themselves nowadays, rather he wrenches horror and terror from them when needed, but Covenant, like Prometheus before it, really isn’t about them. The Xenomorphs are an after thought, or simply metaphorical devices used for Covenant‘s real focuses: Creation, art, hubris, in many ways picking up where Prometheus left off thematically, but abandoning some of the Greek mythology in favor of more romantic parallels (Milton’s Paradise Lost comes to mind).
Enter: Walter and David (both played by Michael Fassbender, in the best acting performances you’ll see in a blockbuster this year). Walter is a more advanced, more robotic, less humanized model of synthetic than David, who survived Prometheus and was left stranded on the planet, accompanying the Covenant’s crew on their mission. Covenant opens with an extreme close-up of Fassbender’s big blue eyeball (I swear, someone could write a brilliant essay on shots of eyes in Ridley Scott films) as David is awakened for the first time by his creator, Peter Weyland. The two discuss creation a bit (David’s fascination with his “father’s” mortality in comparison to his own immortality ends the scene eerily) and pave the way for Covenant‘s further exploration into Creation. The Engineers, in their own hubris, created Man, and, when bearing witness to Man’s propensity for violence and greed and conquest, attempted to wipe their creation out with the biological weapon that ultimately became the Alien.
David and Walter meet in the dead city that doubles as David’s abode (one of the most evocative and stunning horror sets I’ve seen in some time) and discuss these themes almost explicitly (rendering it less subtext and more overtly the text of the film), with David lamenting Walter’s more robotic qualities, noting that humans prefer Walter because he is less like them, making them, as he puts it “less uncomfortable.” Their scenes together are tantalizing and captivating, taking place in a lamp-lit room with David’s research and markings strewn about and hanging all around them. Their first sees David somewhat erotically teaching Walter how to play the flute, teaching this more robotic “brother” the act of artistic Creation. The humans, in their hubris, created synthetics that would out live them, that were more efficient, and yet demanded to be served by their creation as well. The dead city is a masterful location for Scott to tease out these themes, as it holds an entire civilization of dead Engineers, victims of the Creation cycle and of their own hubris. Enter: the Xenomorph, terrifying set-dressing, and more of an after thought in the film named after it, relegated to a mere symbol of how intertwined creation and destruction could be, and the consequences of hubris and creation. The horrifying impregnation and birthing sequences (of which there are more of in this film than in any other, I believe) of the horrifying Aliens further supports this theme.
Scott smartly understands that David and Walter (see: Fassbender) are more enthralling and potentially horrifying than the Aliens ever could be, and as impressive as his willingness to get his hands dirty with viscera and body horror and gore is, I’m more impressed by his and the screenwriters’ ambition to transform the series into something entirely different, despite that ambition resulting in a film that is occasionally at odds with itself. The pacing of the film, as such, is shoddy and some of the third act is paced poorly and shoddily choreographed, the Alien’s importance forcefully upped for the Big Climax Sequence. It’s as if Scott himself is battling the creature that he’s made so terrifying and iconic. Covenant is scariest when its ideas and visceral Xenomorph horror complement one another, rather than oppose. For all of its shortcomings, Covenant contains elements from prior installments (the philosophizing of Prometheus, the claustrophobia of Alien, the all-out chaos of Aliens, the bleakness of Alien 3), and its chief creator utilizes them in order to propel the franchise into something entirely new. Far from perfect, but I’ll take more of these ambitious entries from Scott, as Covenant is often a beautiful creation.