With Prometheus and now Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott is pursuing three goals, none of them well.
First, he’s out to restake his own claim to his great 1979 classic, salvaging it from the diminishing returns of various sequels and crossovers, not to mention spoofs, comic books, video games and who knows what all else.
To succumb to a regrettable but practically inevitable coinage, Scott wants to make the world of Alien great again — to remind us all what was so terrifying nearly four decades ago about being in space where no one can hear you scream.
Second, he’s out to explore the cosmos and the mythology of Alien, biologically and philosophically. Where does such a fearsome predator come from and why? Why and how is it so suited to exploit human biology?
Third, Scott seeks to expand the sphere of inquiry to the biggest questions of all: What does it all mean — not just the Xenomorph, but existence itself? Art, imagination, morality and religion — does any of it have any meaning if life is just a random accident?
Is there a plan, a design? Is there a God? What if life on Earth was designed by extraterrestrial engineers, much as we ourselves design artificial entities? Does an android’s purpose come from its human makers? If not, does that have implications for human purpose? What is faith? What is the soul? Where do we go when we die?
Prometheus, which disappointed franchise fans with its cerebral tone and relatively low incidence of alien horror, was mostly about the third thing. Alien: Covenant is more about the first.
In my review of Prometheus I observed that at some point “the movie starts with the gooey and bloody and running and screaming, and existential questions generally fall by the wayside.” Alien: Covenant follows a similar pattern, but it’s a shorter arc. Fans of the gooey and bloody and running and screaming will find more to enjoy in Alien: Covenant than they did in Prometheus.
So will fans of Michael Fassbender, maybe. The original Alien had Ian Holm as a treacherous android named Ash who betrayed his human crew members to bring the alien back to Earth at any cost. James Cameron’s action-movie sequel Aliens reversed this, with Lance Henriksen as an unassumingly heroic android named Bishop who helps to save the surviving heroes.
Alien: Covenant has Fassbender in both parts. In Prometheus he played David, a duplicitous android who, like Ash, betrays his human crew members. David is back in Alien: Covenant, but Fassbender also plays Walter, a later-model version of David who has Bishop’s loyalty to humans at the expense of some of David’s creativity and curiosity, though he may be more advanced in other ways. (Like Ash and Bishop, Fassbender plays the sinister android with a British accent and the loyal one with an American accent.)
In Scott’s muddled religious allegory, David is analogous to Lucifer, putting Walter parallel to St. Michael. But where David was a supporting character in Prometheus, in Alien: Covenant he takes center stage, making Scott’s new saga a kind of Paradise Lost tale, with Satan as the protagonist and St. Michael in a secondary, and rather inferior, role. (Not only is Milton’s Satan’s most famous line cited in the film, the working title was actually Alien: Paradise Lost.)
Prometheus began with a creation-of-Adam moment, with a humanoid alien of a race later referred to as Engineers sacrificing his body to seed Earth with his DNA, giving rise to life on our planet. For the human characters, the search for the Engineers — our creators, in a way — was analogous, or perhaps prelude, to the search for God.
By the end of Prometheus Scott was parodying the New Testament, with Noomi Rapace’s sterile character undergoing a miraculous (though non-virginal) conception — with an alien embryo, of course, which is removed in a hideous botched Caesarean abortion (botched because the critter survives).
Alien: Covenant continues the biblical resonances with a Noah’s ark theme: A colony / terraforming ship, the Covenant, with 2,000 colonists and 1,000 or so embryos on ice, is en route to a potentially inhabitable planet. This ark never reaches its appointed Mount Ararat, though, thanks to an unpredictable neutrino burst that kills some on board, including James Franco’s captain.
The name of the Covenant evokes God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood (all the colonists and crew members are married, i.e., paired) — though sharp-eyed viewers may spot an allusion to Moses’ Ark of the Covenant (and perhaps Indiana Jones) in the arm-patch logos on the characters’ uniforms, with angel-like humanoids extending wings toward one another. The Covenant mission can also be seen as an exodus-like journey in which the people are diverted from the Promised Land to the wilderness, where you know what happens.
Along with the biblical allusions are references to other sources. Prometheus, of course, was the Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods of Mount Olympus, but the name also evokes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus), with the creation of life being the divine prerogative stolen by Shelley’s scientist antihero. By implication, the Engineers are perhaps Dr. Frankenstein-like Promethei, and all life on Earth is the outcome of their encroachment on God’s prerogatives.
Alien: Covenant reaches for Norse mythology by way of Wagner’s Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, in the process evoking the Nazi milieu with which Wagner’s name is complicatedly but inexorably linked. There are also references to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias, which references the fall of ancient Egypt, but also strengthens the allusions to Moses (Ozymandias is Rameses II, often identified as the “Pharaoh of the Exodus”) and Frankenstein (since, of course, Shelley was married to Mary Shelley).
So much literary aspiration (pretension?) to so little effect.
Like many prequels and sequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant illustrate that the effort to answer previously unanswered questions often has a hydra-like effect of raising countless new questions. It also has the Star Wars prequel problem of introducing earlier innovations that make “later” developments seem primitive and redundant.
Alien: Covenant sets out to explain the origin of the horrifying but improbably complicated Xenomorph life cycle established in the original film, from egg to face-hugger to chest-burster that somehow gains immense body mass from no discernible source (a biological problem on which Prometheus blithely doubled down, and this film doubles down again).
The thing is, when the movie opens, the alien ick has already assumed about the most efficient, insidious, adaptable form possible. This makes the massive eggs and face-huggers (along with the even more massive Queen of Aliens, with her immense ovipositor for laying eggs) a superfluous, unnecessarily complicated, enormously inefficient variation.
Neither evolution nor intelligent design (and there’s definitely a designer here) would go the egg route, given the alien-ick mechanism established here. Instead of explaining anything, Alien: Covenant makes things more implausible and unnecessarily perverse. (It also makes the reproductive cycle far more efficient than the version we see supposedly 20 years later in the original Alien: What took hours before now apparently takes only minutes.)
Scott can still make viewers jump as effectively as ever; I jumped any number of times. But viewers at my screening also laughed out loud at any number of seemingly inappropriate moments because we’ve seen it all before.
Two films into his prequel series, Scott still shows no sign of grasping that a key part of what made Alien and Aliens so compelling were their ensemble casts of likable, sympathetic characters. (David Fincher’s unpleasant Alien 3, with its oppressive prison colony and twisted religious themes, was the first film in the series to botch this.)
Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant has a sympathetic leading lady, Katherine Waterston’s terraforming expert Daniels, whom I can’t call the protagonist, because that’s David. Also like Prometheus, none of the other characters is sympathetic or likable — and most or all of them reliably do whatever would be dumbest or have the lowest survival value under the circumstances. As I’ve remarked before in other contexts, I’m not saying I want an Alien movie in which characters have seen movies like this, but I also don’t want a movie about characters who would be smarter if they had.
This applies, alas, to Walter, who is supposed to be less creative and curious than David, but who should also be more efficient, and whose next-generation status should count for something. The bottom line is that Alien: Covenant is in love with David, and David is in love with alien ick. (David is also in a way in love with Walter, and the Fassbender on Fassbender scenes will have them in stitches at the multiplex.)
This means that characters and even circumstances will always do whatever is necessary for the triumph of David and the alien ick. Sometimes this made me mad at the characters, but other times you can only blame the writers. (Take an early set piece with two women and a man whose torso is doing what torsos do in these movies: First one woman slips in blood on the floor and falls and then a bit later the other woman does the same.)
In my review of Prometheus I observed that, where Alien was predicated on “a freak encounter with monstrous evil,” now alien horror is “the secret truth of human existence … alien horror as worldview.” Alien: Covenant doubles down on this too. It asks high-flown questions about life, the universe and everything, but concludes that it’s basically alien ick all the way down.
This, of course, implies a degree of reverence for alien ick, culminating in a scene in which a chest-burster’s arrival is greeted, not with horror, but with David looking on like a proud parent while gentle piano notes heralds the blessed event.
Prometheus contemplated questions of faith in the most superficial and condescending way possible: Articles of faith are simply whatever one “chooses to believe.” Alien: Covenant doesn’t exactly improve on this.
Billy Crudup plays Christopher Oram, the Covenant’s first mate, who assumes command early on when the captain is killed. Oram is a believer with a chip on his shoulder about his faith being held against him by company managers, whom he thinks believe that a man of faith can’t be trusted to make rational decisions.
Oram’s issues on this point go so deep that in his determination to be “rational” he’s actually inhumanly anti-ritual, not even permitting crew members to “do something” to honor their fallen crew members. I don’t mind that the film gives us a character of faith who is unlikable and flawed. I do mind that it seems not to have anything interesting to say about him or his flaws.
Caveat Spectator: Much gruesome sci-fi violence and body horror; recurring profanity, obscenity and crude language; a steamy shower-for-two scene; murky religious themes. Discretion strongly advised.