Director: Ridley Scott / Script: John Logan & Dante Harper / Editing: Pietro Scalia / DP: Dariusz Wolski / Score: Jed Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender / Katherine Waterston / Billy Crudup / Danny McBride / Guy Pearce / Demian Birchir / Carmen Ejogo
It looks too good to be true…
Since its 1979 debut, the Alien franchise has had its ups and downs and while I won’t cover them all here, I’ll say this much: with each of the original quartet of films, you knew what you were getting… Alien: Covenant at least doesn’t disappoint on this score.
Running, usually down steel corridors and, usually, when being pursued by one of the iconic gribblies (better known in the canon, as ‘Xenomorphs’). There might be electrical sparks. Smoke. Inconsistent lighting and a harsh, grubby palette, building on the stylistic details of the ‘lived-in-future’ as perfected by Ridley Scott for the very first film. Oh, and most of the characters would die, in a variety of ways seldom peaceful.
A ‘lived-in future’? In short, a world away from the clinical, sterile interiors of Kubrick’s 2001, to a more realistic vision that accepts human beings will most likely ‘mess-up’ their environs; from their workplaces to their living environments, be they on Earth or deep space. What Kubrick and an optimistic generation of concept-artists envisaged as being bright and shiny will, to the people actually living in them, most likely be just as weathered, grimy and beaten-up as our stuff is today.
Scott’s genius, was to collaborate with the visionary Swiss artist H. R. Giger, in using one of his disturbing creations as the basis for an apex-predator, that managed to become more terrifying, with every shocking revelation.
The face hugger! The chest-burster! The eggs! Acid for blood! The extendible double-jaw…
With every iteration, this caricature of a B-movie monster tapped our primal fears. Through the films, we were subjected to a twisted eroticism, had our notions about ‘home’ disturbed; our ‘identity’ re-shaped. Our subliminal fears, whether of penetration, pregnancy and right-through to childbirth have seldom been so explored in popular sci-fi. Each film presented new arenas, in which we might encounter the ‘Xeno’: an alien ship of unknown provenance, an off-world colony in the company of gung-ho marines, a prison and, lastly, a space station that’d weaponised the Xeno (as if it needed to be made any more terrifying).
Through it all, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was a constant thread; she was the conscience of humanity as much as the harbinger of doom. When she spoke, you listened. Yes, the third one was a bit pish and the fourth was made by a singularly bonkers Jean-Pierre Jeunet but, through it all, the franchise retained its poise and mystique (let’s ignore the various Alien vs. Predator step-children).
At its heart, it remained a sci-fi horror splatterfest.
Time passed. With no compelling idea for a fifth entry in Ripley’s timeline, the producers – Brandywine Productions – turned to the idea of a prequel, that would explore the biggest unanswered question of the entire franchise: the mysterious alien ship encountered in the first film. Specifically, how did it get there and who were its crew? What role might they have had to play in the development of the Xeno? Or us…?
To do that, the resulting film would feature Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in a performance that channelled the fearless spirit of men such as Cecil Rhodes). It is Weyland’s eponymous corporation, remember, that ends-up building David: an android with the novel capacity to think for itself – to ‘create’ – played brilliantly by a deliberately off-key Michael Fassbender, who’s deportment was strikingly alien in itself. If Fassbender the man, had peeled-off a face mask and revealed himself to have been an android all-along, we’d have gone with it, so powerful was his performance.
That film, as helmed by a returning Scott, would be Alien: Prometheus (2012); a picture I admired at the time, but which, over the years since, I’d come to regard with disappointment. Despite a beautiful production design and stabs at some big ideas, it was often as dumb as a bag of hammers.
For all that, its box-office was sufficient to green-light Alien: Covenant, the second entry, in what Scott hoped would be a trilogy of prequels.
It begins in (*yawn*) familiar style: A colony ship, outward-bound for distant worlds, in which another Fassbender android (Walter in this picture) is the only ‘living’ thing. He tends to the hydroponic greenhouses and talks to the omniscient ‘Mother’ computer in quiet contentment; his tireless routine only interrupted when the ship – Covenant – is hit by a solar storm and their hyper-sleeping Captain is lost in an accident (an uncredited James Franco). Second-in-Command Oram (a not-fit-for-purpose Billy Crudup) takes the reins and oversees repairs. Plans change when they intercept a random signal in which is buried a snatch of familiar music. Oram decides that, rather than stay awake for the seven – long – years it’s going to take to get them to their original destination, he’d rather divert to the source of the signal and see if it might offer as good a home to the colonists aboard.
On arriving at the planet, we get another example of the bone-headed stupidity that almost sank Prometheus… I found myself groaning aloud, with every breach of what should pass for quarantine procedures or, you know, common-sense! Plus, when it all boils-down, where’s any sense of dumbstruck awe? After all, aren’t these people intent on coming face-to-face with a possible alien presence? Given the secrecy surrounding Prometheus, this would be the first in recorded history, right?
So why is everyone passing it off as if they’re on a team-building away-day?
I get it. Scott has to move things on, from there to here, so maybe this was the only studio-pleasing route he knew how (his writer John Logan, should’ve known better). Put aside surface gripes and consider instead, how far things deflate when we’re reintroduced to David, who thoughtfully explains-away much of the entire franchise’s mythos, while we glimpse his makeshift lab, that loads further layers onto what is an already top-heavy allusion to the creature forged by Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein.
Scott intercuts David’s exposition with the ritual slaughter of the remnants of Oram’s away-team (who are barely even named, let alone blessed with characterisations beyond that of cardboard); this is still an Alien, picture isn’t it? It’s what we’ve paid our money to see after all. Without going into spoilers, let’s just say that things enter other things.
Other things, then leave.
None of the exchanges are unproblematic for both parties.
But it’s Act Three where things really start falling-apart, beginning with a witless fight with a Xeno on a wildly-gyrating loading platform that echoes Ripley’s loader in Aliens. This is followed by a rote corridor-chase that features Katherine Waterston’s Daniels in a Ripley-esque grey vest, in a fight to the death with (another) Xeno, out in a space-dock filled with heavy-plant that’s begging to be vented-out-to-space with a – oh. Right.
It’s all handsomely mounted and photographed, with the care one would expect of long-time Scott DP Dariusz Wolski, but there are few grace notes in a picture that follows an unremittingly grim template. Scott and Logan leave their biggest trick for last. Just as Walter is sealing-in Daniels for her return to hyper-sleep, we learn that he is actually David, who signs off with the chilling ‘don’t let the bedbugs bite’, as she’s falling asleep, powerless to respond. In his final scenes, David vomits-up two glass vials containing Xeno-embryos and places them, lovingly, in a sample drawer, before walking through a chamber packed with deep-frozen colonists. Or hosts, as we should now start calling them…
It’s all too self-important and pompous with its own sense of wonder. Of course David would want to take Walter’s place, yet Scott conveniently skips the required self-mutilation scene, which David would’ve had to perform, to resemble Walter who, by this point in proceedings, had lost a hand… By NOT showing it or, for that matter, the conclusion of the fight between the two ‘droids, the film-makers are fooling no-one.
David’s unrelenting quest for answers as to who made his maker, Weyland, and whether it’s his destiny to engineer a ‘perfect’ replacement for the amoral, violent human race, is the core of the picture, but just left me asking ‘who cares’?
More specifically, who now cares for a franchise that’s as eviscerated as a Xeno’s used-host? As far as I can tell, there are two options. First, a complete reboot that owes nothing to the past films and resets the chronology and underlying mythos. Now that Disney have acquired Twentieth Century Fox and all its franchises, that might yet happen. After all, one only has to look at the Stalinesque purge of the Extended Star Wars Universe, once it was acquired by Disney.
Second, it can explore the science-fiction side of its nature, as represented by android-with-a-God-complex David. Trouble is, moving into a more philosophical realm, takes it further from its roots, to a point where any requisite gore, would sit as an uncomfortable passenger rather than equal driver. The film ends with Covenant back on its original course. By the time of its arrival seven years hence, David will have perfected his Xenomorphic tinkerings, using its passengers as food / hosts – but to what end? Somehow, if he’s allowed to make the film, Scott needs to get us, once again, from here to there… Wherever ‘there’ is.
There’s only one teeny-tiny problem. Money. Covenant might’ve made money, but it didn’t set the box-office afire, so whatever happens next is going to require an act of faith from Disney, in a similar spirit to Weyland’s original ‘trillion-dollar’ investment in Prometheus.
Watch this space.
David: I was with our illustrious creator Mr. Weyland when he died.
Walter: What was he like?
David: He was human. Entirely unworthy of his creation.