In tandem with the release of increasingly generic-looking promotional material for Alien: Covenant, a curious, almost-rehabilitation of its predecessor’s rocky legacy seemed to occur, as some of its many naysayers were given to observe, “Well, at least Prometheus was trying something different”. It seems Sir Ridders can’t win: damned if he breaks new ground, damned if he charts a familiar course. The result is a compromise, and boy, does Covenant feel burdened by that at times. Still, those worried it would renege on Prometheus can relax in at least one important regard: Covenant is easily as stupid in terms of character motivation. And, for this reviewer, in another respect: I liked it a lot, or rather, I liked a lot of it, despite myself.
Screenwriter John Logan persuaded Scott to follow the path of more trad-Alien antics, so it would be interesting to learn how different things might have been before that course reset (he told Scott “Look, I love all the philosophical ideas, the grandeur, but I want to write a really scary horror movie. I want to write a rollercoaster ride”. Which doesn’t exactly reek of connecting with the Prometheus’ thematic content, but this is the Gladiator scribe we’re talking about). As such, it’s a shame Damon Lindelof couldn’t have been as successful redirecting the director’s woollier whims on Prometheus (instead, he copped the lion’s share of the blame).
What we end up with in Covenant is a schizophrenic movie. Not so much in the way it jumps from “crew get massacred” scares to androids philosophising about their nature and place in the hierarchy of creation; that’s actually quite successful, and distinctive. The manner in which Michael Fassbender’s David suddenly shows up, scaring off the neomorphs before they can finish off their prey, makes for an effective and involving detour form traditional Alien plot mechanics, and ensures that, from then on, you’re never quite sure of your footing in terms of how the picture is going to follow through. It scarcely matters that it opts for highly generic beats during the final act, ones that would have you yawning if not for… well, that’s the key. The picture lives or dies on its androids, and your appetite for double the Fassbender (which depending on your knowledge of his personal history, may vary).
That said, it’s an odd experience, watching a movie where you’re wowed by the acumen on display one moment and the next, you can’t quite believe the lumpen, moronic clichés that are being shamelessly pressed into service. There’s nothing really very imaginative about David’s creator/mad scientist posturing, one-part Dr Moreau, one-part Colonel Kurtz and another Baron Frankenstein besides, but that’s part of the point: he’s entirely blind to his own hubris, hence his rote obsession with the kind of art, from Wagner to Byron (I mean, Shelley), with which the unhinged tend to identify.
For all that he sees himself as superior to his unworthy makers, this is David’s most human quality; he is unable to recognise his own limitations – of knowledge, insight or ability – even when corrected point blank by his entirely more servile doppelganger Walter, who cannot create and cannot feel (David tells him he loves Daniels, or why else would he have lost a hand for her: “Duty” Walter replies).
I’m unclear who came up with what in terms of the plotline (Jack Paglen and Michael Green get story credits, Logan and Dante Harper screenplay) but the number of cooks is reflected in the lumpy results. Covenant feels like a movie darting off in about four different directions at once, with the least interesting (the sealing off airlocks, hunting the creature down one) eventually pulling ahead before a final redirect.
With four generations of creations and creators to choose from, the picture is never short of material to deploy, even if only one of these is presented with any degree of flair and consistency (in theory, David eventually ought to be poetically disposed of at the teeth one of his own progeny; it’s a nice touch that he looks almost affronted when, during the final confrontation, the xenomorph attacks the monitor screen displaying his image, undercutting his assuredness of his own ability to tame the beast).
Covenant wisely, I think, pulls back from Prometheus’ dive into the greater questions. Not because I prefer knuckleheaded plotting, but because there’s no way anyone would have come up with satisfying answers (not these writers, at any rate). So we learn of David’s encounter with the architects of humanity (one assumes he visited their plague upon them more out of annoyance over getting his head ripped off, and because he could, than any particular favour to Shaw and mankind) but we gather nothing more of their grand design.
Maybe Scott, at the ripe old age of 120, will chose to dip into that, and where they come from, but he’s likely to end up climbing a never-ending ladder if he does, certainly in a series that is expressly going to avoid anything directly metaphysical (see also Vincent Ward).
More to the point, David believes humanity has had its day and plans to finish the Engineers’ job for them. Poor humanity: we can’t catch a break. There’s a prevailing subtext in here, of course, of the danger of AI sentience, of its achieving god-like, usurping, Skynet status and being our undoing.
I’ve seen reviews – not least, Mark Kermode – decrying the rather uninspiring loop of the origins of the xenomorph being David himself, having tampered with the Engineers genetic gloop, but I go back to the same position as the point about leaving the Engineers’ origins and motivation unturned; the damage was done when Scott (and if it hadn’t been him, it would have been some other bright spark) decided the central mysteries of Alien merited interrogating, coming up with the rather deflating re-envisioning of what lay beneath the space jockey’s exoskeleton, and how the xenomorph itself was somehow connected to the creation of humanity. Once you’ve gone there, you may as well make choices that are thematically, if not necessarily creatively, interesting.
I found David easily the best part of Prometheus, so I’m probably easily sold Alien: Covenant, particularly since there’s double the androids. What I didn’t expect was to end up rooting for Walter. The film’s most appealing aspect is how twisted it becomes in places, how it turns David into the Hannibal Lector of AIs – Scott’s assuming everyone is as willing to follow whatever the characters does next as I am, I guess – right down to revealing the manner in which he casually he dispensed with Elizabeth Shaw. This, even as he waxes lyrical about how kind she was to him (and the gruesome evidence of her demise is right there, lest anyone was assuming she might have been preserved somewhere off camera).
David thinks, as the superior being, that he can do as he wills, even making advances – I hesitate to say sexual, since these androids’ anatomical reach is unspecified, although that’s clearly the undercurrent – towards his mirror twin (or “brother”) and then Daniels, because, like any psychopath worth their salt, he considers others’ feelings to be inessential (albeit, Walter is ambivalent on the matter).
It’s appropriate then, that the only time David has to make way in terms of interest is when “inferior” Walter is on screen. Scott and Logan (and Fassbender) conspire, in the space of a couple of brief beats to make Walter second only to Bishop in likeable androids. First is the marvellous “hero” moment of his saving Daniels from a neomorph by sticking his fist down its throat.
And then, there’s his return from deactivation, confronting the perplexed David and proving his better in one-handed combat (you can see this coming every bit as much as you can later see David assuming Walter’s identity. Although, even then, Scott effectively sustains the grain of doubt; is that exactly what Sir Ridders wants you to think? Part of that is probably something like Now You See Me 2 having two Woody Harrelsons and not bothering to pull the old switcheroo).
I’ll admit to hoping David still couldn’t quite find the off switch, and that Walter’s still down there, with the option of returning at some point (one does wonder, if David – and I assume the line generally, and he wasn’t a one-off – disturbed people due to his humanity, why they didn’t redesign him straight off; probably because we wouldn’t then have the double Fass shenanigans).
So I haven’t really talked about the humans, and that’s for good reason. For starters, only three (Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, Billy Crudup’s Oram and Danny McBride’s Tennessee) make any lasting impression. For seconds, none of them are up to much, relying entirely on the thesps force of personality to deliver.
In Crudup’s case, he does an almost superhuman job of making you feel for someone you ought to dismiss as laughably feeble and inept. We are told the crew has no confidence in Oram taking over as captain due to his being a man of faith, which seems like the cue for an additional spin on the theological/ philosophical debate raging throughout these prequels. Except it isn’t. All it encourages is, rather clumsily, post-impregnation by a facehugger, his asking David what he believes in and why he’s doing all this. Never fear a long, drawn out discussion as, seconds later, he’s been chest burst (that’s a bit quick, isn’t it? I mean, this isn’t a Paul WS Anderson movie).
It’s a testament to Crudup’s performance that I continually felt apologetic for the abysmal writing his character was made to suffer. This is probably the moment to address a factor every review I’ve read has already raised, but it bears repeating, since it’s even worse than those two idiots getting lost and messing about with newly-discovered lifeforms in Prometheus. By the point David beckons poor Oram to take a closer look at the “quite safe” egg in the basement, you’ve become immune to the fact that the silly bugger will do precisely that (it having already become patently obvious to him that David is up to at-very-least nefarious, and most probably heinous shit). And there’s no way you can put all his poor decisions down to being a nervy, unprepared and undeserving captain-designate.
Oram takes it upon himself to investigate the “too good to be true” inhabitable planet that has popped up on the scanners, despite Daniels’ protestations (in true Ripley-clone fashion). Essentially, his reasoning is fine. That he and his party go down there to take a look-see is even borderline reasonable… If they actually wore any form of protective clothing (although, it does set Star Trek into perspective, popping down any number of worlds with untold communicable nasties everywhere).
One would expect sending a drone down with sampling apparatus to be standard operating procedure (after all, it would only take an additional few weeks to do the necessary tests, what’s the hurry, given the prospect of seven more years’ cryosleep?) You’d have thought, given how popular drones are right now, space drones would be all over that kind of thing by 2104 (it also raises an eyebrow that they only have one shuttle craft on their slightly longer, and uglier, Space: 1999 Eagle freighter). If it seems like I’m being picky, this goes back to the Star Trek comment; Alien sets itself up as occupying an essentially grounded universe, so anything as flagrantly stupid as the behaviour here or in Prometheus deserves all the brickbats it gets.
But yeah, Crudup invests far more in Oram than the character deserves. Waterston is decent as Daniels: I can’t say much more than that. She even has a “Let’s blow this fucker into space” line at the end. It’s a curiously thoughtless legacy of Sigourney’s reign that any new contenders are now doomed to be wiped out by androids who would never have got the better of Ripley. Almost a sick acknowledgement: yes, there’ll be a de-rigueur female protagonist in this series, but she’s one and done, and she’ll be done by an ostensibly male psycho, so stick that in your progressive pipe and smoke it.
McBride’s okay too, although his best line comes early on when he recognises Noomi singing John Denver (in space, no one can hear you scream). His character is, at least, a textbook example of why married couples should never work together in life-threatening situations, as he does his damnedest to endanger the lives of the 2,000 colonists in cryosleep when he’s worried about wifey.
Whose decision to follow protocols is, at least, amusingly incompetent in a very stressful situation. Yes, worrying about alien infections comes much, much too late to do any good, and Faris (Amy Seimetz), faced with a quarantine situation, initiates it in the most appallingly bungling manner. Such that she locks Oram’s missus (Carmen Ejogo’s Karine) in with the nasty and then goes back into the med-bay herself, too late, and proceeds to make an even bigger hash of things. That’s the kind of freaked-out stupidity I can go with, and there’s something effectively bleak about this sequence, which occurs relatively early on.
Production values are generally top notch, aided and abetted by Dariusz Wolski’s gloomy, doomy cinematography, although a contrasting planetary palette to Prometheus might have been beneficial. For the most part too, loathe as I am to admit it, I didn’t have a problem with the CGI beasties. That said, the neomorphs are far more effective, visceral, and unsettling than the eventual arrival of a protomorph (yes, I’m surprised to hear myself admit that). Perhaps that’s partly because I can see the CGI in a protomorph (a larger, lankier, less sleek precursor to the xenomorph) more obviously. The infant versions of the creatures often don’t work as well (the new-born protomorph doing a salute to David is particularly obvious).
I had a bigger problem with the rather tired, sub-Aliens climax in the terraforming bay, in which a multitude of pixels, and camera shake, are thrown about to very little dramatic effect (given the actual ending, something lower key would have been much more satisfying; we’d already had, by this stage, quite enough virtual acrobatics with Daniels flying about outside the cargo carrier). I can forgive it, though, it’s your basic clueless, more-is-more thinking that afflicts every Hollywood blockbuster’s third act.
More egregious is the run-up to this sequence, symptomatic of the tonally dissonant leaping about that distractingly afflicts this movie: I mean, really, an eleventh-hour sexy shower scene straight out of an ’80s slasher movie? Is Ridley eighty and horny? Throw in an accompanying poptastic tune, and you have a strong indicator of a director who should maybe start thinking about that retirement home. In contrast, at the opposite end of the picture, the disaster that hits the Covenant is superbly realised, and its aftermath effectively sets up the crew’s various positions and potential conflicts (Walter’s “Is that a rhetorical question?” to one of Oram’s less-than-on-the-ball queries is just great).
A few other points arising. Notably, there’s a whole lot of gore in this movie. I don’t know how Covenant managed to get a 15 (UK) certificate, yet Aliens 1-4 (at the time of the Anthology release) deserved 18s, since they all pale in comparison. That’s the BBFC for you. Jed Kurzel’s score is serviceable but entirely unmemorable when it isn’t riffing on Jerry Goldsmith or Marc Streitenfeld. Best James Franco role ever. And, you can tell that a Blade Runner sequel is imminent (“That’s the spirit!”)
There’s a point in Covenant where David is talking about the perfection and purity of his creations. It’s clearly intended to be redolent of Ash in Alien. The problem is, neither of Ridley’s continuations of the Alien-verse have the singularity and clarity of that first movie (or even Jimbo’s sequel). Both suffer from being stuffed with an unwieldy tangle of concepts and characters, leading to the narrative dead ends and eye-rolling plotting you have here. Covenant’s problems are the same kind of problems that afflicted Prometheus; you can’t help but see the validity of David’s argument, when the humans are all as bumbling as they are.
And yet, like its predecessor, Alien: Covenant possesses just enough sublime peculiarity and weirdness that I end up on board with it. Especially that gloriously bleak ending (even given that David is essentially performing the function of a glorified Burke). We’re now nearly forty years from Alien, and rather than an identikit courageous feminist icon, the franchise’s ongoing protagonist is instead an ambivalent, self-serving android. That’s a fascinating development, for all the surrounding flaws. I just hope Ridley doesn’t get distracted again, and we get Alien: Awakening before 2022.