When 2012’s Prometheus welcomed the original Alien director Ridley Scott back into the fold, fans approached the film with equal parts excitement and skepticism. Yet no one expected Prometheus to almost completely forego the threat of the distinctive Xenomorph creature, in favor of a story about a group of scientists who venture to a distant planet on a doomed mission to find the origins of mankind. One might not have liked Prometheus as a movie, but you couldn’t be angry at it for being a lesser version of a beloved property; it turned out to be a different story entirely, just set in the same universe.
The promotional materials for Alien: Covenant seemed to suggest that after Prometheus, it was finally time to get back to the good old fashioned facehuggings, chest burstings, and double mouth impaling. But just like in Prometheus, the results completely side step the expectations.
I must commend the Alien series for never giving the fans exactly what they would anticipate from the series. Each entry in the series has been a significant departure from what came before; and Covenant continues that rich tradition of bewilderment, enthrallment, and disappointment, all in varying ratios.
The movie begins with a cold conversation between the android David (Michael Fassbender) and a younger Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the CEO of Weyland-Yutani Corp who was killed at the end of Prometheus. The talk between these two men re-establishes all of the themes of the previous film; but after a title card, you would not be a fool to think that the movie simply reboots. We meet the crew of the spaceship Covenant, who are awoken from hyper-sleep by the android Walter (also Michael Fassbender) when a sudden cosmic event threatens the stability of the ship and its 2,000 plus colonists (in hyper-sleep, destined for a far away planet they are prepared to colonize). While recuperating from this sudden tragedy, they receive a stray transmission from a nearby planet that turns out to be habitable for human life. Traumatized and shaken, they decide to abandon their orders and head for this newfound planet instead. There’s a famous yiddish saying; “Man plans and God laughs.” This could be the theme of the entire Alien series, but it’s especially true of these last two prequels.
The film then quickly shifts into an all out action-horror gore fest, complete with some of the more graphic imagery I’ve seen from a big Hollywood production in quite some time. It’s a sight for sore eyes, as summertime has become synonymous with mega budget, uber violent-yet-bloodless PG-13 blockbusters. Soon enough though, the mythology established in Prometheus returns, as the crew is essentially saved by David, stranded and living alone on this dead planet, years after his crew went missing. Despite momentary safety from the Xenomorphs, for anyone who saw Prometheus (and one doesn’t have to have seen it to follow this one reasonably well), they’ve got a bad feeling about this.
It’s at this point that the movie suddenly loses its momentum. The well established cast (Katherine Waterston in the Ripley role, Danny McBride, and Billy Crudup to name a few) suddenly loses all personality as they become delivery vessels for the big, existential story that Scott is trying to tell…which makes it increasingly clear to me that Scott isn’t really interested in making more Alien movies. But much like David needs the crew of the Covenant, Scott needs the Alien franchise to smuggle in his recent thematic obsessions: the origins of intelligent life, mankind’s fragile place in the universe, and what it means to continue our species. In the current studio climate, no one would dream of giving him the money to make these movies; if they weren’t part of the Alien universe.
Even while Scott brings us closer to the first moments of meeting Ripley and the Nostromo crew, these films can’t help but re-contextualize what came before. The original trilogy portrayed the Xenomorph as an agent of chaos- an almost Herzogian piece of nature that man simply can’t control, but tries to no matter the body count. Covenant alters this significantly- increasingly showing the Xenomorph’s symbiotic relationship to the Weyland corporation and its prodigal mad genius, David.
Despite the film’s downward trajectory, some of the more intriguing scenes of the summer blockbuster season are going to be the ones between David and Walter- with Fassbender being the latest actor of many to double himself onscreen. The duo see themselves as long lost brothers, each with their own complicated relationship to their parent. I couldn’t help but see how this might be connected to Ridley Scott’s relationship with his own famous brother, the now sadly departed Tony Scott.
Tony committed suicide in 2012, but not before directing some of the more entertaining action movies of our time (True Romance, Deja Vu, Unstoppable, just to name a few). While he was making these excellent genre films, Ridley was out making prestige studio flicks like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and American Gangster. There’s a similar theme of grime vs. clean between David and Walter. Yet despite whatever tension might arise from their differences, they’re inextricably linked, still sharing a creator. I can’t imagine having a family member commit suicide and not feeling somehow responsible for their choice, and I imagine the particular focus given to this relationship may have been a way to for Scott to work out unresolved feelings about his brother’s death.
Ultimately, Covenant suffers from some of the same problems that plagued Prometheus. A lot of interesting ideas given little more than lip service, a lot of stupid decisions made by supposed professionals for the mere purpose of moving the plot forward, and Xenomorph stuff that feels kind of tacked on. On top of that, Covenant takes on the extra weight of needing to bridge the gap to the original franchise. Two months ago I was looking forward to this as an almost guaranteed improvement on Prometheus. But after a recent Prometheus rewatch, I actually prefer the unique mythology of a bold standalone studio effort to this deflating, strangely superfluous universe builder.
Alien: Covenant opens in Philly theaters today.