Originally posted May 19th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
WARNING: There will be spoilers, though we’ll come to those later.
Everyone has done, or will do at least one thing in their lives that requires a substantial amount of forgiveness. Imperfection is part of human nature, but as Ridley Scott found out with 2012’s Alien prequel Prometheus, it simply wasn’t acceptable. In spite of only having two competent films to its credit, the Alien franchise has been beloved by many ever since a baby xenomorph violently burst out of John Hurt’s chest, and thus, fans used to substandard sequels, as well as general audiences, tore the film apart, and for good reason.
All anyone could talk about in the wake of its premiere was the bevy of questions that remained unsolved when the final credits rolled, and it became trendy to hate the Damon Lindelof-written production for that very reason. Now, five years have come and gone since then, and Scott has been ready to make amends for what he helped create. Overall, Alien: Covenant is major improvement from its predecessor in many respects, and even retroactively fixes quite a few of its holes, but it still can’t help but feel desperately lacking in other areas.
Taking place around a decade after the events of Prometheus, Covenant depicts another Weyland Corporation ship flying in deep space towards an unknown planet capable of harboring human life, though what makes this shuttle different is that it is comprised of couples, known as ‘colonists,’ who have volunteered to start a new life on a new planet. When the crew receives a distress signal from a similar planet, they abandon course and investigate, only to find life not nearly as hospitable.
Like Prometheus, Covenant looks fantastic and does a fabulous job of creating a world grounded in reality. The production design outdid itself here as we’re given tastings of both Prometheus’s and the original Alien’s strengths; a dichotomy between the expansive, mysterious unknown in the wilderness and the ship Covenant’s tight, claustrophobic hallways and corridors. The former is especially captured stylishly by cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, who’s worked with Scott ever since Prometheus.
One aspect that separates Covenant from its predecessor, however, is a visual feel that is simultaneously slick and desaturated. The opposite could be said, understood and accepted of Prometheus because it wanted to elicit fragments of the Alien franchise DNA, but nonetheless create its own unique world and atmosphere. With its reception, however, it’s clear that Scott and Co. wanted to get back to basics in a number of fashions, and it started with sucking the optimism out of the visuals, albeit to an occasional point of doom and gloom. It succeeds in feeling slightly more authentic to the franchise, and a handful of scenes in the first act echo reminders that the Prometheus’s legacy still hangs over everyone’s heads.
Almost anyone who saw Prometheus, or even Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, would have been calling for Damon Lindelof’s head, but thankfully, the good people at Fox and Scott Free brought in a writer with a higher pedigree. John Logan is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter for the films Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo, but has done work for Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and Skyfall, as well. With his experience, and along with co-writer Dante Harper, they vastly improve upon the material provided for Prometheus in two key respects.
Unlike Prometheus, the characters are all either well-rounded or sympathetic enough that we feel connected or empathetic towards their purpose and motivation, and since this film doesn’t stoop to the conceit that most of them are above typical cannon fodder, their deaths have greater impact than they would otherwise. Though Scott has described Covenant as a “thinking man’s scary movie,” it’s intellectual side is an undercurrent to the plot rather than a driving force like it was in Prometheus, and with a complete ideological shift present here, it makes for a more balanced representation and fairer depiction of its protagonists.
If you read my Prometheus retrospective on Monday, you know that my biggest qualm with that film was its confounding, unnecessary and somewhat insulting anti-skepticism framework. The film had some lofty goals, exploring themes and ideas related to the nature of our existence and how we might act at the prospect of meeting our creators, but for whatever reason, its main source of antagonism was drawing a line in the sand between those who had faith and the obstructive assholes who didn’t. In this film’s case, it warmly embraces skepticism through its own ideas and characters, while maintaining a more humanist portrayal of faithful followers, as well.
Not only does this help the characters feel unified in the face of our titular antagonist, but also it better serves this film’s own ambitions, which fix many of the key questions left from Prometheus and venture out towards more fully realized ruminations, as well. For example, one of the bigger questions left after Prometheus was why the Engineers decided to wipe out humanity, their own creation, and such could possibly be answered by the subplot involving David and new synthetic android, Walter, which proves an outstanding double role for Michael Fassbender.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, STARTING NOW
The film opens with David coming to life, speaking with his ‘father’ Peter Weyland, reprised by Guy Pearce. Interestingly, he gets his name by looking at Michelangelo’s statue of David, identifying with the underdog in his struggle to understand his own identity. The two share a long discussion about who David is and how he came to be, but when David digs deeper, asking questions such as “If you created me, who created you,” we see he’s imbued with an immediate awareness that he is ‘other’ from humankind. Weyland’s answers are unsatisfactory in David’s eyes, and thus the film introduces the idea of belonging, and sows the seeds for provocative reflections on the dangers of man playing God, as well as David’s resentment for Weyland.
The second act further enlightens the audience on two particular things. First of all, the Walter android model is an evolution from David’s, working out the bugs and problems that made David “too human,” according to Walter. Second, it is revealed that when the ship David and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) used to escape the planet in Prometheus reaches its destination, the home world of the Engineers, David kills Shaw and wipes out the Engineer population using the chemical weapons he found in the previous film. Since then, he’s been experimenting on creating xenomorphs using different sorts of animal life, and reaching different effects. It isn’t until the Covenant arrives that David can use humans and birth the xenomorphs in the form as we know them.
The ending of the picture is especially telling when the twist is revealed that it was David, not Walter that made it back to the Covenant, sending a wide-eyed and frantic Daniels (Katherine Waterston) into cryosleep and placing a pair of face-hugger embryos amongst the human ones. As predictable as this outcome may have been, it does represent David’s character coming full circle, or at least close to it, showing that not only is he the reason for the xenomorphs’ existence, but also he subconsciously does it as a means of revenge against Weyland. In order to understand the idea of creation, he must become a creator, though to devilish ends.
This could explain why the Engineers wanted to kill off humanity. They recognized the potential dangers of the above philosophy and decided that having humankind continue to exist posed more inevitable harm than benefit. There’s so much more I could get into with this prequel sequel, but I’ll stop it here and let you all find out for yourselves, because the ambitions represented here are far more fascinating than they were in Prometheus and this film is worth studying further – though, unfortunately, in conjunction with each other.
END OF SPOILERS
In spite of every wrong that Covenant rectified, I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t fully engaged with this picture, as if I were being differently alienated compared to Prometheus – see, I italicized it because I recognize the pun now. I couldn’t tell what the reason was until the final act took effect, and I could see that much of the previous events followed in the same way. One of the most irritating facets of modern mainstream horror is that instead of being scary, films will instead show you something scary. There are certainly a handful of moments that are unsettling and filled to the brim with blood, especially the newly concocted xenomorph birthing scenes, but overall, the atmosphere is lacking in providing the chills that give its monsters and frights an extra boost.
If Scott is correct in calling Covenant a thinking man’s scary movie, then he and his team were so intent on the former half of that description that they forgot to accomplish the latter half. Though the ship’s set design properly replicates the claustrophobic sense of the original films, it is only used for a mere fraction of the film’s scares, leaving nothing to mystery and unintentionally removing the overwhelming chill factor that made the original a post-modern classic. When the final act comes around, the scares are reduced to ham-fisted, ultimately anticlimactic summer-style action set pieces that do little to excite knowing the impending denouement.
Considering there will be yet another prequel sequel to follow this one, Alien: Covenant represents a promising, if not entirely convincing step forward in the right direction. These films are becoming less and less about the terrifying monsters that have haunted the public’s dreams since 1979, and more about David and his quest to understanding life, which is undoubtedly an interesting route to take given there’s only so much a filmmaker can do with trapped-in-space genre alien violence. Now that the franchise is displaying a renewed sense of vitality, I can definitively say that yes, this is a film I will want to watch again five years from now.
If you haven’t seen them already, here are a pair of prologues released by 20th Century Fox that will give you greater context heading into this film.