‘Alien: Covenant’: Better than ‘Prometheus’ but not perfect
WASHINGTON, July 4, 2017 – First released in the U.S. on May 19, 2017, “Alien: Covenant,” nominally picks up where “Prometheus,” the previous film in the long-running “Alien” franchise, leaves off.
Headlined by Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride and Demián Bichir, and directed once again by Ridley Scott, the new film follows the voyage of a ship that travels to an uncharted planet on the basis of receiving a mysterious communications transmission. The expected complications ensue.
“Covenant” was actually intended as the second chapter in an “Alien” prequel series, following the first chapter, which was “Prometheus.” But the new film never quite feels like a sequel to its predecessor or even a prequel to the original “Alien,” even though it shares more in common with the latter than it does with the former.
“Alien”: In the Beginning
The original “Alien” (1979) was a surprise smash hit, launching one of the earliest “franchises” in film – one that arguably spawned the phenomenon to begin with.
Now that the franchise is six films deep – eight, if the two “Alien vs. Predator” films are included – their divergence in philosophy becomes apparent. The original film and its immediate successors launched something of an anthology series, in which different editions of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley face off against the titular Alien in a variety of different settings. The later installments take a different direction.
For most “Alien” fans, the films have always been a wildly creative convergence of the horror and science fiction genres. The original film’s PR tag line was “in space, no one can hear you scream,” and this notion has endured throughout the entire series. Enduring as well has been the basic premise of the original: a xenomorph (the alien) – or multiple xenomorphs in some cases – ends up slaughtering the cast of each film.
The way the Alien films have developed in their own cultural sphere might not be the way director Ridley Scott has initially imagined the series. Part of this is due to Scott’s departure from the franchise before it ever became one.
Originally, “Alien” was just a horror/sci-fi mash-up that was first genuinely high budget film Scott ever directed. As such, he wasn’t the driving force behind that film. Since that time, however, “Alien” has been the film that, along with “Blade Runner” (1982), that originally defined his legacy as a director. Despite the numerous hands the Alien films have passed through since then, it’s always Ridley Scott’s name that’s most closely associated with the concept.
With 2012’s “Prometheus,” Ridley Scott made his return to the Alien universe. A loosely structured prequel to Scott’s original film, it was designed more to flesh out the universe of Alien rather than tell a story that leading directly to the first “Alien.”
“Prometheus” also created a scenario involved the potential of humankind’s “creators,” premonitions of the xenomorph species, and the notion that out-of-control mega-corporations supposedly had an abundant amount of control over everything.
Despite Scott’s direction, the narrative of “Prometheus” didn’t make a whole lot of sense, resulting in a majestic looking but ultimately flawed film that didn’t really deliver any firm idea of a beginning. The film concluded with scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) departing a ruined world with only android David (Michael Fassbender) in tow, determined to seek out the creators who were planning to eradicate humanity.
In “Alien: Covenant,” the most pervasive theme involves the stand-off between scientific evidence and faith as methodologies for determining humanity’s innate purpose. The attempt to resolve this key moral and philosophical issue was greatly muddled in “Prometheus,” but become a lot clearly in “Covenant,” and we observe in the newer film’s opening scene.
David had been the standout character in “Prometheus” becoming, in a way, that film’s tragic center. He discovered the existence of the plan to more or less exterminate humanity, was betrayed by the very same people who created him, and, being a relatively new creation in and of himself, was psychologically unable to connect the dots completely, being rescued in more ways than one by Elizabeth Shaw.
“Covenant” opens as David interacts with his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the head of the corporation in charge of all known space exploration in the Alien films. It’s important to note the flawed philosophy inherent in Weyland’s intelligent design at this point, and how it imprints on David’s psyche. David can’t separate the idea of creation with its purpose. But if there is no purpose, then the whole point of creation is flawed at its core.
What’s more important to Scott as a director is how the actors interpret the dialogue rather what actually gets said. How the debate is visually framed, how the characters move and how they react is more important to him than anything that’s actually said.
What lingers from that opening scene is not its dialogue, but the quiet, reserved tension between David and Weyland. This is emphasized by the way David moves around the room with a certain lightness, as Weyland fails to answer the questions posed by his a highly intelligent but still newborn android. The feeling of the argument takes precedence over its actual content.
As the latest film gets further underway, we find ourselves aboard the eponymous “Covenant,” a space ship carrying a group of colonists that suffers a major setback when the ship’s captain (James Franco) and some of his crew are killed, forcing first mate Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) to take over piloting the vessel.
The explosion causes the voyagers to consider landing on a planet that fits the parameters of their mission but is closer than the planet they intended to colonize. In trying to make this decision, Christopher finds himself in direct opposition to Danny (Katherine Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert and also the wife of the ship’s late captain.
Both characters take on symbolic weight by taking on opposite sides of the colonization argument. The rest of the crew is stuck in the middle and braces for the literal and ideological split that’s bound to occur – one that will define the two antagonists as well as their actions and their ultimate fates.
Danny, for her part, continually tries to bridge the gap between she and Christopher, while Christopher generally ignores the argument, focusing instead on making absolutely sure (in his own mind at least) that the path he’s chosen for the crew is the right one. Danny represents logic, which is why she’s also concerned with keeping people together. But Christopher leans towards faith, which is the impetus for his attempt to make an unfortunate situation better at what turns out to be an unreasonable cost.
This gets the crew to the planet that’s supposed to be sustainable, which eventually leads them to be attacked by the usual suspects. This is the point at which David introduces himself as the saving grace for the beleaguered crew that’s now cut off from the Covenant. David gives them sanctuary.
But, as the Alien franchise is still that nominally sci-fi/horror mash-up, he’s someone not to be trusted. He delivers on that premise by transforming the stranded crew stranded into a veritable petri dish for procreating more of those notorious alien xenomorphs.
Dueling android philosophies
It’s one lengthy key scene that stands out in this movie, however, possibly making it more than just a footnote in this durable franchise. That’s the scene in which Walter (also portrayed by Michael Fassbender), the android on the Covenant and an updated model of the David series, finds himself finally alone with David.
This extended scene encapsulates how much of a visualist Ridley Scott really, as he once again discounts dialogue and content even when both are potent. We discover that David has been alone on the planet in question for roughly 15 years, and has learned a great deal about the former inhabitants, whom he murdered by means of an early iteration of xenomorphs.
Thus, while David is an older model android than Walter, he has more actual experience the more inhibited Walter. Feeling a kinship with this newer model, he feels a need to share his accumulated wisdom.
What follows is visually one of the most interesting moments of Ridley Scott’s career, as the androids’ interactions range from intensely expressed affection to a scene in which David teaches the musically inexperienced Walter how to play the flute. David’s precise instructions of finger placement to Walter works as uncomfortable and sensual. The way both characters – portrayed by the same actor – are kept in close proximity rises both of their feelings to a peak level. This closeness informs their character arcs from the rest of the film.
David is obviously the aggressor in the scene, constantly moving into Walter’s space to assert himself while Walter tries to process what’s happening. David explores his virtual humanity and his own confusion in an attempt to justify his own anger and loneliness, things that don’t exist within Walter, who is carefully designed to be of service. Their differences highlight the fallacies in David’s core self-ideology, leading to his sense of rejected kinship. Walter, it is clear, has been designed to protect, whereas David feels the necessity to survive, leading to a final, definitive encounter between the two.
The remarkable thing about “Alien: Covenant” is that so much of this complicated and often philosophical film is told through subtle visuals rather than classic exposition. For this reason, it’s a visually stunning film that makes a lasting impact on any viewer who chooses to follow it closely. “Covenant” holds together much better than “Prometheus,” and avoids feeling hollow, though at times it feels lighter than it should.
“Alien: Covenant” does an excellent job showcasing the emotional tension that lies at the core of each characters’ motivations. But it misfires by depriving the audience of just enough real content to tether its exquisite and detailed visuals to anything of lasting value and impact.
“Alien: Covenant” finds Ridley Scott at his most ethereal. Viewers will leave this film, or its eventual DVD or streaming editions, with the feeling that something important exists here, although its substance is considerably harder to grasp.
“Alien: Covenant” is currently set to be released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on August 15, 2017.