Ah, the Xenomorph. The alien. H. R. Giger’s contribution to the pantheon of movie monsters is made of goo and glistening sinew; long, slender limbs, and an oblong cranium like a cyclist’s helmet. And that mouth! It’s all teeth and tongue, and another little head on a stalk, with its own razor-sharp gnashers. Since Ridley Scott’s 1979 original, a character in almost all of these movies has told us that the Xenomorph is the perfect organism. It’s evolved and adapted and perfected. Designed for a specific, singular purpose: To kill people in horror movies.
The Xenomorph is still interesting, and, despite its cultural ubiquity, sometimes still scary. It’s the abstract embodiment of cosmic phobia; the lanky amalgamation of every unknowable horror awaiting mankind in the bleak vastness of space. At least, it should be. But Prometheus, and now Covenant, the second in a planned trilogy of prequels designed to re-contextualise the original film, seem determined to give the Xenomorph the one thing it doesn’t need: Backstory. A mythos. A reason. A large part of why the spare minimalism of Alien worked is that it was devoid of reason. The alien was the what, but it was also the why.
In Covenant, the why is David, the philosophising android from Prometheus who, as we learn in a sterile, Kubrickian prologue, named himself after the exquisite poise and proportion of Michelangelo’s sculpture. He’s played, again, by Michael Fassbender, but given life by Weyland (Guy Pearce), a British scientist also borrowed from Prometheus. At Weyland’s request, David sits down to play Richard Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla”, entirely without irony. We meet him again, later, as the cowled steward of a dead planet, where he has tinkered and meddled with extraterrestrial life. He’s programmed not only to appreciate high-culture, but to be inquisitive, to ponder; he recognises his own inability to preserve his perfection for posterity, and has turned to creation of a different kind. Without the moral compass of a human being, though, his efforts are representative of a capricious, unfeeling creator-God. The aliens are his children. He strolls among their leathery eggs with his arms outstretched, as though he is running his fingertips through the wheat that inexplicably grows outside.
The audience is told none of this upfront, but it hardly constitutes a spoiler. David, with his effete manner, appreciation of nostalgic kitsch, insinuating sexuality and, indeed, his British accent, is nakedly the villain of the picture. So much so, in fact, that when the aliens arrive, in all their computer-generated splendour, they feel secondary to his finger-wagging condemnation of mankind’s recklessness. Through David, director Ridley Scott, who returns for the first time to a proper Alien film, hopes to highlight the hubris of manipulating nature, of ranging too far into the unknown. But his tools are blunt, his rhetoric too syrupy to convincingly flow. He offers commonplace existential conundrums as though they’re profound philosophical musings. The only surety his art offers is how it recognises art greater than itself, by artists greater than Scott. The neatest twist is the misidentification of a poet.
For what it’s worth, the Covenant is a ship, which, in 2104, is plying the distant reaches of space for a habitable planet, Origae-6. The voyage is long, and far from over, but a neutrino storm damages the craft and threatens the integrity of its atmosphere, so the crew – which includes two thousand colonists and another thousand incubated human embryos – are prematurely revived from suspended animation. The Covenant is supervised by Walter, another android played by Fassbender, this one with an American accent. Its captain (James Franco) is killed during the procedure, so his second-in-command, Oram (Billy Crudup), oversees the ship’s recovery. A nearby planet is broadcasting a transmission, and based on scans that indicate it might be even more hospitable to human life than even Origae-6, Oram orders a landing.
You can see where this is going, and so can most of the crew. The most vociferous opponent is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the captain’s widow. Her doubts surrounding Oram’s optimism are also the audience’s. The atmosphere on the planet turns out to be breathable, and the terrain contains water. Wheat grows there. But it also contains the hulking carcass of a ship left over from Prometheus; puffs of tiny alien spores; and David. Soon Walter and David, the virtually-identical androids, meet. They kiss. They fight. In one scene, David inserts the tip of a wooden flute into Walter’s mouth, and teaches him how to play. (“You have symphonies in you, brother.”) There are married couples on the Covenant – Franco and Waterston; Danny McBride and Amy Seimetz; Demián Bichir and Nathaniel Dean; Crudup and Carmen Ejogo – but the relationship this movie most cares about is the homoerotic one between Fassbender and Fassbender.
The weirdness of this relationship is, occasionally, its own kind of pleasure. That flute scene in particular veers towards true self-awareness, as a handsome Hollywood star essentially seduces himself. It’s the one strand of unique DNA twisting through Covenant, the thing that differentiates it from the other Alien movies. Everything else feels borrowed. This is a franchise that has always recycled settings and scenarios, and while the cynical would consider that a flaw, the fun for many people is the rigidity of the structure; seeing how each filmmaker plays the ritualised beats. Decrying its lack of ambition misunderstands the movie’s intentions. Space travel, at its core, might celebrate the spirit of adventure and discovery, the openness to new experiences, but Covenant has no intention of colonising new worlds. It’s a scenic tour of everything you’ve come to expect from an Alien movie. And when Covenant is content to simply be an Alien movie, it’s the best one since the first two.
Ridley Scott is one of our finest visual storytellers, and he imbues the sodden gloom of the dead planet, and the stark, antiseptic corridors of the Covenant, with a hushed dread. Both are superior horror-movie environments; not quite equal to the Nostromo from the first film or the abandoned colony from the second, but then again horror movie history provides few sets that are. What these spaces do, importantly, is encourage the kind of engagement that allows a viewer to divorce themselves from real-world logic and reason. And that’s a fine thing to do. Characters in this film do stupid things with such alarming regularity that it’d be impossible to enjoy the experience if you didn’t.
And the experience is still largely thrilling. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t diminish the creepiness, or temper the jolt you feel at the first alien attack, or the second, or the inevitable moment of betrayal, or the escape from a detonating set, or the second ending that arrives when you think the first one was enough. If you like this movie, its flaws will barely register. The flaws are there, of course, from the samey disposability of minor characters, to the refusal to develop the religious and existential dimensions beyond a facile acknowledgement of their presence. But the aliens are there, too. The technical mastery and the science-fiction spectacle and the big-budget bombast. It’s all there.
What’s also there, though, is too much explanation for a creature and a concept that have always functioned better without it. Whatever the Xenomorph might represent subtextually – sexual violence, unwanted impregnation, physical and emotional violation, a fear of the unknown and the unknowable – what it is, functionally, is an alien. An other. Covenant, like Prometheus before it, feels so bogged down in minutiae and mythologizing that it can’t match the deliberate dread of the first movie, or the visceral thrills of the second. The movie is interesting and engaging; it’s infused with a real sense of craftsmanship, and touches on so many of Ridley Scott’s personal obsessions – life and death, creation and destruction, parents and children, lust and love – that it feels like a summation of his entire identity. He just isn’t particularly likeable.
Scott’s wayward narrative ambition is weighty refuse that often sinks one of his better-directed movies. Alien: Covenant should be nimble, and sometimes is, but it’s frequently too ponderous to free itself from the reasty mires of its creator’s imagination. The fear and the excitement are still authentic, but everything else, much like David and Walter, is depressingly, inescapably synthetic. Scott’s most astute commentary on existence is that his own films so frequently lack the substance that might bring them to life.
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