The first trailer to Alien: Covenant worried me a little bit. Having two pivotal death scenes thrown in your face was pretty bad, but what had me concerned was how this trailer seemed to connect the same dots laid out by the original Alien.
Blue-collar workers in space? Check. Gross, slimy egg hatching? Check-a-roo. Baby alien bursting out of some poor chap? Yup. Screaming in space? You heard it.
I prepared for a blatant rehash of Ridley Scott’s original horror. That wouldn’t have necessarily made for a bad movie (it worked for Star Wars) but given how radically different the prequel Prometheus was, it would have been a damn shame if they decided to pull an intergalactic U-turn. I didn’t want the two hours I spent with the boneheaded Prometheus crew to be for nothing.
Thankfully, Covenant is not quite the film the trailers suggested. It stamps its intent right from the opening – not with a cheap jump scare, but a simple scene showing a synthetic being’s first steps into existence. He questions himself (David played once again by Michael Fassbender). He questions his creator (Peter Weyland played once again by Guy Pearce). He questions his creator’s creator (presumably a bald blue man with a killer abdomen).
Those questions are difficult enough for a human to process. How could that curiosity mutate in the minds of the creatures we’ll eventually create? It’s fairly reasonable to assume that the beauty in creation Weyland saw isn’t exactly the same as the beauty David discovered. He took the ideals of his creator and warped it into something more frightening. If we human beings have or had a creator, what’s to say we haven’t warped their ideals, too?
Great sci-fis have explored questions that the modern world cannot explore, and Covenant is at its best when it mines this territory. It really says something when one of the biggest highlights is neither shocking nor gory, but a quietly chilling sequence about love, learning, flirting, and fluting.
Unfortunately, Covenant doesn’t go all that deep into this unsettling philosophy, choosing to save more of David’s journey for future Alien films. I would’ve preferred his story laid out in one feature rather than have it bleed over numerous ones, but I can understand the marketing sense behind making this plot episodic.
Audiences don’t exactly associate the Alien series with ‘existential musings’. Blood needs to gush and a dildo beast need to jack-in-the-box out of someone’s bone cage.
There are effective segments of horror, especially during the backburster scene. Not only was one of the crew – Karine – trapped in a room with that thing, her frightened co-worker – Faris – was the one who locked the door. Sure, Faris did some stupid stuff that got them all killed, but actor Amy Seimetz sold the panic so well that I doubt I would’ve behave differently in her shoes.
(The same can’t be said for Billy Crudup’s Oram. I haven’t a clue why he was so trusting of David after what he saw him do. Oram’s stupid face deserved a hugging.)
There are a couple of other well-executed moments of dread, but the whole film doesn’t commit to being a horror. The xenomorphs in Covenant aren’t a looming threat throughout the film – there aren’t many of them, they can be effectively killed by the crew, and they had a whole planet to use as cover.
Compare this to the other Alien films. Ridley Scott’s original Alien presented a threat that was constantly present, its strength superior to the almost defenceless crew, and was seemingly all around them in the tight confines of a ship they couldn’t evacuate. James Cameron’s Aliens outnumbered, outsmarted and overwhelmed the marines, making it feel like the surviving few didn’t have a shit show of escaping. Even Alien 3 and Resurrection, regardless of how you may feel about them, presented the xenomorphs as threats you cannot fuck with.
Covenant shows that – actually – you can fuck with them, not just as bullet fodder for the crew but also as biological experiments for David. By serving the theme of Man rising to the powers of God, it saps a lot of the power we placed on the xenomorphs. That’s ultimately what makes Covenant both a fresh Alien film and an unsatisfying horror flick.
In trying to be the film Alien fans want and the film Prometheus wanted to be, Covenant ends up nerfing both sides of that record. The result feels less like a masterful studio album and more of an entertaining This is What I Call Alien Vol 17 with some experimental bonus tracks thrown in.
The iconic chest-bursting scene in Alien? Well, here’s one coming out of a dude’s spine.
Ripley’s badass crane-loader faceoff in Aliens? Let’s chuck in a battle with Katherine Waterston’s Daniels controlling a crane arm.
Did you think the cat-like xenomorph in Alien 3 was kinda cool? We’ve got more of those AND we even Newt-ed James Franco for you.
Remember the strange mother-child relationship Clone Ripley had for her alien? Now we have daddy David teaching his baby chestburster how to raise the roof.
Bonus track: two Fassbenders blowing and fingering a phallic instrument.
Perhaps we’re transitioning to something more ambitious by escaping the franchise’s horror roots and getting mass audiences prepared for something drastically different. If that’s the case, then Covenant might eventually be regarded as the teething pains phase of this new series. And I’d be happy with that.
I still haven’t thought of an excuse for Prometheus.