In 2012 Ridley Scott revived the Alien franchise with Prometheus – a mildly effective but ultimately disappointing return to his xenomorph littered hellscape. The film reached for depths never even hinted at in the earlier films – attempting to expand the universe while raising intense philosophical debates about the birth of mankind. Scott’s signature anamorphic style was on display but his characters were so dumb, so unreasonable that it undercut the bigger, meatier questions that lurked underneath. I still defend Prometheus as a valiant attempt to wrestle with these questions while still being a summer horror blockbuster but it’s faults are apparent.
I suppose in several years I will be saying the same about Alien: Covenant – Scott’s new, direct sequel to Prometheus. It’s a film that simultaneously (and very satisfyingly) answers nearly every open question posed by its predecessor while we watch seemingly competent scientists and engineers make increasingly dumb decisions to wander off alone on a new, uninhabited planet.
The film opens on the good ship Covenant – a spacecraft carrying several thousand colonists to a new planet called Origae-6. Several of the ship’s crew are awoken from hyper-sleep when the ship suffers severe damage from a weird space energy blast – leaving them wondering what their next move is. The ship’s android Walter (Michael Fassbender) has been awake the entire journey and with roughly another decade to go before reaching their destination – discovers a human transmission coming from a nearby planet. After a brief discussion, the crew decides to investigate even knowing it’s impossible that any human would be this far out in the galaxy alone.
What they find isn’t so inviting. After the crew barely makes it through a hurricane to land they find a beautiful alien-landscape with tall wheat and other vegetation – stuff only found on earth. They embark on a journey to find the source of the transmission before returning on their journey.
It’s here where Prometheus rears its head in a big way. The crew discovers another Michael Fassbender after two crew members are infected by black airborne-spores and are quickly (and grotesquely) dispatched by newly hatched xenomorphs from their back and chest cavity. This Fassbender is David – the conniving android from the previous film who embarked on a journey to find the engineer’s home world with Noomi Rapace. After David saves the remaining crew from the blood-thirsty baby aliens he houses them in a massive old-ruins of the engineers’ civilization-past.
It’s here where Alien: Covenant piles the revelations on top of the eye-rolls. Every time David gives us insight into why we’re here and where we came from another crew member takes off alone to “get some air” or “rinse off.” It’s the worst and most obvious horror movie trope in the book – designed to manufacture suspense – but when it’s employed with not even a hint of irony it elicits the exact opposite response intended. The audience audibly groaned by the time Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) disappears down a dark corridor – the third crewmember to do so.
Still – it’s hard for me not to be in awe of Scott’s craft. The world of A:C is all at once grimy and wet yet stunningly widescreen and beautiful. He still, after all these years, has the ability to make your jaw drop with the vistas he captures then cover your eyes at the intense gore and viscera the xenomorphs traffic in. He truly is a master and can elevate even the silliest material (watch Exodus: Gods and Kings – for possibly the best example of this.)
Notice I have barely mentioned the cast? That’s because they are largely expendable, just littering the landscape as blood bags waiting to be popped. The only exception being Michael Fassbender, who revels in the opportunity to play off of himself. These scenes are the highlights, far more effective and introspective than the now completely CGI-xenomorphs (that now move like weightless bugs rather than the hulking menace from the 80’s.) It’s only with Fassbender where it’s truly revealed how dark and cynical the Alien-verse views humanity. To truly wrestle with that fact could’ve made Alien: Covenant a true classic (ironically in its current form it makes Prometheus a much more satisfying movie,) but alas this is a summer blockbuster that promises blood and screaming. It’s a shame because in space no one can hear you scream but they can see you wander off alone whispering that classic trope, “I’ll be right back.”