The gods and monsters of Alien: Covenant
This review contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant.
As the gorgeous colony ship ‘Covenant’ drifted through space in the opening of Alien: Covenant, I heard the voice of Jeff Goldblum in my head. The moment of awe was replaced with the quote from The Lost World: Jurassic Park, “Ooo ah, that’s how it always starts, but then later there’s the running … and then screaming.”
Covenant is the sixth Alien film (condolences to Alien verses Predator and AVP: Requiem) and it clicks with the formula of the series like a rollercoaster beginning its slow ascent before the drop. As each human character was introduced, I wondered which part of their bodies a xenomoph would blast out of. When they visit the cargo hold to check the equipment, I pondered which piece of machinery was going to be used as a weapon to defeat an alien. There’s a signal coming from an unidentified planet; they’re landing on its surface before I have a chance to question whether they would. And, as anticipated, all the elements of what’s become expected of an ‘Alien film’ fall into place in a regimented way by the hand of the director who started it all, Sir Ridley Scott.
But then something wonderful happened. From the ashes of a pseudo Alien retread, a stunning Ridley Scott film rose, which leverages the franchise’s canon into bold, existential ideas about artificial intelligence and the relationship between gods and monsters; fathers and sons.
In 2041, pioneers are on a mission to colonise a planet with two-thousand people in hypersleep, a thousand embryos and one synthetic, Walter (Michael Fassbender) overseeing the Covenant while they snooze. When a shockwave hits the ship, key crew members awaken to repair the damage. While fixing the ship, they pick up signal from a nearby planet and decide its viable to explore for the new colony. Once there, the crew discover, David (Fassbender), a surviving crew member of the ‘Prometheus’ mission, and the dangers of the local flora and fauna.
Between Prometheus and Covenant, Scott has pivoted the Alien series from focusing on the relentlessness of death in a spook-house spaceship; to musing on the origins of life in the universe. Scott is on the cusp of turning 80, and he’s enlivened both films with a search for justification for our place in the cosmos that comes with a person of his vintage.
In the opening scene of Covenant, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) awakens his synthetic android (Fassbender) for the first time; Scott frames the introduction on an eye, a shot that’s identical to Blade Runner, as if show which way he’s leaning sci-fi wise. Weyland has his creation look upon Michelangelo’s David statue and he names himself after it. Weyland asks David to play him a tune on the piano and David chooses Wagner’s ‘Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla’. Weyland is critical of David’s choice commenting that it lacks impact without a full orchestra; seconds old and David is already getting the tough love. The conversation then moves to David’s consciousness and he says to Weyland: “You seek your creator. I am looking at mine. You will die. I will not.”
David’s immortality offends Weyland and he asks the perceptive being he just created, and imbued with infinite knowledge, to fetch tea. David goes from sentient to servant, his father is fickle and it’s symbolic of the lack of care associated with creating life on the grounds of ‘because we can’. Covenant, working as a sequel to Prometheus, gives us the context of the beginning of David’s story arc to do his father’s bidding on the Prometheus mission and his mantra towards parenthood. Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper get a chance to refine the muddled nature of Prometheus, which is now framed as a prologue to Covenant, and it works to the benefit of both films by shifting the focus to David.
In Prometheus, David is a company man – literally, the logo is on his fingerprints – who manipulates the crew into leading his dad closer to finding the Engineers who created life on Earth. “If they made us, they could save us,” Weyland says before going to meet an Engineer in the finale – he wants the immortality he envies in David. Little does Weyland know that like giving David drink orders, the Engineers treat their ability to create life across the universe as no big deal and have bioengineered a weapon to wipe us out: because they can. The black goo from Prometheus when combined with human DNA, does icky things and the seeds of the xenomorph are sown in the form a megafauna face-hugger.
When David appears in Covenant, he looks more like a castaway than his idol, Peter O’Toole (he’s shown studying Laurence of Arabia in Prometheus). The crew of the Covenant learn the hard way that the planet has been compromised by the Engineer’s black goo and spores of the substance invade the body via nostrils and ear canals. ‘Neomorphs’ explode out of backs and mouths, Scott makes their arrival gnarly and exciting once again, especially considering the creatures have been using chests like a fire exits for the past two decades. The new alien designs are horrifying sacks of skin with the iconic protrusions of H. R Giger’s original alien design. It’s revealed that David is living in a city on the home world of the Engineers that has become a mausoleum because the population has been wiped out by their own bio-weapon that was discharged on purpose by the synthetic. Scott shows David living amongst the petrified corpses of the Engineers in their dying moments, which looks reminiscent of the ancient bodies found at Pompeii.
Covenant slowly becomes a nightmare and the halls of David’s home have a gothic aesthetic. There’s a lab where David tinkers that looks like a botanist’s quarters from the 1800s; the walls are covered with sketches of creatures and there are jars with petrified organs. David has become twisted after triggering a genocide. It’s a stunning revelation that David has destroyed the gods of his creator in an act of rage. There are echoes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus; see what Scott did there?), and even Pinocchio but without the redemption of a wayward son. David kills his father’s dream by wiping out the answer to questions about the existence of mankind. In turn, David is not content with settling the score with his pop, he must now create life of his own, but it’s far more sinister. Humans become vessels for David’s children. Mankind must be destroyed to birth the android’s own creation: the face-hugger and xenomorph. David even has a creepy basement where all his creations live and he lures people to investigate like Mrs Voorhees from Friday the 13th., David’s plan re-propositions human existence by defining us as incubators, a major step down from what we perceive of ourselves, as creatures with souls, and our ability to create the great art David first sees when he’s born in the film’s opener. The entire human race has the potential to be cannibalised while David retains his immortality as the superior being – he becomes a lone god. Fassbender gives a stunning performance as David while also playing a dual role as Walter.
And while getting engrossed in the ideas at play in Covenant, those pesky alien elements still keep crashing the story. Once the iconic black alien creature was on the loose it had the visibility of a giant balloon in a parade and failed to generate terror. The irony is that Covenant is let down by the trappings of the Alien franchise. Even Katherine Waterson, whose character, Daniels, rises above a mostly same-same crew (Danny McBride is the other exception), looks a lot like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley if you tilt your head a little. Daniels slots into the plot perfectly because a tragedy early in the film leaves her questioning the purpose of the Covenant’s mission, which is a Noah’s Ark like act of pioneering across the galaxy. What’s the point to kickstarting life on another world when you’ve got nothing to live for? Daniels is empowered by pushing past her grief to fight back when David goes mad.
Covenant is only as strong as the sum of its Alien parts and they’re labored over the course of six films. But Scott still conjures engaging and terrifying ideas built around sci-fi concepts, and remarkably, elevates Prometheus into a stronger footing as a predecessor to Covenant; they complement each other wonderfully. Giger’s alien design was once nightmare fuel but in Covenant it’s David’s synthetic grin that provokes unease.
The Popcorn Junkie