I walked out of Alien: Covenant a little disappointed. At first, I thought this was a classic case of having seen one too many of the film’s promotional trailers. For example, seeing the shower attack scene before I saw it in the actual film robbed it of much of its impact in the cinema. There’s also an issue with the Alien creatures themselves in this film and the way they’re treated. They’re not particularly scary. Dangerous? Yes. Vicious? Oh hell yeah. There are buckets of gore in this film. It’s as if Scott was desperately trying to apologise for not quite having enough rib-cracking, chest-busting violence in Prometheus. But while this film kills off its cast with fairly satisfying regularity for a flick of this kind, there’s little by way of skin-crawling tension.
So yeah, a little disappointed, perhaps, simply that there wasn’t quite enough of the Xenomorph, Neomorph, or Deacon (which sounds like an awful party game) stalking its prey with implacable, unrelenting ferocity.
I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself, though.
Given that this is a Spoiler Alert piece, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, then you’ve either already seen the film, or don’t really care about spoilers. Here’s a quick little plot primer just in case you’re the latter…
Ten years after the folks of the Prometheus got themselves slaughtered, the good ship Covenant sets off with a new crew of fifteen and a cargo of two thousand colonists and many more frozen embryos, bound for Origae-6. It’s a planet seemingly stuffed with trappings suitable for human existence, with the catch being that it’ll take the best part of a decade to get there. With the crew rudely awakened from their space sleep by a cosmic storm, a rogue transmission – deciphered as John Denver’s Country Roads – alerts them to a nearby planet that seems an even better fit for their colonisation efforts.
Down they go, only to find a bunch of black spores that infect a few of them, leading to some rib-cracking, spine-shanking escapades by the new Bloodburster, the destruction of the colony ship’s only proper shuttle, and a night-time shootout filled with lots of screaming and shaky camera work. What’s left of the crew are saved by David, the skin-job from Prometheus, who has survived the past decade, and made a home for himself in amongst a grand arena filled with crumbling horrors. Questions abound, both from the shellshocked crew and we viewers in the audience, and Alien: Covenant goes about answering them pretty quickly.
It turns out that David, obsessed with the relationship between creator and creation, has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, believing himself to be thoroughly superior to humans. With that in mind, it is revealed that he’s spent the last decade breeding aliens, and trying to perfect the body-shattering reproductive cycle that the black liquid and its variants can create. Elizabeth Shaw is dead, her body used to rear a Neomorph that David is trying to train like some sort of weird pet. Until Billy Crudup fills it with bullet holes, that is. David is not amused by this.
The skin-job is the true villain of the piece here. Ridley Scott provides us with some absolutely breathtaking cinematography, especially when it comes to the ruins of the Engineer homeworld, and the monuments to their abrupt genocide at the hands of the rogue synthetic. But the director is perhaps a little too preoccupied with his Blade Runner-esuqe ruminations on the nature of creation.
That being said, Fassbender plays a blinder as David, keeping the synth’s disgust for his creators simmering just below the surface in every scene he shares with a human character. His double performance as David and as Walter, the Covenant’s own synthetic crew member, is absolutely brilliant. Walter is a version or two on from David, with a stripped-back and pared-down personality. He is designed to be a little more mechanical, more obviously a machine. Walter is not designed to think or learn by himself, something David takes pleasure in corrupting in a scene where he teaches his brother to play the flute. ‘I’ll do the fingering,’ he says, the sexual tension in the air so thick you could slice it with one swipe of a Xenomorph’s tail.
But when the inevitable showdown between David and Walter arrives, it’s hard not to wonder what film one is actually watching. Much like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant seems like a melting pot of curious ideas and brand incentives, that sometimes seem to be at odds with one another. It’s a shame really that Scott, a director with decades of astonishing visual prowess, coughs up his grand philosophical debate in the form of a (manufactured) man having a conversation with a version of himself. Everything and everyone else, the Xenomorph and its various derivations included, are really just bit players waiting to die.
The crew of the Covenant are barely characters at all, mostly just fodder. Billy Crudup’s ill-equipped, acting-captain, Oram, is supposedly a man of God. Asking if there’s a place for God out beyond the stars on the hunt for creators who seemingly tried to annihilate their creation is an interesting thing to do, but I’m pretty sure that got covered with Elizabeth Shaw in the last film. Scott remembers that once he has introduced Oram, because we never really hear a peep about his faith again after that.
To be honest, I can’t help but feel that fifteen characters is too many. Alien had seven…eight if you include Jones the cat. I can remember how each one of them dies. They all had worth, their deaths carried weight and were felt. Here, it just seems like we’re ticking them off a list. More than anything, Alien: Covenant almost feels like sort-of-well-known actors making a fan film. When will Jamal from Empire have his glorious death? Doesn’t Katherine Waterston do an excellent Ripley impersonation? The ending itself is plagiarised straight from Aliens, but is rushed and truncated, and offers none of the tension or eventual catharsis of the 1986 classic.
There are some wonderfully gross bits of body horror, I guess, but the pacing is all over the place. There’s a sense of impatience to all of this. Nothing is allowed to linger, things happen pretty quickly; after all, there are fifteen crew members to get through. Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than with the terrible retconning of the Facehugger gestation period. It’s important that the Facehugger of yore sits on its victims face for hours, if not days, before disappearing all of a sudden, and then reanimating its host for a brief but noticeable period before chests are burst. It prolongs the baffled terror for bystanders and companions, and even for us, as audience members who now surely know what will happen, there’s a sense of satisfyingly chilling dramatic irony. Oh shit, guys, noooooo. They’re gonna pop at any moment!
But in Alien: Covenant, Oram has his face hugged and chest busted all within a very short space of time. The act itself is important: this is how David creates the perfect organism. This is how the Xenomorph comes into being. But the forced rapidity makes no sense and has zero real impact, even if we do get a funny little scene where a petulant and impatient David throws pebbles at Oram’s head.
The levity is a welcome element, especially when compared to the perhaps overly-serious Prometheus, and there are a few little jokes and attempts to recapture the improvised crew banter that made the first film so enjoyable. But this film could desperately use someone like the late, great Bill Paxton to inject a little bit of charisma into proceedings. Hell, at least Prometheus had Big ‘Dris. To be fair, Danny McBride does his best with what little he is given as pilot Tennessee, but he’s babysitting the sleeping colonists for most of the movie, and in all honesty his biggest defining characteristic is a hat.
Yet again, Alien: Covenant resembles one of those playlists you get in high street clothes stores: the ones with modern hit music, inexplicably covered by other, less good bands and supposedly rising singers. The banter is flat, the action derivative, the characters amalgamations or just plain shadows of others who have gone before (well…technically after, given these are prequels). This film could desperately use someone like Michael Biehn or Yaphet Kotto or Jenette Goldstein to help balance out Fassbender. Charles Dance, we need you! In the end, you’re sort of just hoping David kills them all. The sleeping colonists also offer far less in terms of emotional stakes for us as audience members than a Jones or a Newt. Even Prometheus offered us something sort of new with its utterly bat-shit insane Trilobite birth and subsequent live-action Engineer hentai.
Despite its name, Alien: Covenant is at its best when its pretending to be Blade Runner. But it delivers its twists and turns and intellectual musings in heavy-handed fashion, leaving no room for confusion. This is a problem. For as much as it might be nice to get a little clarity on the questions posed by the series as a whole, do we need to see David gleefully bombing the Engineers out of existence when the crumbling mausoleum fulfils that much more effectively early on, and still leaves enough to send the imagination spinning? Do we need to see Shaw’s body, torn asunder, her humanity shredded in the name of David’s science, and rage? The film telegraphs the final twist – that it is David and not Walter – with such obviousness that I was (silently) yelling at the buffoons onscreen throughout the last act. But Scott still felt it necessary to deliver an absolute reveal, just in case we hadn’t realised.
Perhaps that’s the biggest disappointment of all. That Alien: Covenant treats its audience like idiots.
Still, there’s comfort in watching a by-the-numbers film. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get anything out of it, if only because it dishes out its deaths in well-worn, tried-and-tested ways. I just wish this was as interested in being an Alien film as its title suggests. At least the Fassbender on Fassbender pantomime of androids is the stuff of character-shipping dreams.