Alien Ate It
Alien: Covenant is a noticeable improvement over the previous entry, Prometheus, and since I liked Prometheus you’d think I’d like Alien: Covenant at least as much.
Funny thing, that…
We’re gonna get S*P*O*I*L*E*R*I*C*I*O*U*S in a couple of paragraphs, but to give folks a buffer, let’s discuss the underlying storyline first.
Like Prometheus before it, Alien: Covenant explicitly ties into the replicant laden world of Blade Runner and, by implication, the Predator franchise as well. For those keeping score at home, the internal chronological sequence of the three overlapping series of films (excluding the occasional flashback) is:
- Predator 
- The Predator [slated for 2018]
- Predator 2 
- Predators 
- Alien Vs Predator 
- Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem 
- Blade Runner 
- Blade Runner 2049 [slated for 2017]
- Prometheus 
- Alien: Covenant 
- Alien 
- Aliens 
- Alien3 
- Alien: Resurrection 
Alien: Covenant is the 8th film in the linked series that feature the Dan O’Bannon / Ron Shussett / H.R. Giger alien xenomorph creature/s.
The good news is it looks gorgeous, has a nifty spaceship (altho to me it seemed a mash-up of Battlestar: Galactica and the S.S. Valley Forge from Silent Running with some solar sails swiped from Star Trek Nemesis thrown on), takes the series in a few new directions, has a sufficient amount of boog-booga, and a nice snapper ending.
The not-so-good news is that while the film looks good, the characters are straight out of the Flash Gordon school of planetary exploration (more on that in a moment), none of the tech talk adds up, it already seems horribly dated, and a really great idea for a movie is thrown away by making it part of the Alien franchise (again, more on that later).
It exists not to tell its own story, but to amputate the gangrenous limb that was the Promethian (a.k.a. space jockey) storyline introduced in Prometheus and cauterize the wound so as not to have to ever revisit that concept again.
Where to begin,
where to begin…?
Let’s start with the Flash Gordon nonsense. Okay, it’s perfectly acceptable in the realm of space opera to land or beam down on a newly discovered world with no spacesuit, take a nice deep breath, proclaim “there’s air here”, then proceed to your main story without ever referring to microorganisms, spores, fungi, insects, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
But in the universe of the Alien franchise, there should be at least a nod in the direction of plausibility.
The Covenant is a colony ship with 2,000 frozen colonists, about 1200 frozen embryos, and a small crew on call that consists of the cast of a low budget lower tier cable channel’s PTA wives soap opera. In the context of their own universe they are not going to expose their colonists to any unresearched danger.
Indeed, the entire franchise is based on the concept of being hyperaware of the potential of deadly alien life forms (and not just xenomorphs).
The film actually has 2nd-in-command Branson (Katherine Waterston) raise this very issue only to be overruled by Captain Oram (Billy Crudup). Crudup’s reasons really don’t pass muster; the crew of the Nostromo in the first (by order of release) Alien film were expendable roughnecks contractually obligated to investigate a strange signal, not a valuable human cargo who needed to get to their destination unharmed.
(The easy solution would have been a line of dialog that indicated the ship’s systems were damaged badly enough that the possibility of failing in deep space was a real probability and as such they go to the heretofore undiscovered world [and more on that in a moment, too] because they’d lose all the hibernating colonists otherwise.)
In the original Alien film, the moon they land on is inhospitable-bordering-downright-hostile to any form of life; the Nostromo’s crew needs to venture forth in spacesuits and even that doesn’t protect them from your friendly neighborhood facehugger.
By Aliens the hostile moon was being terraformed -- and I’m nowhere near certain that Ridley Scott or most of his creative team understand that “terraforming” means transforming the atmosphere of a planet in order to make it hospitable to humans without spacesuits -- and the time line cited at the beginning of this post suggests either (a) the Weyland Corporation found the wrecked Promethian / space jockey ship and hid that fact from their colonists or (b) the ship activated itself and flew away (which apparently happens more often than one thinks in the Alien franchise universe) but not before leaving eggs for the colonists to find.
The point being that moon held no native life of its own in Alien and presumably the colonists of Aliens believed the world was sterile and, since it now lacked any potentially toxic atmospheric elements, safe to go out sans spacesuits / hazmat gear.
The other Alien films prior to Prometheus involve the xenomorphs inflicting themselves upon humans, rending the issue of possible biological contamination moot.
Now, the crew of the Covenant isn’t as brutally stupid in the exobiology department as the crew of the Prometheus -- no “trained biologist” whips off their spacesuit glove to stick their bare finger into some strange icky goo they just found -- but damn, they come close. They go down to the planet surface in a lander with no airlock, they wear no masks or protective gear, and yet the planet is literally jammed horizon to horizon with rich dense botanical life so the #&@%ing possibility that there might be potentially deadly microorganisms should have occurred to somebody!
But, no, just go stomping around in swampy land, kicking over toadstools, breathing in deeply when they see particles floating in the air.
These idiots are dumb enough to still be smoking cigars and cigarettes in the 22nd century (which in the closing credits 20th Century Fox is quick to deny represent paid product placement), so whatever criteria they’re using for selecting extraterrestrial colonists, common #&@%ing sense is apparently waaay down on the list…
Which leads to another problem with the entire series, but especially acute in Alien: Covenant: All the Alien related films are cast with contemporary crews.
By that I mean the Nostromo looked / talked / acted like working class stiffs from the 1970s, the marines of the U.S.S. Sulaco were post-Vietnam grunts and their corporate handler was a quintessential 1980s yuppie, the Prometheus was crewed with millennials, and the Covenant with the aforementioned lower-middle class red state PTA couples.
I halfway expected somebody to drag out a space helmet and announce a key party.
Now, it’s always difficult to create a believable sci-fi / fantasy culture for a film (altho Blade Runner certainly pulled it off), and the point of any Alien franchise movie is not how believable the characters’ culture is but rather how relatable they are in the face of a xenomorph menace, but c’mon already! Despite their shocking lack of exobiological safety precautions, the crew of the Prometheus was at least acutely aware of the enormity of the menace they uncovered and were willing to sacrifice themselves without hesitation to save humanity.
The crew of the Covenant just keeps making short sighted screw up after short sighted screw up, endangering themselves, their hibernating human cargo, and the galaxy as well.
Which brings us to a brief sidebar on weaponry in the Alien franchise: If the Covenant crew has access to small handheld lasers that can cut through steel cable in literally the blink of an eye, what are they doing with conventional firearms in the 22nd century and especially on a ship going to a world that is being terraformed and hence has no dangerous fauna to face? (Similar criticism for the marines of Aliens which takes place long after the events of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.)
And while we’re at it, the orbital mechanics of this movie are complete gibberish: The producers apparently thought a giant cargo ship could just hover stationary 80 miles above the planet’s surface and not be in constant motion.
And with the literally thousands of exo-planets being discovered today through conventional means, I find it very hard to believe that every solar system along the Covenant’s flight path hadn’t been thoroughly scouted and at least surveyed from orbit; there would be no overlooked paradises waiting to be found.
There’s a lot of elements and scenes in this movie that call back to Alien and Aliens and I’m gonna be kind and say that was deliberate prefiguring on director Ridley Scott’s part to retrofit it with other films in the series.
Doesn’t explain the alien-ambushes-couple-in-shower scene that appears to be lifted whole from Roger Corman’s Forbidden World (a better rip off of Alien than any of the sequels other than Aliens).
And speaking of that scene, the big action climax exists just to keep the audience from feeling cheated at the end of the movie. It really serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever and could easily be lost.
Which brings us to David 8 and Walter (both wonderfully played by Michael Fassbender) and the real story of Alien: Covenant.
I hated Alien 3 and I really hated Alien: Resurrection with an unholy passion. Bad enough they needlessly killed off first Newt and Hicks and then Ripley only to bring her back from the dead in a sci-fi cliché long past its expiration date, they really frosted me by having stories that not only didn’t make a lick of logical sense, but had no thematic core.
(Alien Vs Predator has no thematic core, either, but it never pretends to be anything other than a wall-to-wall monster fest ala House Of Frankenstein and they deliver the monsters!)
The saving grace of both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant is that both actually have very fascinating moral / philosophical cores that the rest of the film is built upon, and despite the ineptitude of certain plot points, those films resonate those themes in every scene, in every line of dialog.
I’ll forgive a lotta dumb if there’s some ray on intellect behind it (gawd, I even love Jason X a.k.a. Friday the 13th in space, because no matter how dumb it gets -- and boy howdy, does it get dumb! -- it’s also remarkably smart under all the stupidity).
The theme of Prometheus was a search for the meaning of existence, to find the origin of humanity and our purpose. Alien: Covenant starts with that, with a just-activated David 8 learning from his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) that his function will be to help humanity find that meaning and purpose (this is a flashback that obviously occurs several decades before the events of Prometheus, David 8 as an android being virtually immortal while Weyland succumbs to aging).
But just as the ship named Prometheus refers to the theme of that movie, so does the name Covenant refer to the theme of this film. The Bible refers to God’s covenant with Israel, erroneously referred to as “the law” or The Ten Commandments but in actuality a contract, a promise: If you want Me to be your God, do the following.
David 8 is having second thoughts about that offer.
The crew and colonists of the Covenant are looking for a new Eden, albeit never expressed explicitly in those terms. They do consciously harken to the pioneers of the American continents, an interesting reference since the Americas were colonized by Europeans quite literally atop the graves of tribes / cities / cultures / empires that originally occupied the hemisphere.
In Alien: Covenant the shipwrecked survivors of the landing party take refuge with David 8 (repaired from his massive damage in the previous film) in a literal necropolis based on the art of Arnold Bocklin.
It is the homeworld of the Promethians, but we learn they have been wiped out by a plague that David 8 quite deliberately unleashed on them when he flew the revived alien ship there after the events of Prometheus.
The “covenant” that Weyland imposed on David 8 is now null and void; David 8 has his own interests, his own agenda, and despite his obsequiousness holds nothing but contempt for the humans he must deal with.
David 8 makes a fascinating character turn in Alien: Covenant, rebelling not only against Weyland’s plans for him, but against the human race he has come to despise, and the Promethians who were responsible for the rise of humanity in the first place.
(If you remember Prometheus, the Promethians apparently had second thoughts about their creation and decided to do something about it after one of their number was crucified while trying to fix the problem; in the bioweapon they developed lays the origin of Giger’s xenomorphs.)
David 8 is a lot like Heath Ledger’s Joker: Yeah, he’s a murderous villain, but damn, he’s got a point!
Like his fellow android Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien, he identifies with the xenomorphs, who in their own unintelligible way are also trying to grapple with the meaning of their existence.
While Prometheus was a box office success, director Scott & co recognized they’d made a serious miscalculation by attempting to create a new storyline focused on the Promethians.
Audiences wanted their xenomorphs, and one such critter was added at the last moment, satisfying that urge in the audience.
Not wanting to risk box office failure by following the Promethian storyline through to its logical conclusion, Scott opted to tie off that bloody stump by simply killing every Promethian, thereby clearing the decks for pure human vs xenomorph conflicts (with the occasional predator thrown in).
Prometheus and Alien: Covenant both have great, thought provoking themes, but they’re not really Alien franchise stories.
Rather, they’re stories in which an existing franchise has been slapped on to increase audience recognition. (Kinda like what Robert E. Howard did when he realized his story “A Witch Shall Be Born” needed a little extra oomph and so threw Conan into the mix about a third of the way through it.)
Alien: Covenant’s story is about an android created for the purpose of finding purpose for human beings, and how he first chafes then rebels at the baseness of his creators and recognizes they have no purpose or value and so sets out to destroy them.
Great theme -- but it’s not what audiences really want in an Alien franchise. (What audiences want is Ripley -- or Newt, since Sigourney Weaver is no longer interested in the role -- leading a high tech dungeon crawl against Giger’s xenomorphs; you can change the locations, you can add new gimmicks and supporting characters, you can throw in all sorts of interesting ideas, but That Is What They Want.)
David 8 is now the Lucifer of the Alien franchise, and the potential for him to wreak more harm and havoc still exists. He’s an interesting character, and his personality is such that he loves talking about his plans and why he’s doing it, and Fassbender is a marvelous actor so you can give him pages of info dumps and the audience will eat it up.
I don’t think they’ve fixed the problems the Alien franchise has -- not yet, anyway -- but I do think they’ve found a way to fix them. Despite its flaws, Alien: Covenant has put the franchise back on sounder footing than its had since…well…since Alien Vs Predator (and Lordy, that ain’t sayin’ much!).
I hope they do well with it.