Tense anticipation describes the sentiment of Alien: Covenant’s pre-premiere marketing season, and torrential amounts of fresh speculation ensued after the London showing stirred more excitement. And yet, even as a Prometheus/Alien superfan, I’m here to tell you that I walked away from Covenant in an oddly unsettled state. But, before I get to the bottom of the shortfalls, I’ll start with the movie’s successes.
The movie hits the right spots, in the nods and the new. Several obvious homages satisfy the basic franchise retention requisites; the return to the insular horror of 79, the rattling chains, lots of musical cues, the gritty fear…then the terraforming bay’s vehicles and their magnetic boots nodding Aliens and even Alien3’s Xenomorph-POV camera.
The awesome space shots of the ship at orbiting distance, including the repair scene, felt like a beautiful but necessary leap to the level of more current films such as Gravity and Interstellar.
I loved when we heard Daniels instruct another crew member not to shoot the aliens if they could help it because the acid would eat through the hull. I don’t recall hearing anyone from any Alien movie express verbal cognizance of that (so very necessary) lesson learned, so that was neatly satisfying.
With the growing story elements that Prometheus brought us, we see more of the Engineers and their technology, coupled with the massively influential arc of David. It is with his character that Prometheus not only generated some of its own best creative success, but paved the way for some pretty wild things to happen later.
The exchanges between David and Walter, particularly their first, is easily one of the most satisfied moments of expectation of what their interaction would have/could have provided. Their dialogue has the potential to be cemented as a new-classic AI scene, and is also the best example of how strong I feel the David element is within our dear Alien franchise at this point. AI interaction is always a cool platform and the big brother/little brother dynamic between Fassbender’s two android characters delivers big.
There’s a very Apocalypse Now sort of vibe to David, and I use the movie and not Conrad’s book for a reason. Not only did I find the parallel to the film in David’s character with a completely “lost touch”, end-of-the-river despotism only possible with extended solitude with naught, but one’s wildest and capable ambitions, but I saw Coppola’s visual substance in the darkened, earthen appearance of two of David’s rooms. The “study” room with all of his zoological specimens and paper drawings aflutter looked the part as well as the fountain/bathing room where Tess Haubrich’s Rosenthal meets a grisly demise at the hands of David’s “pet” Neomorph. The primitive, open air feel of the space along with the very low orange-amber light made me think of the bug-infested, nightmare-reminiscent bedroom setting where Captain Willard and Brando’s Kurtz first speak face to face.
David at one point describes to Walter how no one can “understand the lonely perfection” of his dreams and his teary confession leads to a intimate moment where the tragedy he speaks of seems to manifest his urge to kiss Walter. This moment drew wildly varying reactions from both of the audiences I watched with – why the sight of two male-oriented robots kissing in a work of fiction set almost 100 years in the future would elicit chortling and disgust is hard to fathom.
And I’d be remiss to not only acknowledge the weight of the moment of their kiss, but with Lope and Hallet, also the first inclusion of a same-sex couple in an Alien film. This feels commendable as a way of bringing a more accurate representation of the Earth’s diversity, not only as characters but as a believable component of a colonist effort.
A specific point that I was very happy to have seen was learning some sort of definitive knowledge about the pathogen and its nature. We find out that the Engineers’ weaponized pathogen was made to specifically eradicate all non-botanical life…”the meat”, as David explains. He goes on to talk about the basic science of the virus, describing that there were many variations of the original recipe whose particles atomised after exposure to air. This is an all-too-quick acknowledgement to me, as it moves past discussion of the full scope of the accelerant-pathogen and those different physical incarnations, methods of infection, etc. I can appreciate these variants of existing story aspects in the fast way they’re presented but I know for a fact more time could have been very easily taken in the name of greater detail.
One interesting thing said that closes off certain arguments while opening others was David saying he learned that the pathogen was designed to either kill outright, as you saw on a horrific mass scale when he bombs the Engineers, OR by creating an incubating host for a hybrid form.
So now the evolution of the first Xenomorph creature is way less of a mysterious accident than Prometheus made it seem, since we’ve unmuddled enough to understand that the Engineers knew that hybridised/new life would result from the pathogen’s use.
The shot of David overlooking the Engineers below as the pathogen vials are moved into launch positioning shows him to be tearing up, which was not the case in the footage of “The Crossing.” Whether his eyes are welling up with rage or if there’s some shred of real-time regret being evinced is explored in this interview with Ridley Scott.
I like that the reasons that Scott gives for the Engineers wanting to wipe us out, aka Dr. Shaw’s big to-do from Prom, are as actual as the actual state of things outside the movie theater- in reality. This is why they would seem to be disappointed enough with the way we (at large) have wreaked destructive havoc with the planet itself and come to a place of such ethical degradation as to justify complete destruction of our species.
The music of Covenant has a much more strings-oriented orchestral touch than the many dramatic, sweeping brass-based themes of Prometheus, not to mention Covenant’s distinct inclusion of more processing and electronic sounds than its predecessor. It’s a very sinister and tense score where even the few uplifting songs such as Chest Burster remain mired in the horror of their context onscreen. Also, worthy of our attention here are the strewn-about bits of Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score throughout Covenant.
Indeed, music’s role is enormous in the film(s) with cultural references from Wagner, John Denver, Byron and Shelley’s Ozymandias from Covenant and in Prometheus, Lawrence of Arabia, both David’s watching it and quoting it later as well as Janek’s namedrop of Stephen Stills and the twice-sung choral refrain from one of his songs.
Wielding music as a plainly effective device was one of my more personal celebrations with Prometheus…and now, with Covenant. The moment that started with my initial admiration was when that Engineer co-pilot picked up a flute to fire up their flight controls. How cool that a race of their technological superiority would use a simple flute, or rather, the sound of a short melodic phrase, to activate the ship’s computer.
I’d be remiss not to mention the sources of my discontent.
It’s not that Covenant feels rushed, but that the movie rushes. I don’t mind the fast pace; things get very out of hand very quickly and in the context of the audience experience, I think that’s fine. But given what Covenant is maintaining of Prometheus; the Engineers, the accelerant/pathogen, David’s insidiousness…the fact that there feels like there are quite a few chunks of story that arguably should’ve been explained more thoroughly creates difficulty. And that said, it is very difficult to walk out of the theater after seeing Covenant the first time and not feel unsure about it.
Perhaps my most primary concern was how cursory so much of the time spent dealing with the story’s twists and turns felt. There is way too much meat on the story-bones of Prometheus that Covenant just doesn’t bite off enough of.
Starting at the beginning, none of the camaraderie shown in the “Last Supper” prologue is present for more than seconds before the events lead to group friction. And the friction suffices, but it would’ve been so much more beneficial to have expressed the characters in their original intactness just a little bit before things go to pot.
Crudup’s character Oram, although entirely and deliberately pitiful, provides some real tension not unlike the confrontational way that Parker and Brett dealt with the rest of the Nostromo crew. I would’ve liked to have observed Oram’s personality in the capacity of his original rank and position before the fates rendered him the Covenant’s new fearful leader.
One hardly gets a good sense of what would have been the actual colonization mission that they were sent on originally. Obviously, those plans are derailed long before possible execution, but the audience hardly gets any sense of Company connectivity.
One of my few liked aspects of Cameron’s Aliens was the way we saw some of the “desk action” of the corporate entity responsible for an entire movie before it and for the expansion of the movie it began. Suddenly, there are formalities to abide, and then loopholes to be found. Multiple motives come into play as people of high position within The Company manipulate the pawns – both publicly and secretly. I thought, particularly with David already as central to the Xenomorph’s evolution as he is, that it should’ve been a very natural move to bring more of Weyland-Yutani into Covenant at this point, but alas.
The other omission that bugs me more is the total lack of depth in exploring the Engineers more. When the crew is walking through the droves of massacred Engineer corpses, only one of them musters a “what happened here?” Their name isn’t even said. In my opinion, a scientific, a professional and obvious interest on the character’s behalf should have found more footing than that paltry one-line question, but nonetheless did David perhaps eliminate our chances of knowing any more about the Engineers. We can only wish for secrets he’s kept to divulge later. It is my hope that this instance and one or two more yet undiscussed are NOT a result of a deliberate quasi-distancing of AC’s new threads from the intricate spindle of Prometheus. And to my chagrin I am, after two viewings of Covenant, still unconvinced that this is not the case. But I digress.
Alien Covenant is a good film. It has a lot on its plate, and it does an arguably admirable job of sampling everything. However, there remains a great deal of deducing still to be done. The script has a few flaws and plenty of the timeline needs attention.
The good news is that I had fewer qualms after the second viewing, and so for those of us who relished repeated viewings of Prometheus with a little more time and patience – as well as one or two more prequel-sequels – we’ll learn to appreciate Covenant for what it has brought to the franchise.