*NOTE: All spoilers are contained in the Narrative and Themes sections.
I can’t remember the last time I paid to see a horror film in theaters, but when we’re talking about science fiction involving one of the most iconic movie monsters in horror history, you can be sure I got a ticket for opening weekend. I’ve been terrified by aliens since I was a kid, since I first watched X-Files and Predator, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Fire in the Sky, and of course Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. Not even my world-weary perspective on the general degradation of entertainment couldn’t prevent me from seeing this newest film in the franchise, especially with Scott returning as director. I wanted nothing more than for this franchise to come full circle and return to the sweaty, greasy, claustrophia and body horror of the first movie.
Now, Alien: Covenant has been called a return to form. The level to which I agree with that statement I shall try to explain over the course of this review. The film does serve as a kind of hybrid between the high ideas and exploratory themes of Prometheus and the visceral dread and body horror of the original Alien. In Alien, the ordinary crew of the Nostromo hardly asked any questions. Theirs was a pursuit of simple survival. In Prometheus, most of the film is occupied by scientists asking questions of the universe, and not really finding any. Prometheus was a divisive film most likely because of this open-endedness. Covenant retains a lot of this feeling of curiosity from Prometheus but its action-scenes, climax, and most terrifying moments are definitely Scott’s Alien.
Those interested in seeing Covenant should take note of this. It’s not entirely an Alien film. Scott famously (infamously) admitted that there are no Xenomorphs in this movie. Rather, Covenant feels at times like a “greatest hits” compilation of Xenomorph moments we’ve already seen over the past thirty years. Given, the writers played around with the idea of the space parasite a little more in Covenant, with different variants of the Xenomorph bursting from different parts of the human body and the black ooze of the Engineers tearing it up, but it’s essentially not new ground. The climax of the movie will undoubtedly feel reminiscent of Alien and Sigourney Weaver’s fight for her life, as just one example of the fusing of two films together in Covenant.
I’m still mulling over whether this strategy of placing Covenant between Prometheus and Alien without dedicating it to either one will go over well with fans. I’ll go so far as to guess that fans of Alien will wish there was more emphasis on the creatures, and fans of Prometheus (if indeed there are any) will look forward to another coming film to help fill in more unanswered questions.
Let it be said that I personally liked Prometheus alright. I’m not concerned about catching any flak for that since I thought it had several issues and was confusing at times thanks to some editing, but it had some good moments (gotta love that alien c-section scene!) and some cool ideas and concepts. It wasn’t a great film but it was an interesting one. That’s usually what I demand, at least, from science fiction. Alien, on the other hand, is a legendary film that I greatly respect, so I’m coming in from that perspective of appreciating that first entry as the pinnacle of this franchise.
The plot follows the basic Alien format. In 2104, an expedition of colonists aboard the USCSS Covenant are headed across the universe to a distant planet but along the way a disaster occurs while they’re in hibernation. Awakened by the event, they discover a signal coming from a nearby planet. They decide to investigate and come across a previously unknown planet with an atmosphere and plantation familiar to Earth.
Two of the colonists become rapidly ill on the planet and they soon become incubators for parasitic aliens which burst from their bodies. The crew is quickly overpowered but they’re rescued by a strange refugee and taken to a safe haven, the ruins of an ancient alien city. Things are not what they seem, however, as the savior that took them in eventually reveals his nefarious ambitions and the colonists are terrorized by new alien lifeforms, the Neomorphs and the Protomorphs.
I was somewhat leary about the variant Xenomoprhs which Covenant introduced. Past variants in previous films involving the aliens have been hit or miss, and some have been downright silly. Yes, I’m thinking about the Predalian, but there’s also the short-lived Human/Alien hybrid. Lest we forget.
However, Covenant makes both of these new variants pretty horrifying. The Protomorph is, as its name suggests, a genetic progenitor of the familiar Xenomorph, with only slight differences in its physiology, especially as an adolescent. As an adult, it looked more muscular and less mechanical than the classic Xenomorph.
The big variant is the Neomorph. These things are real nightmare-fuel. They’re the earliest alien predators seen in the film but they may end up being the most memorable. Imagine a gigantic, pale-skinned leech with a skeletal body that’s more feral than the Xenomorph. On second thought, don’t imagine that. It’s horrible.
The way in which Covenant presents these variants and uses them to establish a developmental history for the Xenomorph is fascinating. Since the original Alien we as audiences have wondered where these beasts have come from. Merely adding layers to their biology like a Queen or other variants, or introducing genetic engineering or the black ooze, further complicated the question but I think that Covenant is the film which just about comes up with a decisive answer.
Covenant takes a long time to get going, at least that’s the general consensus. It opens with a conversation between the synthetic David (from Prometheus, played by Michael Fassbender) and his creator Peter Weyland (also from Prometheus, reprised by Guy Pearce). Opening with a long conversation may put off some people who were expecting a more fast-paced action sci-fi film but this scene is golden. It sets the tone of the film and establishes its themes, namely David’s fascination with creativity which eventually becomes an obsession.
The scene apparently takes place shortly after David’s creation and he and Weyland discuss the nature of art and creativity, and ponder the question of who or what created man. Weyland expresses that he disbelieves that humanity is here merely as the result of random processes in the universe over billions of years, as that renders the human experience and all of human achievements as ultimately hollow.
For David’s part, the synthetic wonders at his relationship to his creator, as Weyland wonders at his relationship to his. David realizes that Weyland is human and will die, whereas he, an android, will not. The unspoken challenge floats in the air: then why should David serve him? I ate that scene up. That is science fiction at its best and it frames the entire film with a question about our origins, the question.
Beyond that, I thought it lingered a little too long on the relationships between the colonists, without actually making them interesting, but once the crewmembers land on the unknown planet, it’s practically a frantic mad-dash till the end. Along the way, the film is punctuated by intense acting with some of the crew expressing abject terror. The film definitely centers on Fassbender, though, who plays two characters in this film: David and a later model synthetic named Walter.
I doubt that Alien: Covenant is going to win anyone over who wasn’t already an Alien or Prometheus fan to begin with. It is an improvement over the disjointed musings of Prometheus but it doesn’t (and cannot) reach the heights of Alien. It cannot capture that pervading sense of dread. It’s somewhere in the nebulous middle.
While Covenant has aspirations, it ends with questions left unanswered. It is a thought-provoking, disturbing film devoid of hope which promises to take audiences in the right direction, even if it itself isn’t a truly great film. It was enjoyable enough for me to look forward to another sequel in this universe with some anticipation, and isn’t that what movies in 2017 are really all about?
The 8-bit Review
There are some delicious visuals in this movie. Having experienced a kind of CGI fatigue, audiences are treated to more traditional practical effects. I was delighted to learn that the aliens themselves, at least when full-grown, were actors in suits with animatronic masks. If this makes you think the creatures look hokey or fake, you need to watch this movie and see what they accomplished. They look very un-fake. Obviously not every scene involves a real actor in a get-up but knowing that they worked it in presumably as often as they could makes me appreciate the film all the more. Of course, the original Alien excelled because of great practical effects so it’s good to see that Covenant continues in that tradition.
As less an action film than a thoughtful sci-fi one, Covenant still does have its big, showy spectacles. A moment near the end where a character dangles from a rope by her waist looks somewhat cheesy and video gamey, but it’s an isolated incident in an otherwise careful and reserved film that makes no efforts to be constantly explosive. However, the climax of the film is gorgeous, glass suspended in the vacuum of space, light and billowing smoke and the alien crawling over everything. It’s gripping.
In terms of cinematography, I appreciate both the smoothness and sense of scale they achieved. Not much turns me off from these kinds of films faster than overused shaky-cam and the frustration of not seeing enough of the monsters. Less is sometimes more when it comes to slowly revealing the titular creature but eventually we want that payoff scene. Instead, the camera is trained upon the monsters for a lot of their screen-time, unless we’re talking about a dark corridor or cavern hunt. This is especially true for the Neomorphs which have several long scenes where the camera does not flinch, does not cut away, forcing you to stare with discomfort at the creature being hatched or preparing to attack. This approach may ultimately desensitize audiences to the terror of these beasts in later films or upon subsequent viewings, but seeing it for the first time is as irresistible as staring at a train wreck.
One really cool visual effect involved the scenes with Fassbender’s two characters, Walter and David, interacting. We’ve seen a single actor portray different characters in the same film before, but I can tell the director had a little fun with the portrayals this time. There’s a scene where David teaches Walter how to play the flute and the camera swings back and forth, slowly showing us David’s face and then Walter’s as the former puts the pipe to the latter’s lip. It’s seamless and a testament to Ridley Scott’s confidence.
Classical music should from now on be synonymous with space. Maybe it is the sound of space, we just can’t hear it because of the vacuum. Covenant’s reach for intellectualism, and the predictable choice of classical music that goes along with that notion, focuses on the work of Richard Wagner with the recurring piece “Das Rheingold – Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla”. Gotta drive that God-complex theme home somehow, I guess.
The soundtrack also takes its cues from its two most significant predecessors. As such, it is at times expansive and atmospheric while at other times brooding and downright spooky. Listen to the sounds of Alien, then Prometheus, and then Covenant and you can see what they went for: incomplete dissonance, incomplete melody.
Warning: there are spoilers dead ahead. If you’d like to avoid them, press Ctrl-f and search “Scariness” to skip past Narrative and Themes to the following segment.
Love it or hate it, you could at least say of Prometheus that it attempted to be different. Covenant attempts that to a lesser extent. The search for our creator(s) is a secondary concern in Covenant compared to Prometheus. In this respect Covenant sets aside the most interesting aspect of Prometheus. We barely see anything more of the Engineers and the holy grail of Prometheus, namely finding paradise, is tossed to the wind. The replacement concept is furthering the origins of the Xenomorph, which involves David.
The android David ends up being central to this film. He’s practically its main character while simultaneously being its villain. Fassbender’s performance involves the most emotional beats of the script and it seems like David is the best developed character. Yeah, part of that lies in the fact that we saw him in Prometheus but he’s clearly the most interesting person in this film and we really get into his head. Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston) is our female lead but she’s not given a whole lot to do beside running and gunning. I thought first-mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) was going to be our protagonist except he quickly becomes obsolete, especially after he gets tricked into a face-hug.
This is one of this film’s fundamental issues, in my opinion. It spend a lot of time with the wedded couples of the Covenant but we really only get to know a few of them. A handful of their faces are recognizable but so few of them have personality that we hardly care when a dozen of them get killed in a thirty-minute span. By the end of the film, I was downright surprised at who survived and who didn’t. I was uniquely interested in Chris Oram since they dropped lines about him being a man of faith and he came off as too by-the-book and resolute, but even though Daniels tells him at one point “We need your faith”, the film does nothing special with him, so apparently they didn’t need his faith after all. Similarly, most of the religious imagery and references laden throughout the film eventually amount to nothing.
This is a shame because it isn’t often that science fiction bleeds over into the realm of religion, yet science and theology ask the same questions. In many ways, they’ve been intensely similar in our past though we’ve separated them since. Obviously they’re not the same thing but just as obvious is the fact that science isn’t atheistic, since atheism and theism lie outside of the reach of science. That’s at the heart of Covenant’s longings but so far as the crew, the colonists as dispensable (as always) in the face of the big, hostile universe and all of its mysteries. Questions are asked but they have no bearing up the bulk of the movie.
One example of this is the name of the film and its ship, Covenant, which is a reference to the Ark of the Covenant from the Jewish Tanakh, the Christian Old Testament. The reference is clear given the winged motif on the colonists’ uniforms.
The detail is evocative of the two cherubim covering the Ark with their wings. The Ark was a sacred relic of the ancient Jews and they believed it represented the throne of YHWH. The Ark was a gilded container and its lid was known as the mercy seat. Fascinatingly, the same word for the seat is also the word for atonement, kaporeth. Atonement means to cover over sin as the lid of the Ark literally covered over the contents of the container: a jar of manna, Aaron’s budding staff, and the stone tables of the Law. This lid was also where the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice once a year on the Day of Atonement, the only day that a single man could lay an eye on the Ark. The Ark was placed in the holiest and deepest chamber in the tabernacle and later the temple: the Holy of Holies.
Referencing the symbolism of the Ark to represent a pursuit of finding the ultimate meaning in the universe, perhaps of finding God Himself, is a high and noble pursuit in the questions posed by Covenant but the way the film plays out, it’s as if it has nothing to do with the answer to that question. Either Covenant suggests the answer is forthcoming or there is no answer at all. I’m suspecting the latter to be true as this franchise progresses.
Back to David. David was evidently created to be as human-like as possible, which included our propensity for curiosity, creativity, and domination. The later model, Walter, was built with less of this synthetic humanity. After David saves the crew of the Covenant he lures them into his sanctuary to use them as hosts for his science experiments with the aliens. He lies to the crew when he tells them he and Dr. Shaw from Prometheus crashed on the planet and Shaw perished in the crash. The truth is that he killed her and experimented on her after she repaired him, and he used the black ooze on the Engineer civilization while thinking of the words “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
So clearly in the ten years since landing on the Engineer’s planet, David has gone a little crazy, believing himself to be superior to his creator and humans, superior to the creators of the humans, the Engineers. He perhaps views himself as the next logical progression of evolution and everyone below him are playthings. David even flirts with concepts of love and feeling, though it’s clear that he remains as unfeeling as ever, or maybe he’s truly dispassionate toward all life. Walter comes the closest to shaking him out of his mania.
There’s a final switcheroo the movie plays on you where Walter and David are fighting but we don’t get to see the killing blow. The crew reunite with the android they presume to be Walter, complete severed hand, and only discover after it’s too late that it’s really David that’s now in control of the entire Covenant and thousands of colonists for his experiments by the end of the film.
It’s always flattering to oneself to say “I saw that coming” but there’s really no way to verify that unless someone goes on record saying that before the film gets going. Well, guess what? I saw that coming. Cutting away before the final strike, the pregnant pauses when Walter/David looks unsure of what to say… it’s a cool twist and one that makes the film end on a dark note but it is somewhat predictable. Besides, David is now too important a character, an Emperor Palpatine figure, to possibly dispose of so easily without sating the audience’s thirst for justice.
Abiogenesis and the existence of God are two huge ideas which Covenant flirts with, posing the questions but refusing to answer them. Can any sci-fi really reach that far?
One complaint I saw for the film is it explained nothing. Which are the questions left unanswered? We now know the origins of the Xenomorphs beginning with the black parasitic mutagen designed by the Engineers, hijacked by David and used against them, then experimented and tinkered with by David again to produce the perfect organism. David’s work isn’t complete by the end of the film, and we’ve only seen the prototype of the Xenomorph, but with thousands of subjects to experiment on upon reaching a brand new planet, it’s easy to see how he develops the egg, chestburster, and drone we’re all familiar with.
The big question left unanswered is the question Prometheus posed: Who made human beings? Mr. Weyland’s fascination with “finding God” served as the basic drive behind the Prometheus mission. Covenant dispenses with this question, largely, and focuses on the origins of the Xenomorphs instead, leaving the nature and purposes of the Engineers by the wayside, like a footnote, for now. I found that a little disappointing but I hope at least they pick up that thread in later films. In Covenant, David’s extreme God-complex drives the plot forward as his all-too-human attributes of ambition and creativity spiral out of control in his isolation. He is the one who through the processes of genetic experimentation came up with the ovamorph eggs, facehuggers, and chestbursters we know from Alien, thereby resolving a decades-long movie mystery.
There’s a note of confusion here which I think should be addressed. Some reviewers are trying to denounce this aspect of the film by claiming that David couldn’t have invented the Xenomorph since there’s imagery involving the aliens included in Engineer art in Prometheus. I think it’s easy to point out the error in their thinking here. Remember that the Engineers invented and utilized the black ooze themselves. David may have turned it against their civilization but it was their weapon in the first place. Doesn’t it seem obvious that the Engineers had already come up with the Xenomorph before as a bio-weapon and that variants of the parasitic monsters had already appeared in galactic history? Considering the multitude of forms the parasites can take, this isn’t outside the realm of possibility. At all.
Covenant is less scary than it is just plain gross. This befits its heritage, for the most part. The Aliens are frightening to look at but there are only so many jump scares that will actually get you. It’s the creeping anxiety that should engage you and make you nervous around every corner, but there’s little of that in this film. Its horror seems delegated to a few moments segregated from its action pieces and its thoughtful conversations. It’s pace can be irregular and it’s far from the constant running and hiding that the trailers made it out to be. Maybe this is a symptom of Covenant being the “middle child” in a series of films. Maybe this is caused by the film trying to please too many and spreading itself too thin. After all, it’s clear that several changes were made during production which dramatically changed the direction of the finished film, time and time again.
Fassbender gives the performance to remember in this film as both Walter and David. He used a different accent for the characters and though his hard r’s and lower tone sound somewhat unusual with Walter, his careful calm with British-accented David is magic. The actor admitted to taking inspiration for the pace of his voice from HAL 9000, and for that he gets a slow clap from this author.
Waterston is a decent lead as Daniels Branson and she starts to exude real strength toward the end of the film. The actress apparently tried to put obvious connections between her and Ellen Ripley out of mind so as not to feel intimidated, and it worked. It helps that Waterston seems more mousey and timid for a duration of the film that Ripley did. She has several scenes with the impact of emotion and I wouldn’t mind seeing her again in another sequel, provided she doesn’t conveniently “die in the crash”.
Crudup may have an unlikable character (a man of faith in a sci-fi being unlikable… wow… breaking new ground here) but his performance is consistent. It’s a little silly that his reaction is so muted when his character comes to his end, though. Also, Crudup has really big ears. For some reason that was kind of distracting to me. I kept comparing them to the other colonists’.
As for the other members of the crew, including the perpetually tired-looking James Franco, they’re all pretty forgettable. Sergeant Lope and Tennessee are two colonists who stood out to me. The rest of them are just meat for the Xenomorphs. Lots of crying, lots of screaming but not a lot of engaging personality or any easy way to tell a lot of them apart.
You can find in Covenant an archetype for every scene in this film from any of the previous Alien movies, including Prometheus. The ending felt inevitably like Sigourney Weaver slipping through the shadows of the Nostromo in Alien. The genetic variations felt like the tinkering that went on in Alien: Resurrection. When the crewmembers were armed it seemed like treading the same ground with the marines in Cameron’s Aliens. Covenant is such a bits-and-pieces movie, a Frankensteinish amalgamation of familiarity. It didn’t turn out to be refreshing or surprising seeing the aliens again. Maybe Covenant will always feel like a “filler” movie in the equivalent of a trilogy.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Covenant is a collection of snapshots. I guess you can’t really have a cohesive film when you’re trying to question the existence of life while having aliens jump out of your nose. Things have changed a lot since Ridley Scott directed the original Alien. Movie titles have gotten longer, audiences have become accustomed to even the most extreme violence and gore, instant gratification has taken the place of careful, patient mood and atmosphere, and franchises are now expected to perform as studio tent-poles complete with universe-building.
Covenant suffers from a degree of familiarity and a lack of vision while excelling with open-endedness, some notable performances, and its monster moments. I disagree with a lot of the opinions of those who saw Covenant when I say that the film does answer the questions Prometheus raised. It’s not all of them, granted, notably and certainly it doesn’t answer the biggest question there is. As Mr. Weyland observes at the beginning of the film: art, creativity, aspirations are essentially meaningless beside this one question. Where did we come from?
This is why I love science fiction. The genre, like science itself, should ask these questions. All the action, the effects and the grotesque are just icing on that delicious curiosity cake. And for that, I liked Alien: Covenant. I’m looking forward to more. Just know that if you’re looking for a purer sense of fear, go watch Alien or play Alien: Isolation.
Aggregated Score: 6.6