‘Alien: Covenant’ Review – A Second Act for the Series
Alien: Covenant follows the nearly forty year-old template that defines the Alien franchise. Claustrophobic dread is punctuated with a series of inventive grotesqueries, while characters split up when they should stay together, land on planets when they should fly by, and venture down hallways when they should stay put. In a clever callback to Aliens, one monster is vanquished by industrial machinery, and another is strategically coaxed through a labyrinth in a sequence that recalls the climax of Alien 3. Covenant is an unmistakable, quintessential Alien film. It does share DNA with its predecessor, however, and is prone to some of the trite contemplation and cumbersome mythologizing that comprised the least interesting portions of Prometheus. Still, director Ridley Scott gives Covenant a new balance, informed by the understanding that the opaque, borderline-incoherent philosophies of Prometheus compel only when coupled with the terrifying presence of the series’ titular villain.
Alien: Covenant makes one narrative departure from the Alien blueprint by concluding with a sequence that stands out as the most foreboding end to any film in the saga. The film tells the story of the Covenant, a colony ship shepherding two thousand colonists to a new home in space. The mission derails when the crew follows a beacon to a habitable planet, only to discover David (the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission) and a series of escalating horrors. The conclusion cements David as the series’ true focus, and ominously foreshadows the influence he may have in the future of the Alien saga. These films rarely end “happily” – mostly everybody just dies – but Covenant stands alone as an Alien film without an ending at all. Whereas the series’ founding trilogy was episodic (More Aliens! The Alien Returns!), these new installments are cohesive, connected by David’s arc and the clunky mythology director Ridley Scott first attempted to establish in Prometheus, and similarly packs into Covenant.
That mythology is interesting at times, but at others remains incoherent and contrived. David’s development in Alien: Covenant is a symptom of the series’ facile creation theories, but it feels organic to film’s narrative. Motivations that appeared arbitrary and confounding in Prometheus clarify in Covenant, both in conversations between David and Walter (the Covenant mission’s identical android) and an emotionally stark prologue that contextualizes David’s rage. He is plagued by dueling sensations, scarred by emotional isolation from a creator that he deems inferior. Such elements of the character’s psyche were withheld in Prometheus, and these revelations crystallize the saga’s investigation of the interplay between creator and creation – extinguish your creations (as Prometheus‘ engineers intended), lest they extinguish you.
The film falters when Scott broadens its purview to mirror Prometheus’ affinity for asking existential questions without offering any answers. David’s antagonistic evolution is a fitting canvas for a study of human creation, but similar explorations of faith in Covenant lack focus and impact. Chris, the ship’s captain, is a True Believer – a fact that takes the place of real characterization and allows the film to conveniently position his religion as a counterpoint to the search for fact that surrounds him. His character echoes Elizabeth Shaw, the protagonist of Prometheus, except that his character is hardly a character at all, and his faith – erroneously referenced in dialog throughout Covenant – doesn’t figure into the film’s dramaturgy or mythology in any way, except to signal that Scott is wrestling with big ideas. Alien: Covenant isn’t faithful or secular; the film doesn’t have a hypothesis about our creation. Its prevailing ethos is a fatalism that gives way to a sort of nihilism: everyone – ship crews, colonists, entire species – is going to die, and beliefs are just the curious details of lives destined to end in horror.
That horror is plentiful and masterfully rendered in Alien: Covenant. Chests, spines, and mouths burst in sequences that update the series’ defining mode of death with a new degree of stomach-turning revulsion. The entire alien gestation cycle unfolds in the film, from the over-sized, seeping eggs that resemble mutant vegetation, to the blood-thirsty adult that terrorizes the last half hour. New monsters appear in the film before the showstopper arrives, aliens that move like the Jurassic Park’s raptors and have the milky skin and circular mouth of a Lamprey. These creations appear in sequences that have no series precedent. A shootout in an expansive wheat field recalls Zero Dark Thirty and Jurassic Park in equal measure – a new and exciting choice in a series that normally unfolds in confined, mechanical settings. Covenant invents new ways for aliens to infect humans, rip forth from humans, and kill humans, while presenting new ways for those aliens to look, move, and behave. As with the film’s philosophical leanings, however, the evolution of these monsters is difficult to track.
The signature alien in Covenant is a “Xenomorph,” same as the iconic H.R. Giger creations that terrorized the series’ first two films. Or is it a “Protomorph,” an unofficial term that surfaces in the Alien fan community? The lamprey-raptor aliens are “Neomorphs” apparently, but it isn’t clear within the film if they are a distinct species or a singular aberration within the larger evolution of the Xeno-species. The alien at the end of Covenant certainly resembles the monster in the original Alien, but attention to detail reveals that the new edition appears less mechanical and behaves more spastically. A more pressing question: are any of these distinctions relevant to an understanding of the saga? Scott seems to believe they are; Covenant, after all, continues the origin story of Giger’s original creation. The lack of a coherent taxonomy detracts from that story, however, puncturing the foreboding ambiance of Covenant by forcing the viewer to catalog the film’s new threats without informative context.
Of course, Covenant departs most strikingly from series tradition by giving its gravest threat a human face. In the film’s prologue, David plays piano for his creator, Peter Weyland. Weyland requests “The Entry of The Gods Into Valhalla,” from Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.” The ominous, grandiose tune suits the atmosphere of the film, and it’s no coincidence that “Das Rheingold” is a prelude to Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” a four-part epic that fixates on the destructive nature of absolute power. Weyland (and later David) refers to the “second act” of “Das Rheingold” in error – “Das Rheingold” has no second act. It is the briefest segment of Wagner’s cycle, serving only as a prologue. After all its gruesome deaths and terrifying alien action, Covenant makes one thing clear: the Alien saga is David’s story now, and in Alien: Covenant, he forces a second act into existence, both for himself and the entire series.