by Michael Henley
Alien: Covenant, the new film by Ridley Scott, is a marriage between familiar horror clichés and chunky sci-fi pulp. Yet it is one elevated by superb style, craft and artistry into something rather darkly beautiful. Its plot is not especially distinguished. Its characters are prone to dunderheadedness. It has, as they say, flaws. But while it is going, it is a fine ride, well-made and boasting a dash of vision and real pizazz. At a time when blockbusters look (and play) like cookie-cutter TV movies or clunky director’s workshops, I find myself feeling more and more grateful for seeing things that are extraordinary, for appreciating good work, and for getting less hung up on the nitpicks. And in our age of sequels and prequels and such, it’s nice to see…get this…a decidedly worthy one. Oh, and fairly scary, too.
Covenant, to be sure, doesn’t equal the Alien series’ established high points. It can’t compete with Scott’s 1979 original, or Aliens (1986, directed by James Cameron), both of which are two keystones in the series’ legacy. But it is a step above Prometheus (2012, directed by Scott again), which was an uneasy mix of queasy violence and incomplete philosophical thoughts. Covenant, which partially bridges the gap between Prometheus and Alien, retains the former’s penchant for pensiveness. But if Prometheus’ hoary plot seemed ill-matched to its smart sci-fi themes (which came across, sadly, as pretentious in context) Covenant is a picture that is more haunting—and haunted. It’s better, and partially redeems what came before.
Scott, together with his writers (including John Logan and Dante Harper) have conceived this chapter of the series as a sci-fi penny dreadful, with a hostile landscape and not one but two haunted castle stand-ins that owe more than a little to the gothic tradition. There’s a hint of a borrowed theme from the Victorian era, suggesting a repressed upper class reluctant to fess up to their debaucheries, but also unwilling to part with them. At one point, during a lovely pause from the death and terror, one character, a shifty, plastically urbane host for our heroes, quotes Shelly (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”) but as things progress, Ozymandias will end up not quite being the Shelley character that this being reminds us most of. Is this a good time to mention that Frankenstein‘s alternate title is The Modern Prometheus? So there’s that.
Anyway. The plot: In 2104, there’s a sleeper ship where an android, Walter (Michael Fassbender) patrols. The crew, rattled awake by a solar flare, cooking a few right in their cryo tubes, including the ship’s captain. The first mate, Orem (Billy Crudup, always reliable) shakily tries to find his own weight to throw around, and ignores the level-headed protestations of Daniels (an atypically fiery and confident Katherine Waterston). Hearing a mysterious distress signal (uh-oh), the crew decide to stick a pin in their colonization flightpath and land on an Earthlike planet teeming with forests and rain and, we soon discover, alien structures. Oh, and also spores that are conveyances for rapid alien infections. Unhappiness, as you might expect, ensues.
The characters, by and large, are not, as we might say, well-defined. There’s Orem, who is religious and desperate to prove himself. There’s Daniels, who is suffering from shock (that was her husband in the cryo cooker) but will transform over the movie into a bit of a proto-Ripley. There’s Tennessee (Danny McBride) who wears a cowboy hat much in the way that a person nicknamed Tennessee is commanded by life to do. And there’s a grab bag of other folks, many played by talented character actors you may recognize (Demián Bichir, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, etc). They’re stock characters, many of them married to each other–including two of the men, progressively enough. They’re all of them blessed with maybe one or two characteristics apiece, but to be fair, so were the crew members of the original Alien. And the performances are simple, straight and effective: my favorite little bit in a movie full of them was how, in the middle of a particularly stomach-churning sequence, Seimetz’s character disintegrates from reason to worry to cowardice to panicked bad decisions.
The key character here is an android named David (Fassbender again), who you may remember from Prometheus. If so, you may have wondered since then whatever happened to him, or to his companion Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). Well, we’ll get to that. What I can say is that David rescues the soon-stranded group during a dire moment. He whisks them away to his makeshift home, a triumph of sheer production design and scale, imagining a crumbling alien necropolis full of decaying plazas, littered with dead fossilized bodies like the ruins of Pompeii. There, David shares his knowledge with the crew, or at least the knowledge he wants to share…in a series of scenes that are creepy and off-kilter while claiming to be illuminating. Fassbender, always sublime, is exceptionally compelling in the dual role of David and Walter. You don’t realize the depth of the performance he’s giving as the galaxy’s most creepy android until you ask him to do it twice, with nuanced differences. And he does.
David, even at birth, we learn, had little sympathy or patience for humans and their ontological hang-ups, and the opening flashback scene in which he talks to his creator, Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce in a cameo) are like a duel made up of hurt feelings and poorly-concealed disappointments. This hangs like a sword over his interactions with the crew, who he treats with minor but unmistakable disdain despite his unctuous pleasantries—we’re reminded of the great dinner parties Hannibal Lecter used to throw. There’s a homoerotic (or incestuous?) charge in his interactions with Walter, and an unwholesome edge in the way he shows off his sketches and experiments, ones that gradually gather ominous details. These scenes, and the way they tease dread secrets on pins and needles, while not subtle, are in their own way somewhat as accomplished as the suspenseful opening scenes in Alien when the crew approach the derelict alien craft with mounting fear and suspicion. I admire the way Scott pauses the action and lets the tension accumulate. And Jed Kurzel’s mournful score, which quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien music, is creepily effective.
But it is Alien law that these movies must eventually lurch into shocks and scares, perhaps enabled by a little poor decision-making by the supporting cast. And so it does. Covenant honors the tradition as it must, but these sequences on their own are done exceptionally well. Even the jump scares work, I think, because they’re bracketed by little wordless moments of horrific awe. My favorite bits involve a frantic spin on the standard Alien birthing sequence, and later on, a nausea-fueled struggle atop a flying spacecraft, both done as well as these things can be done. Not since Scott’s 1979 original have the titular aliens been so menacing or punishing. But it’s notable that one key moment, during the full-fledged entrance of the Alien we all know and love, is one where Scott grasps at wonder rather than horror (and courts a bad laugh, but I think he gets away with it). The movie chugs, like the original, with the verve of nightmare logic, which makes us overlook some inconsistencies.
In the end, the success of the movie rides primarily with David, I think, with Walter playing a necessary foil, and Daniels and company providing necessary support. In many ways he is the hero, or antihero, of Scott’s new cycle of Alien movies, and it’s here that his character comes into sharp, welcome focus. At times, David and Walter remind us not of the squishy synthetics of Alien but of the replicants from Scott’s other masterpiece, Blade Runner, cursed to be forever be despised by the beings they want to emulate. Here it’s the reverse. Events soon make clear that David has had quite enough of humans and their problems, thank you very much. He’s ready to move on. But we fear and pity him in almost equal measure. He is as we made him. His megalomania seems more motivated than we’d expect, and elicits more of our understanding, if not our sympathies.
Does Alien: Covenant reinvent the wheel of sci-fi horror? Most certainly not. Does it perhaps steal some of the power of the original classic by forwarding, much like Prometheus, an origin for the creatures that are so scary precisely because they lack one? A case can be made. But I don’t at all begrudge Scott his prequels. I sense a newfound fascination from him in the hidden corners of Alien, one that examines the even darker implications of the source text, and I’ll be darned if he didn’t draw me in, despite some grasping and fumbling. And maybe Alien: Covenant is better for it. Maybe I admire its imperfection.
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper. Story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. Based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schussett. Produced by Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, David Giler, Walter Hill. Music by Jed Kurzel. Photographed by Dariusz Wolski. Edited by Pietro Scalia. Production designed by Chris Seagers. Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz.