Alien: Covenant is a mixbag of fan-pleasing horrors and Ridley Scott's ambitious but ill-conceived endeavors.
Set 10 years after the event in Prometheus, Alien: Covenant follows the colonization ship Covenant, with a skeleton crew and 2000 colonists in cryogenic sleep, to Origae-6. A solar flare damages the ship, killing dozens of colonists, so the synthetic android Walter (Michael Fassbender, as Walter and David are two versions of the same model) wakes the crew up to handle this immediate matter. Captain Jacob Branson (James Franco) dies in a pod malfunction, leaving behind a disheartened crew. They include his wife—terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the ship’s first mate Christopher Oram (Bill Crudup), chief pilot Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride), and Oram’s wife/biologist Karine (Carmen Ejogo). Upon receiving a mysterious transmission from an unknown planet, they change direction to investigate it, not without an argument between Daniels and the new captain. What they find on this assumably habitable haven will tamper with the future of mankind and of this franchise forever.
“The path to paradise begins in hell.”—one trailer for Covenant used that line from Dante’s “Inferno” to remind fans of the first installment in this prequel series. In the polarizing Prometheus, the characters go through all sorts of hell and set out to reach a certain “paradise”. Covenant, previously named Alien: Paradise Lost as an allusion to the Fall of Man under Lucifer’s influence, tries to fit in the mythos by providing more explanations (and questions alike) before the Nostromo lands on LV-426. This movie stomps the same old plot points and character beats: a crew on their corporate mission, their arrival on an alien planet, their exploration of the habitat, someone getting infected or impregnated by a version of the Xeno, and a series of foolish judgments fueled by the feeble side of humanity and affinity.
Before Covenant came out, audiences got acquainted with the characters through a cryptic prologue named “The Last Supper”, which introduced crewmembers and their chemistry. These are all married couples—a sensible feature of the story by Jack Paglen (Transcendence) and Michael Green (Logan). Steady relationships are necessary for this 7-year voyage to secure emotional stability and keep sexual desire in check. (This, however, will play its part in impulsive decision-making.) Everybody has his or her own profession, but notably, the rational, strict-to-protocol Danny and the captain/shaky person of faith Oram are often at odds with each other in macro management. Against Danny’s protest to stay on course, Oram responds to the dubious signal. Later, his religious belief is abused to enlist him into the long list of Darwin Awardees in Space.
After Life, Covenant continues to stir up controversies about ill-considered decisions made by top-level specialists. It was understandable for characters from the original movie to behave in similar manners because Nostromo is a commercial ship full of officers less well-versed in science—except for Ash, the deceptive android—not to mention Kane’s eagerness to explore (may John Hurt rest in peace). In contrast, on the Covenant are experts hired by Weyland-Yutani for a trillion-dollar mission, so the reason they make such rash, irrational calls is beyond me. Oh right, they are plot devices for dramatic effects. The sequence of carnage in their landing craft is murderously shocking just to watch—a spasmodic, lifeless body and desperate reactions to the Bloodburster. It soaks the audience to the bloody, hair-raising terror, using a quadrupled, dorsally spiked, locust-like pre-Neomorph. But adding to the hopelessly hopeful course alteration by Oram, to set foot on this planet is a reckless compromise. The crew never take proper cautions regarding potentially unknown pathogens, which their technology can’t scan.
This results in their first casualties, triggered by stepping on the black egg/fungi, on “Paradise”. The android David arrives to save the day after another well-edited scene of two little Neomorphs on their killing spree. Later, instead of grouping for mutual preservation (while being on an exotic planet where their crewmates just die), some members wander around David’s residence only to become the test subjects of Neomorph’s ravage. Since the audience just spent one hour with their drama and bureaucracy, these deaths should’ve been more impactful, but the script by John Logan and Dante Harper elevates neither their competence nor our emotional investment in them. As for the female lead, Waterston reminded us of Ripley’s adherence to quarantine measures, but the center spot is not for her.
That brings us to the movie’s focus: Fassbender’s androids. Covenant opens with a short conversation between Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his newly created robot. Naming himself David after the famous Biblical hero/king, the synthetic troublemaker promptly asks about his creator’s creator, to which Weyland replies that two of them will one day search for the maker of mankind. As an A.I with a touch of humanity, David shows subtle waywardness by affirming that he will live on long after Weyland dies, only to be ordered to fetch a cup of tea right next to Weyland. An analogy of God and Lucifer, this scene sets up the thematic conflicts for the whole movie, delving into the interactions between creators and their creations. David, facing Weyland’s petty yet authoritative, condescending reaction to his own fragility, begins to disdain his creator. This feeling comes full circle in the ending of Prometheus.
Our first impression on David is his long, unkempt fibrils of hair, which proves his evolving humanity. More than just a machine with precise knowledge, the android is prone to errors by mistaking Lord Byron as the author of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. Initially, he doesn’t take advantage of Walter but seeks to enlist his fellow android. During a long take filled with homoerotic (or autoerotic?) tension, the apprehension of bad omen expresses what David wants in Walter: mutual trust. “You blow and I’ll do the fingering,” David’s hilariously creepy assertion squeezes our bubble of expectation. The psychological strain diffuses at the end of the scene when we see how different these two are. Walter is a later model, created to be less humanized (both physically and psychologically) than David, hence his stiff expressions. Fassbender, beguiling and flexible, delivered two staggeringly opposed performances and drew a distinct line between duty and affection.
Covenant continued to introduce more versions of the Xeno. Whereas Covenant doesn’t mention the Deacon from Prometheus, the bleached-white Neomorph accounts for a nice addition. This creature is just a phase, but Ridley Scott illustrated its prospective briskness without the exoskeleton armor and inner jaw. For fans, the Neomorphs are the welcoming hug back to the franchise’s root: a transporting, self-preserving fear of gore, albeit with less hypersexualized subtext. On the other hand, the central figure of the marketing campaign, which resembles the original Xeno, turns out to be another rendition of its artificial evolution. Because Covenant shows this hyper-aggressive predecessor to Xenomorph in its full outdoor glory, the menace is less dreadful than how the original scared us. But the movie doesn’t aim at that; it wants to dramatize the Xeno’s experimental stages before the perfect biological weapon.
This preference, in turns, poses as a problematic choice that generates greater division amongst Alien followers, partly saved by a redeeming quality—Scott successfully re-created most of the atmospheric horror. His trademark worldbuilding flair (shooting on location and practical effects) percolates over the landscapes (shot in Fiordland National Park of New Zealand) and the landing craft, which the production team actually built and blew up on site. This dedication to technicalities rewards the movie with bleak depths of field, coupled with a murky plaza where David once confronted a faction of Engineer-like creatures. The giant set, supervised to details by Scott’s six-time collaborator Neil Corbould, is immersive with the eerie ambiance and bitter grandiosity of its recent prime. The mise-en-scène of interiors doesn’t disappoint the most fastidious fans as Scott retained the foreboding Gothic aesthetics. Even though these sequences are interspersed in between some exterior ones, audiences are still awed by its claustrophobic horror. Masterfully visualized, Covenant looks devoid of life and hope.
After the divisive Prometheus, Scott became not too confident with his direction. Thus, Covenant is a mixbag of fan-pleasing horrors and his creative endeavors. Beloved iconography already appeared in the trailers, and the movie only bears what fans possibly like about the good part of Prometheus. We expected whys and wherefores to the creation story but were left high and dry, for there are even more unanswered questions about the Engineers and David’s intention. The creators of humankind might have been saved for future installments (as their species has spread throughout the whole universe), but for now, this franchise only leaves fans scratching their heads.
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