Did you enjoy Alien? You know how Aliens took the approach of completely recontexualising the familiar iconography through the perspective of a different genre lens? What originally was a tension horror joint reinterpreted as military action, the very image of the xenomorph itself taking a completely different meaning through its multiplication. Difference of ten years and the two sensibilities of two separate, classically western auteurish, directors presenting their own vision of humanity using the same tools.
Then of course Fincher and Jeunet got their cracks at it, we don’t talk about those so much. Now it’s back in Scott’s hands again Alien: Covenant feels like the sort of film we’d have gotten back in the eighties if they just let him make another. It’s like he got the reaction to Prometheus when everyone reaffirmed, ‘We like you Scott (kinda fucked up with that Robin Hood though) but that was just a little bit weird.’ This one feels like someone took all the all the core moments from Alien past, shuffled them all up and wrote something in between them.
Maybe it’s a testament to 21st century mashup culture, or like a critique of it. Everything seems to come posed as a ‘What if?’ What if in Alien the crew were woken up in an emergency? What if we encounter the eggs at the end of the movie after the aliens themselves? What if the whole chestbursting thing was not a public event, but a private one? Also how, as an audience, do we feel about the chestbursting anyway given its place in our cultural conciousness?
So, the crew of a colony ship are woken up to make repairs when it is damaged by a solar flare. The captain dies in the chaos leaving Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup <3) as acting captain with Daniels (Katherine Waterston) as his second in command, after completing repairs they receive a signal coming from a nearby planet which they decide to check out for signs of life before heading back on course. Then they fly down to the planet and things get all monstery.
Do you want more Alien? Because here’s more Alien. Michael Fassbender is pulling double duty here, reprising his Prometheus role as the android David and also portraying a new robot too, Walter, an updated version. One who knows that it was actually Percy Bysshe Shelley who wrote the sonnet Ozymandias. Which I mention because a character quotes the poem and attributes it to Lord Byron and it goes far far too long before that mistake is corrected.
It’s sorta indicative of some of the problems of the script there. If you’re unfamiliar with the poem, the bombshell of a revelation with which its true authorship is presented would be literally comical. If you’re familiar with it you spend half an hour being pissed off wondering if the scriptwriters are really this super stupid. Same comes with much of the philosophising it engages in, there’s a scene at the beginning where the creator of the robots awakes one for the first time. They have a discussion about the meaning of life under the shadow of Michelangeo’s David to the strains of a Steinway, yet they never move beyond the intellectual ground of stoner undergrads at 2am. If you’re interested you already know, if you’re not you don’t care.
The first half of the joint is actually pretty strong as it goes, the crew solve a crisis, interpersonal relationships are quickly drawn up, they go to the planet’s surface and immediately start boning it. Its straightforward stuff and, well, reminiscent, but it functions. Then David shows up and the film takes a turn for the stranger. If you’re planning on seeing it I’d recommend skipping the next couple of paragraphs.
Because David turns out to be the one who released the Alien virus, yeah, it’s a virus now, onto this planet thereby destroying all its plant life. Now he’s working on adapting the virus so it becomes the one we’ll eventually see in the Alien movies. In a way then David becomes a metaphor for Scott, the people saw Prometheus and demanded it be more Alien so we cast the villain (oh, and he’s a super obvious villain at that) as this person obsessed with the adaptation and repetition of the iconography of the original.
In his quarters he has the sketchings of that original H R Giger Necronomicon art that would be the inspiration for Joderowsky and Scott’s sci-fi design. He’s grown himself the eggs and facehuggers, and when he lures an actual human down there he watches the effects as a personal show, literalising the psychosexuality of the event. We even get some sexual tension between the two Fassbenders, which is unfortunately undercut by the film’s own self-satisfaction at its ability to produce that special effect.
Now, there’s plenty about this which is dissatisfying and don’t make sense. Depending on how long these go on we might be sliding down into Star Wars territory, but let’s remember, the Alien franchise has been bad far longer than it has been good. My introduction to it weren’t even any of the main franchise flicks but classic Paul W S Anderson trash joint Alien vs Predator on some teenage sleepover. These prequel films are different, they’re from a team more interested in finding mysteries and figuring them out.
The mystery here, why and how Alien became Alien, maybe if it argued its case better, reached a more satisfying conclusion it would feel better. As it stands, for all the interesting work it does in analysing the all the moving parts of its history is mired in this film which puts Danny McBride in a funny hat and calls him Tennessee. There ain’t no new horrors to be found here, which is the point, but there’s just nothing else new either.
Alien: Covenant is now screening in UK cinemas