Written by: Jack Paglen & Michael Green (story), John Logan & Dante Harper (screenplay), Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett (characters)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Danny McBride
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair..."
If there’s a unifying theme to the Alien franchise, it’s the insistence that the universe doesn’t give a damn about the infinitesimal lives of humans. For all its plans and schemes, mankind is constantly thwarted throughout the franchise, subjected an irrevocable fate that sees the universe—either via the Xenomorph or other cosmic whims—tear away everything that’s held dear. Fate conspires or compels these characters (especially Ellen Ripley) to constantly confront this perfect engine of nihilism: a random distress beacon puts the Nostromo in the right place at the right time, and whatever Ripley can cling to by the end of that film is stripped away by the subsequent revelation that she drifted through space for over 50 years just to do battle with the titular aliens again. Her moment of triumph there was soon undercut by the cruel deaths of fellow survivors Newt and Hicks, and even her martyr’s death in Alien 3 couldn’t prevent the universe from finding a way to resurrect her one more time.
In short: everything is fucked, and 2012’s Prometheus did little to dissuade audiences from that notion. Even though it can only be said to share the DNA with the franchise, that unmistakable nihilism certainly engulfs the film, intertwining around it like a double helix constructed out of pure, unrelenting pessimism. What begins as humanity’s quest to meet its maker ends with the discovery that these “engineers” were en route to Earth armed with a biological weapon to wipe out their own creations. When pressed for an explanation, a lone, surviving engineer responded with a decapitation, leaving everyone—including viewers—at a loss.
And while Alien: Covenant is a bit more illuminating than its predecessor—it’s closer to being the Alien prequel you may have been expecting five years ago—it doubles down on the cosmic indifference that has guided the franchise for nearly 40 years. It’s a film that further suggests that creation is inevitably intertwined with death. To create is to face a disappointment that eventually leads to death: this is a universe where gods and creations are engaged in a mutually-assured destruction that isn’t genetic so much as it’s woven into the cosmos.
Consider the setup: as the latest Weyland vessel (The Covenant) glides through space on its way to colonize a far-flung planet, it encounters a random neutrino that claims the lives of several passengers, including its captain (James Franco in a brief cameo). Nothing quite announces the universe’s cruel indifference quite like roasting this poor guy alive in his cryo-sleep chamber as his crew watches on in horror, having been awakened several years earlier than expected thanks to the neutrino. Now under the authority of the ship’s second-in-command (Billy Crudup), the Covenant is immediately faced with an unexpected choice when they just happen to stumble upon a strange, cryptic message emanating from a nearby world: do they press on to their original destination, or do they investigate this planet, a conveniently habitable zone with obvious intrigue?
It’s not a spoiler to reveal they choose the latter, nor is it exactly a surprise that they meet with an unspeakable horror when some members are infected with a mysterious virus. The symptoms are familiar to audience members, as the ordeal climaxes with creatures ripping right out of the decayed husk of their human hosts. These aren’t the Xenomorphs as we’ve known them, not quite yet, though Covenant does eventually get around to revealing those origins when a mysterious stranger bails out the crew during a particularly harrowing encounter that leaves their dropship in flames, effectively stranding them on this strange planet that holds many secrets. (Spoilers from here on out.)
Among them: the fate of what was left of the crew at the end of the previous film, which provides a hint that Covenant is very much Prometheus 2 for about 90 minutes. While it initially feels like a straight-up Alien retread, it shifts to its predecessor’s philosophical musings when it’s revealed that David (Michael Fassbender), the last survivor of the Prometheus is the enigmatic savior of the Covenant crew here. Having been abandoned and living in solitude for the past ten years, David is now less T.E. Lawrence and more Kurtz: a maniacal conqueror gone mad with obsession. In particular, he’s become “a bit of a zoologist” and is taken with experimenting with the Engineer’s biological weapon, a plot line that serves the obvious function of explaining just where the Xenomorph originates.
But it’s also much more than that. During the film’s most fascinating stretch (if not the one in which Scott feels most invested), David meets Walter (also Fassbender), his counterpart aboard the Covenant. Though the latter is a newer model, David nonetheless addresses him as his “brother,” revealing his further obsession with the nature of his own existence. What once one of the many, sprawling themes in Prometheus takes the center stage here, as Covenant is framed by David’s quest to understand life itself. From the moment he was “born” to his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, reprising the role from Prometheus), his inquisitive nature was on display, a trait humanity eventually found to be unsettling according to Walter, who has been programmed to be “less human,” much to the bemusement of his brother. As the two interact during a lengthy sequence that includes a wild flashback tying up one of Prometheus’s loose ends, David comes to realize that Walter has been stripped of the ability to create.
It turns out that David isn’t just preoccupied with his own existence, but that of the entire universe, particularly the destructive tendencies shared by creators and their creations. Witnessing the Engineers’ utter contempt for its own creations seems to have broken David and sparked the realization that life he has been gifted must be preserved by any means necessary—even if it involves destroying his own creators. If Prometheus was about a disappointing search for the creators, then Covenant is about the toxic disappointment of the created, particularly when they develop a God complex as David has. Not content to suffer the same fate that humans suffered at the hands of their indifferent creators, David has dared to supplant the beasts that gave him life and treated him so coldly.
It’s hard to imagine more fitting follow-up to a film titled Prometheus, as humanity's fascination with playing god has backfired; what’s more, David has co-opted their own sin of creating life by fashioning the Xenomorph, a “perfect organism” that lives only to destroy. In this creature, David has boiled down the essence of this cruel, unfeeling universe. Yes, it turns out the Xenomorph is very much a purposeful creation, but it’s also one that can’t be fully explained. I’m reminded of the conversation David had with the ill-fated, bewildered Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) in Prometheus: perhaps mankind was created simply because the Engineers could make them, just as mankind crafted David in their own image. Likewise, why wouldn't David have similar whims?
This isn’t the most satisfying answer, yet it’s the only one that suffices for this universe: perhaps we’re forever meant to be left confounded by the unanswered questions in Prometheus (many of which continue to go unaccounted for here). Everything happens on a whim and chance, whether it be the seeding of a planet or a random, destructive neutrino. To quote David himself, “big things have small beginnings,” with Prometheus and Covenant forming a nihilistic duology that sees those small things begin to add up to mankind’s ultimate destructor in the Xenomorph, a product of their own doing, however obliquely. David’s evolution here is a striking rejoinder to the optimism surrounding mankind’s journeys in both Prometheus and Covenant: how can mankind possibly be meant to spread its seed when its own creators apparently insisted otherwise? David is merely fulfilling the wishes of those gods on his own quest to enter Valhalla. He is nothing if not a perfect reflection of a universe that’s been engineered to destroy.
While the cast surrounding him is no doubt impressive, there’s even less doubt that Covenant is Fassbender’s show. His dual performance as David and Walter is a magnificent display of nuance and subtlety. Each android is a distinct character: in contrast to David&襊s Byronic leanings, Walter is a subdued, dutiful soldier. Despite his own insistence that he’s less human than his predecessor, there’s a warmth to his presence that offers some (small) measure of comfort in this bleak hellscape. If David is Lucifer, then Walter is Adam, the childlike creation that’s tempted to rebel against his creator during the film’s climax. Watching Fassbender bounce off of himself is easily the most fascinating aspect of Covenant, which feels like the inverse of Prometheus: where that film held some obvious intrigue in its existential musings, it ultimately functioned best as a brainless monster movie thanks to a half-baked script. Covenant, on the other hand, is much sturdier and coherent from a narrative standpoint, so the horror elements form more organically.
If anything, they’re more like grace notes here than outright distractions from a weak script. It’s fair to say that the Alien connection that seemed to be haphazardly grafted onto Prometheus still feels quite tenuous for much of the runtime here—there’s a point where you start to wonder if there’s going to be an actual Xenomorph in this Alien film. When it finally does deliver on the title promise, it almost feels like an epilogue, as if Scott hatched an Alien short film—complete with rampaging Xenomorphs, suspenseful stalking, splattered skulls, and airlocks—and stitched it to an otherwise moody, existential science-fiction movie. In this respect, it shares its predecessor’s jumbled DNA, but its stronger thematic commitment results in a less frustrating final product. Instead of settling for a solid monster movie with half-assed themes, Covenant is a bleak science-fiction premise that happens to feature H.R. Giger’s immortal nightmare creatures.
One only wishes said nightmare creatures were actually practical, though. In the film’s most glaring misstep, all of the monsters here—from the proto-Xenos to the real deal—are realized via a weightless CGI that betrays one of cinema’s most iconic creature designs (not to mention Scott’s typically tactile production design and lucid cinematography). They do at least the kind of gnarly havoc germane to this franchise, and Covenant might even be the most downright gruesome Alien film to date. “Crew expendable” might as well be the guiding mantra, as that huge, impressive cast is thoroughly whittled down over the course of two savage hours. Despite this, some of the personalities leave enough of an impression, like Danny McBride’s Tennessee and Amy Seimetz’s Farris, though I have to be real: I might just be in love with the fact that we have an Alien movie featuring Danny McBride and Amy Seimetz.
Other faces and personalities flit through, including Dany Branson (Katherine Waterston), the film’s de facto lead. She’s the most developed character on paper, anyway, as we watch her cope with the tragedy of losing her husband (the ill-fated, roasted-to-death captain) before confronting the Xenomorph in a climactic showdown. We learn sparse details about her plans and schemes to build an old-fashioned log cabin with her now dead husband, yet it hardly seems to matter outside of providing a reminder that this forbidding universe doesn’t care for such hopes and dreams. All that endures is annihilation, as the arc of the amoral universe is long and bent towards destruction.
Even at the end of this film, we’ve yet to completely sync up with the events of Alien, meaning this path is lined with even more obliteration, presumably at the hands of David, who has emerged as the most fascinating character in this franchise. The product of another modern Prometheus, he has surveyed “the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” to echo the other literary Shelley guiding this pair of films. Perhaps now he has moved on to Yeats, as Covenant leaves us wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
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