In Riddley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, the sixth installment in the main Alien continuity, the crew of the Covenant is bound for Origae-6 when they receive a signal from a nearby planet that seems to offer the same, if not better, colonization prospects as their original destination. The acting Captain decides to investigate and a landing crew touches down on this new world.
If you’ve seen any of the previous entries in this film series, you have a pretty good—too good, in fact—idea of what’s in store in this one.
Prophets of Science Fiction (2011-2012), a short-lived series hosted and produced by Riddley Scott, featured an episode on Arthur C. Clarke in which Scott stated: “We’re not here by accident. For us to be sitting here right now is so illogical, mathematically can be proved to be impossible. So you have to ask: along the way, who pushed and pulled and adjusted to make us be what we are, here, now, today?” His argument is false, but at least it helps us understand how Prometheus’ storyline is grounded in Scott’s personal misunderstanding of science. Alien: Covenant’s philosophical musings continue to touch on similar questions of creationism and design, but fail to innovate or be genuinely thought-provoking. The questionable behavior of characters which many viewers complained about in Prometheus is unfortunately amped up in this sequel. No one on the ship is as interesting or memorable as Ripley or, for that matter, even on a par with Shaw. Body horror fans, on the other hand, will be treated to a full menu.
Reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz, who awarded Covenant four out of four stars, observes that “characters do tremendously stupid things with such regularity that you pretty much have to stop judging the movie by real-world logic. Instead you have to judge it by the standards of a fever dream or nightmare, a Freudian-Jungian narrative where the thing you fear most is what happens to you.”
I disagree. For one, the movie itself offers no cues that it should be read primarily in a metaphorical or surreal way, unlike many other horror or experimental movies. Its surface aesthetic is purely science-fictional and it emphasizes glossy technology throughout. More importantly, the first two—and best—Alien movies rise above their B-movie gimmickry not only through consummate execution and excellent performances, but precisely because they respect the audience’s intelligence and logically operate within their defined constraints. Arguing that this movie can only be judged by the illogic of a nightmare is, as far as I’m concerned, an admission of the franchise’s devolution.
Prometheus and Alien: Covenant both touch on intriguing ideas, but they’re too scattershot in their assembly, and too conceptually undisciplined, to either provoke pathos or engage intellectually.
I watched Alien: Covenant after revisiting, in five consecutive days, the first five movies in this series, and I find Covenant the least interesting of the lot. It uneasily combines Prometheus’ portentous, pseudo-philosophical grandstanding with Alien’s Gothic claustro-slasher sensibility in a way that does a disservice to both. Despite its many flaws, Prometheus at least attempted to set itself apart from Alien by reaching for a more cerebral, science fictional tone. The Engineer-related mythology posed plenty of questions with the potential for visionary or at least surprising stories. This is neither.
Here’s a few things in Covenant that bugged me, or which I found confusing, in no particular order.
1) The initial “neutrino storm”; neutrinos hardly interact with matter, so how could this possibly damage the solar sails in the way shown? I’m sorry to say that the movie kicks off with junk science. Later this gets rebranded a stellar flare and Walter explains there was no time to prepare. But assuming a stellar ejection of some kind, such radiation would still be constrained by the speed of light. If the Covenant was at the same distance from the responsible star as the Earth is from the Sun, for example, it still would have had at least eight minutes to retract its sails. And why would the Covenant be flying so close to an unstable star?
2) Lack of character development. Lope, Karine, Ricks, Upworth, Faris, Hallett, Ankor, Ledward, and Cole—these are just names, with no individuating features or behaviors.
3) The accelerating proliferation of exo-biological organisms. In the first four Alien movies, we dealt with ovomorphs, facehuggers, chestbursters which grew to xenomorphs, a xenomorph queen, and a human-cloned-queen generating a human-xenomorph hybrid. Basically six creatures over four films. The last two films have added black liquid, hammerpedes, both infant and mature squid-like trilobites, deacons, egg sacks, motes, bloodbursters that grow into neomorphs, and not-quite-xenomorphs; some ten creatures over the course of two films. It’s starting to feel cumbersome.
4) The bloodbursters and neomorphs in this movie move with physics-defying speed; the bloodbursters are able to take round after round of machine gun fire without any seeming effect; and the quasi-xenomorph often feels like CGI (will this prompt a “make the xenomorphs great again” campaign)?
5) The new motes pose a far more menacing threat than any of the large creatures, rendering the latter comparatively less scary. This also makes it difficult to understand why David is continuing his experiments with diminishing returns.
6) David plays one of Prometheus’ main musical themes on his recorder. This is distracting, because it converts the previous film’s non-diegetic score—music that the characters could not access, and which existed merely for the audience’s sake—into diegetic material. Your mileage may vary, but imagine for a moment Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi humming one of the themes from The Empire Strikes Back.
7) Oram’s religious beliefs are brought up repeatedly in the first part of the movie as a source of conflict, but the theme (and character) are then summarily dispatched without resolution or closure.
8) Faris is right to quarantine both Karine and the infected Ledward. Why would seeing Ledward backburst a nightmarish alien creature compel Faris to change her mind and break quarantine? I understand that she is panicked, but this defied credibility for me.
9) If Walter is physically superior to David, and mentally better-working (his memory isn’t impaired, for example), how precisely does David defeat him? This feels like a cheat, particularly because it disposes of Walter off-screen. (It’s possible that Walter is still alive, but this introduces other questions, possibly for further sequels).
10) No explanation is provided for why the planet David is on was missed by all surveys and scans, particularly if it was home to the spacefaring Engineers (at least until David got there) and is closer to Earth than Origae-6.
11) Who do the Engineers on this planet appear, in the flashback, to be at a low technological level? One of their ships arrives and they seem to have no way of communicating with it and no ability to exert defensive measures once they are under attack. This makes me think their strike against Earth wouldn’t have gone well. Also, if the pilot of the derelict vessel in Alien was an Engineer, does that mean they’re not all dead? If it wasn’t, who was in the suit?
12) Was this the Engineer homeworld, or some other planet David found in the ship’s records? If the former, it seems unlikely their entire civilization would have been concentrated in one city. If the latter, then Prometheus’ closing question still remains unanswered.
13) We still don’t know who created the black liquid, or why.
14) We still don’t know what the Engineers hoped to accomplish by destroying humanity, another leftover question from Prometheus.
15) No one objects to setting foot on a recently discovered alien planet with a suspicious distress signal without helmets or any kind of biological protection.
16) After Walter informs Oram of David’s deception and his murder of Shaw, Oram takes no immediate action to evacuate or immobilize David. Instead, he decides to follow David alone into a dark underground chamber containing ovomorphs, and to then stick his face right above one as it quivers to life.
17) The tone is a mess. The film meshes things like Tennessee’s jokes about breasts with references to Shelley, Byron and Wagner.
18) The final action sequence is a vent-the-alien-into-space retread. We’ve seen this in the original, the sequel, and the third sequel. No ingenious twist here; just a larger scale.
19) The film’s ending relies on a heavily-telegraphed Evil Twin replaces Good Twin trope.
20) Shaw, who foreshadowed Ripley’s physical stamina and mental resilience, and whose tenacity made her the sole human survivor of the Prometheus’ mission, is killed off-screen before this movie begins.
21) We still don’t know why the Engineers seed worlds with their genetic material while also working with the black goo that destroys all life, including, apparently, them.
22) No explanation is provided for why the Engineers’ planet was, besides them, lifeless. If David killed all insects and animals with the black liquid, was there another wave of hybridized bloodbursters, and if so where did they go?
23) Did the dying Engineers hatch xenomorphs when they were massively infected with the black liquid by David? If so, where did all these thousands of xenomorphs go?
24) Why don’t Daniels and Tennessee take the craft straight up when they realize a xenomorph is attached to the bottom of the hull? Vacuum seems like their safest bet for killing it.
25) I consider the attempt to show the xenomorph’s point of view one of Alien 3’s stylistic missteps. I didn’t think that strategy worked in the recent Alien-inspired Life, either. And I don’t think it works during this film’s climactic xenomorph hunt.
26) Did David produce his ovomorph variant without the aid of a queen? Why then are queens later an intrinsic and necessary-seeming part of the ovomorph life cycle? Did he somehow turn Shaw into a kind of “proto-queen”? If so, why would he leave her behind on the planet?
27) The film’s pacing is uneven, to say the least, with a lackluster thirty or forty minutes early on. Unfortunately, much of what happens during this interval has little or no narrative payoff.
28) The magnetic boots used when repairing the solar sails would have come in handy when Daniels was walking on the outside of the planetary craft fighting the xenomorph.
29) The surviving Covenant crew acts remarkably nonplussed as they walk amidst thousands of strewn Engineer corpses. Considering that this group of humans has never encountered Engineers before, and that their death-poses suggest agony, I’d expect them to press David for explanations.
I could go on, but you get the idea. All of that said, the film also deserves praise. Visuals are spectacular. The set design of David’s stone castle, for example, and the overall look of the dead city, are arresting. Fassbender’s dual performance is fun to watch. Lighting, photography, sound design and editing are all top-notch. The sequence showing Faris panicking and making mistake after mistake is incredibly intense, and the genocidal Engineer flashback is suitably brutal and gut-wrenching. The title design, Jed Kurzel’s use of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic theme, and several other touches deliver genuine throwbacks to the classic Alien. And I acknowledge that some of the above questions or concerns may be addressed or resolved by deleted scenes, a new cut of the movie, or in future sequels.
Ultimately, however, this isn’t enough. In various interviews (for example, starting at 3:03 here) Riddley Scott hasn’t been shy about sharing that his intended direction for the follow-up to Prometheus changed based on social media feedback. Fans wanted more xenomorphs, and he complied, de-emphasizing the intended Engineers’ lore and shining the spotlight on the killer creatures instead. That’s a shame, because he’s shortchanged the former and diluted the latter. Scott, a superb visual storyteller, has with Alien: Covenant made a gore-heavy horror movie wrapped up in science fiction tropes that looks gorgeous—it may be the best-looking movie you see this year—but is shaky on science, inattentive to plot, and weak on characterization.
If you’re looking for an early handling of Alien-esque material, and one that has the virtue of being entangled with the original film’s genesis—its author sued the studio and settled out of court—I recommend A. E. van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” published in 1939. It features the human crew of a spaceship being picked off by an intelligent, cat-like creature with tentacles, called the Coeurl, and it illustrates that for all its technical sophistication, Alien: Covenant adds little to this basic situation, first formulated in a pulp story now nearly eighty years old.