Hit films, like hit records, acquire a patina of amplified greatness the further they recede into the past and become part of the glistening tapestry of our culture. Their initial success looms ever larger as the decades slip by, bolstered by more viewers and listeners drawn in via word of mouth and a grapevine of recommendations. So to start any review of Alien Covenant with an off-the-cuff “it’s not as good as Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)”, or “it’s better than Alien3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997)”, is really rather pointless. Those films have been allowed to stew in the juices of high praise and ignominy for decades, allowing them a lustre Alien Covenant could never hope to match until it has been granted the same calm assessment from a distance.
A Strike 2 which Covenant has to avoid, is that it needs to poke its narrative head through decades of mythology, storytelling and analysis of previous films in the franchise to produce a clear story structure that audiences can instantly grasp and relate to. It’s difficult to focus on simply the story at hand when so much previous baggage is tugging at your brain.
The Strike 3 to overcome is the mountain of marketing accompanying the new film. If you, like I, have consumed the past six months of feverish promotion (YouTube trailers, Covenant crew video diaries, Instagram and Twitter promo clips not included in the final film), the likelihood of experiencing Covenant like you might have Alien is zero.
Alien was precisely that: totally unfamiliar and unsettling because it was alien. Covenant can never shock us or evoke the same feelings of horror and disgust, because we know what we’re getting before we sit down and because we’ve seen a lot of the film before we’ve entered the theatre. Even new, young audiences have a familiarity with the franchise that those viewing Alien in 1979 did not.
And does anyone carping about how Covenant is not Alien or Aliens really think it would not have shocked and surprised audiences in 1979, had it been the first in the franchise, technological advances notwithstanding?
So for Covenant to emerge a bold, scary, tense ride with enough original story strands to make it unique is already an immense achievement. For it to have improved on the shortcomings of its predecessor Prometheus (2012) is just icing on the cake, and evidence that director Ridley Scott and his team listened to fans in further shaping the universe he helped to birth. Bizarre leaps in logic so prevalent in Prometheus are still present in Covenant, but made less intrusive by the fact that this time around we actually like the characters and are therefore a little more forgiving.
Covenant has all the elements of a classic alien film: an enormous vessel gliding through deep space into the cinemagoer’s view, a computer readout of the ship’s purpose and crew, a transmission from an unexpected origin, a reconnaissance mission, a rogue synthetic, the inevitable calamity and gore involving chases through claustrophobic corridors and unpleasant beasts erupting from human hosts.
Where Covenant is different is that, despite others describing it as vast and epic, I found it quite a small, compact, tight film. Sure, the breathtaking vistas and landscapes are huge, but once we get to the core of the narrative, the players are confined to a small space that ends up feeling like the setting of a theatre play, rather than a shoot-em-up action film.
Central to this theatrical feel is of course Michael Fassbender’s Lawrence-of-Arabia-obsessed android David – the Pinocchio man-child gone totally batshit. In his character arc, we have the culmination of mankind’s endless obsession with innovations in science and technology. The alien Engineer race from Prometheus create humans who create artificial intelligence which spawns monsters; creations turning on their creators in a carnival of carnage.
Not bad for a human
Performances from the cast, especially Fassbender, are solid, but what Covenant does lack is the consistent slow build that worked so well in Alien and Aliens. For my money I would have preferred an extra 30 minutes tacked onto the beginning of the two-hour running time to really get to know the characters. If writers and director had wanted more identification with crew members, it would have been good to know clearly from the get-go who on this colonisation mission was married to whom. Instead, one is mostly confused about who is whose partner, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gay couple play like two straight men pretending to be gay. Fortunately one of them mentions yoga to clarify their gender preference to the audience.
What Covenant does a great job of is altogether dispensing with gender politics and issues of sexuality to focus on issues contemporaneous to its future time frame. Whether crew members are men, women or gay is totally irrelevant, as the crew wrestle instead with artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and new life forms. It’s encouraging to think that our future might one day become so gender neutral. Of course xenomorphs might put a crimp in that rosy future.
Another pleasing factor to this fan of Alien Resurrection is how, for all the negativity heaped on that instalment, which plunged its ladle deep into the genetic engineering soup dish, it most clearly pointed the way for the future of the series. Resurrection’s tinkering with alien and human DNA is exactly where the series has gone in its exploration of the origins of human- and alienkind. It’s probably quite unintentional, but a shot of David’s twisted reflection in Covenant neatly mirrors the swirling mass of genetic experiments in the Resurrection opening credits.
It’s also satisfying to hear aural signatures from the original Jerry Goldsmith-scored Alien in the new Jed Kurzel score, which builds on previous chapters in its balance of sinister stealth and booming bombast. These beautifully match Scott’s gorgeously pristine shots and moments of thumping action, as well as the visual nods to the earlier films: computer displays that echo previous franchise entries; a digital nature mural reminiscent of the one Ripley sat next to while recuperating in Aliens; a balancing bird toy reminding us of the one in Alien.
Short, controlled bursts
A handful of the action set pieces sit comfortably with other best-in-series moments (the initial infection and birthing scenes certainly), while Scott and his writing team’s expansion of the alien universe in new directions, while retaining much that is familiar is a welcome signpost of what’s to come.
The baton has clearly been passed from Sigourney Weaver to Michael Fassbender in that Alien 1 to 4 was the story of Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, while Prometheus and beyond is the story of Fassbender’s David. Two deep-space crews have so far come and gone in Prometheus and Covenant, but team members have been mostly marginal in the face of David’s character arc. The crew, you might say, are expendable.
In conclusion, and in defence of Covenant, imagine for a moment we applied today’s multitudinous internet nitpicking to the untouchably holy Alien and Aliens. We might see comments like: “It was rubbish because no one explained where that derelict ship or the space jockey came from,” or “I couldn’t relate to any of the crew members – they were so cold and distant (Alien); they were just wisecracking soldiers (Aliens),” or “why would anyone look inside, or get so close to an alien egg,” or “how could one untrained civilian and a little girl go toe-to-toe with a whole alien colony?” Truth of the matter is that we forgave any flaws in logic because we loved the films. Let’s hope we can look back at Alien Covenant with some of the same benevolence in years to come.