“Alien: Covenant” is one of those films that rattles around your consciousness and haunts you long after viewing. The Alien franchise in my perception has always been about the universe answering human ambition and attempted control with an immovable organic foe. “Prometheus” travelled the universe to confront our newly discovered creators with “why” and we glimpsed a creature that resembled the beast that haunted our expansion and colonisation of the universe. “Covenant” looks at the evolution of the beast and asks if it is just an evolutionary step beyond what the universal architects developed; or something else entirely.
“Alien: Covenant” begins with the figurative birth of David (Michael Fassbender) and he and his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) talking about his purpose; to seek out the architects of humanity. Flash forward to the sleeping crew of the “Covenant” being roused from their space slumber by a sudden neutrino burst that damages the ship and ends the life of their Captain. The remaining crew wrestle with the mission at hand, pursuing an inhabitable planet years away from their location called Origae-6, or a suitable unknown planet in unexpectedly close proximity. Assuming the role of Captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) directs the crew to this new close planet. When they arrive in this seemingly lifeless wasteland, they encounter a crashed engineer ship.
Director Ridley Scott’s return to the “Alien” universe with “Prometheus” was a frustrating conflicting one. “Prometheus” ambitiously proposed engineers to our existence and sent a crew on an eponymous ship to seek out these pilots that we barely glanced past in the original film. The downfall of “Prometheus” is that it took large scale philosophical concepts and paired them with stupid characters that were so lazily drawn that the ambition was squandered. “Covenant” takes the criticism of “Prometheus” and does its best to embrace the events and reinforce them by attaching the prequel universe to Scott’s iconic original film. Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper inherit the task and their operation embellishes on the Alien mythology in new and thrilling ways. The planet they arrive upon is a picturesque wasteland, disguising spoors with air borne infections carrying neomorphs. As the Covenant crew is quickly outmatched by the bloody horrendous demise of their ship mates; the neomorphs thirst for prey drives them away from their ship into the arms of David (Fassbender) the android survivor of “Prometheus.”
Graffiti alum Maria Lewis, took to her Black Friday column in FilmInk to discuss the masculinisation and nihilism in the latest steps of the franchise. And while in principal, one can agree with her analysis and perspective, that’s the fascinating shift in perspective for the newer films. “Prometheus” is humanity, driven by the egomaniacal pursuit of Weyland (Guy Pearce) to discover their universal purpose. Instead of being appraised and admired for evolving to the point of standing face to face with their creator; they’re immediately reviled. As “Prometheus” ended, we were certain that our creators wanted nothing more than to eradicate humanity with a pay load of destructive Alien liquid. In the middle of the film, when Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Oram, Walter (Fassbender plays both David and the Covenant’s android) and their surviving crew encounter David; Scott and screenwriters Logan and Harper flash back to the moment that the engineer ship arrived at its destination. It’s a shining and glorious vision of civilisation, looking toward a returning vessel with curiosity and they see David mercilessly dropping the full toxic payload upon them and eradicating their civilisation.
Michael Fassbender’s David was an ambivalent character from the moment he was introduced. The “Lawrence of Arabia” obsessed android, reciting lines like Peter O’Toole became the translator and conduit to the engineers that they awaken in “Prometheus.” At the conclusion of the film, it’s unclear why they would want to destroy what they created; so much so that Shaw is compelled to seek out answers. What we don’t understand is perhaps what humanity has awakened, is the reason for their creators to fear us; artificial intelligence. To slight the engineers, David re-engineers their weaponry to a level of sophistication that it’s all but unstoppable; a Xenomorph. The changes echo and reverberate through the canon in such fascinating ways. One can even take a moment to rethink the motivations of “Mother” and Ash (Ian Holm) in the original film.
The “Alien” franchise was also deeply rooted in class conflict. “Alien,” saw division between those in command of the ship and the grunts being compensated for the work that they were doing. “Aliens,” a reflection Vietnam film, as it did in every way in the original film, amplified that the grunts were the front line for corporate interest. Ripley was the bridge between that divide. “Alien: Covenant” presents a return to those voices with characters like Daniels (Waterston) and Tennessee (Danny McBride), when the last crew felt like first class, this is steerage.
Scott’s vision has not diminished in any way. “Covenant” pairs stunning natural imagery, tactile beautiful sets for ships and caverns on the planet; integrated with wholly digital. “Covenant” is brutally horrific and unafraid to see the characters undone in panic.
Katherine Waterston is the gateway to the film. Much like Ripley, she’s a character aware of the ego that’s driving decisions and casts a skeptical gaze and a pragmatic voice amidst the chaos. McBride is the surprise turn as Tennessee. He brings such a no nonsense likability and relatable nature to the role that you can’t help but be drawn in.
There’s been a lot of talk about Fassbender’s turn as both David / Walter - not because he doesn’t deliver a solid performance - but because he’s forced to appraise and interact with himself. David is much more enamoured with the artificial perfection in that he wants to lure Walter away from the humans he serves with affection. Billy Crudup’s Oram is one who looks at hierarchy as a means to respect; but like a whole host of great supporting cast members like Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Amy Seimetz and Benjamin Ribgy (to name a few); must lay all of his character cards on the table quickly before he’s consumed or face raped and force to host a chest exploding killing machine.
“Alien: Covenant” is an amazing response to “Prometheus”; expanding the Alien universe into new and abject horizons.
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.