There is a moment in Ridley Scott’s prequel-sequel Alien: Covenant when an albino xenomorph scampers nimbly across and crouches cat-like in the centre of the frame; a white blot on the ashen, decrepit landscape. This moment epitomises, for me, what Fox Studio’s Alien franchise has come to. The days have long since passed when H. R. Giger’s creation was held out of focus, parts of the hostile, inhuman creature merely glimpsed as it would strike viciously from the shadows. Its horror then was as much about its subconscious sexual violence as its invulnerability and mercilessness. But from the divisive response to his 2012 prequel Prometheus, Scott has decided to just give us ‘the alien’ all over again. At the same time, he decides to jettison his attempt to deepen the series’ mythology, an interesting deviation that drove Prometheus, in order to deliver a highly derivative science-fiction thriller. You can guess every disastrous, usually fatal, turn and twist that Alien: Covenant tries to pounce upon you.
Set ten years after the ill-fated voyage of the ‘Prometheus’, a crew of colonists are travelling to another habitable planet, Origae-6. Woken mid-flight, the crew must deal with the dangers of space travel when the ship is damaged and several of their cryogenically frozen crew-mates are burnt alive in their space-pods. Scott wastes little time tipping us into the mayhem, with plenty of screaming, steams-bursts and flashing lights breaking from the usual protracted, calm awakening sequences in previous instalments. The rest is all familiar though: Jed Kurzel gives us a few of those ominous notes from Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score, the unnatural noises and winds of space’s vacuum and Katherine Waterston’s Daniels cuts the similar tough, androgynous-looking stance of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The production design seamlessly blends the 70s retro-futuristic panels and equipment with Prometheus’ modern sleekness.
With an increasing sense of deja vu, another garbled message is intercepted by the crew and against Daniel’s wishes and common sense, the crew decide to investigate the signal’s source. It must be said that despite this utter retreading of old plots, aesthetics and conflicts, Scott succeeds in making the early sequences tense and a little despairing. The physical threats of space-travel, similar to issues encountered in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Gravity, such as technological faults and working precariously in the vacuum, convince us this setting remains claustrophobic, unpredictable and hostile. ‘I hate space’ one character mutters darkly during the landing and considering the fatalities we’ve seen and know await the crew, its difficult to disagree.
Finding the new planet with its beautifully ethereal though foreboding fjords and boreal forests strangely suitable for human life, the crew consider establishing their new colony here instead. However, when members become stricken with a deadly airborne pathogen- the gore and body-horror really begins. The infected hosts soon follow the late John Hurt down the pleasures of having something vile and hostile gestating inside them and then seeking the nearest exit out of the body. Yet as Scott ramps up the panic, terror and disgust, the film begins to lose its overbearing atmosphere while reducing the terrifying presence of central ‘star’. Like Heijningen’s dubious 2011 prequel to The Thing, the featured monster is resurrected completely via digital effects, to a disappointing result. While it retains the same twisted, phallic design, the xenomorph is often seen in the open which only emphasises its now quite generic movement and behaviour: whether its scampering leopard-like across the necropolis or clinging to the crew’s freighter ship.
Only when the xenomorph lethally pursues the crew within the industrial, circular corridors of the ‘Covenant’, leering voyeuristically at a showering couple in the film’s climatic sequence, does it even half resemble the original’s perverse and indomitable threat. Its genetic deviation, the pale ‘neomorph’, appears to have only one distinct quirk: it comes out of a crew member’s back rather than their front- what innovation. While you can blame the fact that these scenes were so heavily previewed that they lack genuinely grotesque impact, I think it also suggests Scott’s fatigue or ambivalence on resurrecting and utilising the alien. Alongside this, screenwriters Dante Harper and John Logan decide to go on the offensive with their persistent allusions to the 1979 original: whether its another state-themed name of a crew mate ‘Tennessee’ (Danny McBride) or rising action in the third act when the xenomorph inexplicably but inevitably re-emerges to threaten the survivors (with a liberty taken on the canon’s depiction of the gestation process). There’s even an entire set and scene devoted to tributing Giger’s illustrations. Logan proves he’s able to shoe-horn in all kinds of references, similar to his ‘homage’-ridden scripts for Skyfall and Spectre, without utilising them in any imaginative way.
When not using the established formula of the Alien series, Covenant just opts into the standard conventions of its genre. It becomes unintentionally amusing to hear characters sign their own death warrant when exiting the scene with the phrase ‘I’m just going to…’. Logan and Harper also seem to labour under the delusion that just because these characters are doubled-up as couples, we’ll feel the emotional impact on their traumatised widowed spouses. Unfortunately the film spends so little time even sketching them, even less so than the crew of the ‘Prometheus’, and decides to dispatch three or four of them within minutes, it is near impossible to actually care for them. It also fails to recognise the potential of the sexual or reproductive subtext that the colonists could provide here. Despite the affectionate, profanity-laden ‘banter’ between them and some tension from the insecure, faith-led Orme (Billy Crudup), who steps up to be the acting-captain, you long for the more naturalistic, memorable ‘Nostromo’ crew. Similar to Prometheus, where the crew roles were given to a fine crop of actors like Idris Elba, Benedict Wong and Charlize Theron, everyone is still really set up as cannon fodder. And for however much she tries in her grit and physicality, Waterston is certainly no Ripley. Dangling stupidly from the freight craft, attempting to machine gun a xenomorph, is entirely lacking the realistic frustration and desperation of Weaver’s original protagonist.
The one saving grace is Michael Fassbender’s subversive, sarcasm-dripping performance as the android David. A mixture of Milton’s Satan and both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature, David becomes the most watchable addition in the franchise, despite his role being very much a hackneyed science-fiction archetype of an AI questioning his creator’s dominant status and significance, which even Scott himself has used before in Blade Runner. Fassbender is able to be both reassuring yet disarming as David; his mimicked O’Toole accent and mocking quips are amusing yet twisted. ‘Please make yourself at home in this necropolis’ he tells the crew with a wry smile. Ironically, he bests suits the android Ash’s (Ian Holm) description of the alien in the original, David has become the ‘perfect organism…unclouded by conscience, remorse, and delusions of morality’. In reducing the palpable sense of the xenomorph’s threat, David becomes the film (and potentially the series’) main antagonist. Yet even Fassbender goes too far: his theatrical, wispy-voiced, melodramatic reading of Percy Shelley’s Ozymandius and particularly pronounced RP accent is just too reminiscent of the plummy, British villains of another era (recalling Peter Cushing, Ian McKellan and Richard Harris).
Trying to enhance David’s role awkwardly into the franchise’s continuity doesn’t entirely work either. It takes away from the otherworldly nature of the xenomorph, while also discarding the deepening of the mythology begun in Prometheus. While that film posed grandiose questions about creation, juxtaposing the religious Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), man-made David and the progenitor race called the Engineers, Covenant decides to literally ‘nuke’ that thematic digression. It struggles to even offer the symbolism that gave Prometheus other layers to digest and consider. Arguably, both Prometheus and Covenant diminishes the original Alien by seeking to dovetail it, reducing the 1977 film’s mystery and immediacy with an unnecessary and wildly portentous backstory. Yet unlike both Alien and Prometheus’ portrayal of humanity’s confrontation with the uncanny, arresting realities of ‘the unknown’ universe, Covenant’s colonists wander around the planet and the crashed alien spacecraft with no discernible sense of awe, curiosity or trepidation. Even when the Engineer space-suits are glimpsed, the crew walk past with little comment or interest. They seem to mirror Scott’s attitude: impatient to move on to the xenomorph and the screaming, the chest-bursting, shooting guns, death ad nauseam.
Its ironic that Scott’s latest feature is titled ‘covenant’, for he has made pact with the franchise’s fans that has yielded a derivative, predictable and bland follow-up. As with its 90s instalments, the Alien saga still fails to be as genuinely engaging or unsettling as those first two features, though now it appears that even its creator has forgotten what made its focal terror so frightening. Instead, like that albino xenomorph, the franchise is just sitting out in the open with all its sublimity, subtext and fear removed.