Alien: Covenant (2017)

“You can serve in heaven…or reign in hell”

There’s an ecumenical undertone running through Ridley Scott’s latest installment to the Alien franchise. The idea is the Alien, or Xenomorph as we once knew, is a creature of perfect creation. It has been brought together in order to possibly answer the greatest question of all time – at least to a human being – who created the Universe.

When Walter (Michael Fassbender) is originally created by Mr Weyland (Guy Pearce), he asks this very question, and then ultimately declares he must – by his very creation – have now surpassed his creator by being immortal. Ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant focuses on a colonist ship travelling to a new planet with over 2,000 souls.

The first thing that you’re reminded of when you watch this film is just how different Ridley Scott’s Alien is to James Cameron’s Aliens, or even David Fincher’s nihilist (and often overlooked) Alien3. You simply can’t expect the same level of action adventure driven punishment you’d find in a typical Cameron script. Scott plays very much on the idea of human frailty and this ship’s crew suffer the loss of their Captain almost immediately, leading to a mourning Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and reluctantly promoted Oram (Billy Crudup). 

A distress signal is received by Tennessee (Danny McBride) and there’s a clash between whether to help or ignore as per the conflict of the original Alien. However, unlike the threats of forfeiting company bonuses in favor of contractual obligation, the clash here comes from whether the planet is worth risking as a possible colonization site or simply returning to hyper sleep and waking up in seven long years. The Captain orders his crew down and a rather large party of virtually nameless individuals descend upon the planet. The trailer for this film gave me the impression we would see the crew happy, or at least celebrating their spaceflight, yet in the film the pacing cuts mean that you get virtually no time to know who anybody actually is and instead a random photograph is the only cutback to any sort of familial bonds.

Perhaps I’m not being fair, because from dialogue we do pick up several pieces of information, such that Captain Oram is a man of faith – something he felt he was penalized for in not being named Captain before the start of the mission. We also learn that several members of the ships crew are married, thus creating some sense of loss when these characters are killed or separated, but not really enough to make me care all that much. James Cameron added that Ripley was a mother in Aliens, for example, something she doesn’t mention once in the original film – it seems Scott might be employing a tactic to help the audience engage more with a characters profound sense of loss and grief. That said, none of the characters display this very convincingly, and there are ultimately too many members of the crew to begin with to get to know individually anyway.

The main storyline arc in Covenant focuses on David, who has been living a somewhat mysterious existence on this heretofore undiscovered planet since the Prometheus crashed a decade prior. His “brother” is another synth….artificial person, named Walter, who is also played by Fassbender but admits to having several modifications David does not. David believes these are flaws, created to make Walter more like a machine, less ‘frightening’ to humans. It is heavily implied that David has created all the planets Neomorph specimens, harvesting the biology of their creation to create a more fundamentally perfect organism.

At the same time the group is coming to terms with the death of several crew, some of whom were killed when an infected Ledward caused Faris to destroy the dropship. It’s an interesting scene in which Ledward succumbs to an infection but the characters themselves seem almost encouraging it to happen in their inaction. Both Karine and Faris are guilty of overacting and emotionally distraught behavior which causes a situation to go from bad to worse. It is clear, in some respects, that the crew are Scientists and not Marines or even the crew of the Nostromo – but their inexperience and missteps doom everyone from that point on.

To that end I was also disappointed by Daniels, who emerges as the films supposed heroine, yet her acts of bravery are always accompanied with tears and quivering lips. It seems even after several encounters with the beasts the character is still shaken to her core to tackle the films villain. Oram does provide a moment of clarity, where he takes a gun and points it at David’s head, demanding to know exactly what’s going on here. Unfortunately, this act results in his downfall, by being stupid enough to follow blindly the instructions of someone he neither trusts or understands the motives of.

Alien Covenant surprised me with the complete lack of strong characters, both male and female, as well as the presence of human frailty at all times. I firmly believe Science Fiction needs to remove frailty to a large extent, or certainly have a character learn from previous experience enough to not react in a similar way to how the audience would at home. Newt, in Aliens, is an example of a frail and sympathetic character but she is resourceful and a survivor – otherwise she’d be nowhere seen in this film.
 
I hear a lot in the media about strong female characters. I’m yet to actually see an abundance of strong, well written, female characters in modern cinema. I see a lot of films dealing with issues or scenarios from a female perspective, but surely that’s not the same thing. It is important, granted, but characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor were written as strong female roles. I don’t think they were men masqueraded as women.
 

My point is that Covenant always seemed to remind me of the dangers of the element. Nobody seemed to learn anything or grow from the experience, it was a “follow me blindly no questions asked” approach until the end. And that’s to their detriment, because ironically, Alien was one of the few films that originally broke the convention in 1979 when Ridley Scott first cast Sigourney Weaver as the lead character.

The final act of the film sees a climax in which a plot point is subtly borrowed from a recent Aliens comic story line, which I will give full credit to because you really have to be paying attention to catch it, and it was also delightful to see the return of the Facehugger in its glory. The film also provides some insightful looks at the philosophy of the Xenomorph “creator” and Fassenbenders own appearance is leading me to believe the character could easily, with age, be a dead ringer for Alien’s Ian Holm in future installments.

Ultimately this film will remind you exactly why Ridley Scott created Alien, but it will also remind you how different that vision could have been if the second film was never created in the series. I wouldn’t have condemned an additional 35 minutes to its running time and would welcome this in the Blu Ray release at a later date. For now, a superb modern addition to the franchise.

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