Ridley Scott (2017)
I remember watching James Cameron’s Aliens and being absolutely terrified back in the 1980s. I’m pretty sure it was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and that remains true to this day. Alien III was something of a letdown for a number of reasons, but mostly because it allowed you to see the xenomorph aliens more clearly, which took the fear of the unknown out of the equation. It isn’t the rivers of gore or the disgusting slimy creatures themselves that arouse the primal fear in the viewer (a fact that so many creators of mere “slasher” movies fail to comprehend), it’s the mind’s horror at what it cannot see, cannot explain and cannot understand that moves an audience most surely toward terror.
Alien: Covenant, the current prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien universe in theaters now, continues that trend to show us too much, so as a pure horror film it’s inferior to Aliens or Scott’s original Alien. However, it does rely on the true Alien formula of colonists deep in space, looking for an Earth-like planet to colonize, landing on a new planet that turns out to be a really bad choice because, well, aliens. The aliens seem to have no other purpose but to kill any living thing that comes in their range, or to use it as a host for their offspring, who then burst out of their human host’s body with grotesque and hideous carnage and then, once hatched, well, they want to kill any living thing in sight. And, as usual, there is an android presence who may or may not be all that helpful to the humans, and there is a kick-ass woman warrior type who gives the aliens all they can handle. All these boxes may be checked for Alien: Covenant, but I think we see too much of the aliens themselves for the film to induce the kind of horror that Aliens did thirty years ago. Add to that the fact that, partly in repeating the motifs of previous Alien films, and partly just from fairly clichéd writing, the film is absolutely predictable from beginning to end; it may be only Alien-universe fanatics that will find this film more than a slight diversion.
Chronologically, the story of Alien: Covenant begins in the year 2104, eleven years after Scott’s first Alien prequel, Prometheus (2012). Prometheus began in 2089, when the archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charles Holloway find evidence of human origins, and takes place mainly in 2093, when Shaw and Holloway lead an interplanetary mission to find the “Engineers,” the creators of the human race—and take with them an android named David who turns out to have an agenda of his own. The events of Covenant lead up to the beginning of Scott’s original film in this franchise, Alien (1979), which takes place in the year 2122, eighteen years after the end of Covenant.
Covenant itself begins with a flashback linking it to Prometheus, dramatizing the creation of the android David (Michael Fassbender) by the wealthy financier Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his conversation with his creator, in which he reaches the conclusion that, since David cannot die and his creator can, then he not Weyland is the superior being. We switch then to the film’s present: on board the Covenant, a spaceship carrying some 2,000 colonists intending to plant a colony on a new earthlike planet, Origae-6. Colonists and crew are all in hibernation while the ship itself is being efficiently run by the computer “Mother” and an android called Walter, who looks one heck of a lot like David. Turns out he’s a new and improved model (in the sense of being less “creative”—read less apt to question his superiors—than David), though he still looks just like Michael Fassbender.
An emergency damages the ship, forcing Walter to wake the crew from their hibernation, but that same emergency claims the life of the captain, Branson (James Franco) who was apparently married to Daniels (Katherine Waterston), this film’s answer to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The entire crew, it seems is made up of couples, that having apparently been a requirement for this mission of colonization. The new captain is Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), who gets off on the wrong foot with his crew by ordering them to secure the ship before letting them grieve Branson. When the crew gets a strange transmission of static-filled garble that sounds like someone singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” they become curious about the planet from which the transmission originates—an earthlike world that seems to be a new paradise and is just days away, as opposed to their original destination, which is still seven years away and would require them all to return to hibernation. Oram now makes his second mistake, redirecting the ship to the new planet in order to see if it could serve as the new colony for Covenant’s passengers and crew. He does this, by the way, over the “official” objections of his second in command, Daniels. Guess who’s going to be right about this.
The landing party finds a paradisical world, but one curiously without any animal life at all. Two members of the party inadvertently disturb little pods with microscopic spores that fly up their noses or into their ears, and guess what? Give yourself a gold star if you figured out that those two crew members become hosts for incubating alien xenomorphs. The only real surprise here is that two of the women crew members get absolutely hysterical and do a number of stupid things when the first alien is hatched. I mean, seriously, these are members of a crew sent into deep space with the responsibility of an entire human colony placed on their shoulders. If it was likely, or even possible, that they would start freaking the freak out at the first sight of something alien (Who could have possibly anticipated an alien being in space? Especially when you’re in a franchise called “Alien”?), then isn’t it pretty likely they would have been screened out, like, I don’t know, RIGHT AWAY?
There are a significant number of fairly stupid people in this crew. I’m guessing it will not surprise you, nor will it be a legitimate spoiler, if you were to learn that most of them get killed by aliens. What does surprise them anyway, if none of the audience except perhaps those under six (who should not be at this movie, by the way!), is that the crew also finds the wreck of the Prometheus on this planet, along with—get ready for a head slap of surprise—David! Dr. Shaw is unfortunately deceased, though it was her voice that kept repeating the John Denver song on that transmission. So, um, did David deliberately lure this crew here, or was that an accident? It’s suspicious, but never really explained.
From what I’ve told you, I’m pretty sure most of you can write the rest of the movie yourselves, especially if you remember the prequel Prometheus at all. And even the dullest among the audience will see the “surprise” ending of the film coming from about a light year away. Still, three performances in the film may come as pleasant diversions, though they are hardly surprises.
Crudup manages to make his character interesting, even complex, though this is in spite of, rather than because of, the script. He says that he is a man of faith, and that seems to set him apart from the rest of the crew. His indecisiveness comes from a kind of alienation from his fellows, but his faith also gives him a kind of optimism about this new world and the possibilities of the human colony—but in the Alien universe, optimism is misplaced, maybe even a flaw. But of all the characters, Crudup is the one who does more than simply react to the horrors of the external stimuli. Unfortunately, the exploration of what his faith might mean in this kind of world is never really explored in the script.
As Daniels, Waterston is sympathetic, smart, and more of a natural leader than her captain. She certainly contrasts with those hysterical women in the crew, and reminds us of Weaver’s Ripley. But it’s an open question whether she’ll be around for any further episodes in the Alien universe—and Scott has suggested there may be as many as three more of these prequels.
But it’s Fassbender who steals the show, playing the twin androids. Maintaining the deadpan aspect of the cyborg personality, but at the same time differentiating the two androids to actually make them distinguishable and individual characters, is no small feat. It’s an acting tour de force that transcends the material he’s given, and may haunt you well after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film.
I’m rating this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and half a Tennyson for memorable performances, most notably Fassbender’s.