Ridley Scott’s latest Alien movie finally answers some important questions while returning to the series’ horror roots.
Alien: Covenant director Ridley Scott must’ve heard the screams of frustration as Alien fans left theatres after watching Prometheus in 2012. Like the Prometheus’ crew, I’d waited so long and come so close to the origin of it all, yet left knowing so little. What exactly is that aggressive black goo? What did we do to anger our creators to deserve obliteration? Why do experienced scientists think it’s okay to poke stuff? With more questions than answers, I felt cold on it – and I wasn’t alone.
While Covenant continues to pose new questions, it also provides answers, and does so within a much more immediately enjoyable and rewarding experience. In many ways – stylistically, thematically, structurally – it sits neatly between the existential ponderings of the previous film and the sumptuous horror of the 1979 original. And while it fails to match the original in terms of sheer terror and elegance, Scott nevertheless delivers some imaginative takes on familiar sequences and rich, satisfying answers to Prometheus’ lingering mysteries.
Covenant begins, true to form, with a crew emerging from hyper-sleep. They’re pioneers; a mixture of engineers, scientists, and pilots transporting colonists in stasis to a distant planet carefully selected to be their new home. But during the long voyage, the crew is lured to what appears to be an even better site for their colony.
From hereon, Covenant delivers a focussed, suspense-driven story as various members of the crew play host to a variety of vicious parasites which burst forth in gruesome fashion. Scott even offers up a grisly new rendition of the infamous chestburster sequence which is an effective and full-on piece of body horror, though it’s almost impossible to match the surprise of the 1979 original. It’s an early statement of intent: the sterile musings of Prometheus violently give way to splintering ribs and blood-spattered med bays.
Scott initially holds back the classic xenomorph teased in trailers in favour of a pale, haunting creature – already being referred to as the ‘neomorph’ by fans of the series – which is no less aggressive and, when fully grown, possesses an eerie quality all of its own.
The classic alien is withheld for good reason, and when it finally makes an appearance, it’s worth the wait, punctuating the most intriguing and disturbing section of the movie. It remains one of the greatest monsters in all of cinema, though it’s still strange to see H.R. Giger’s original design brought to life with computer animation and moving with such intense ferocity and speed. It’s not badly done by any means, just at odds with how that creature was originally used. In Covenant, you see it so nakedly, performing a variety of actions outside and in full daylight, when before so much of it was cloaked by the Nostromo’s shadows, leaving your imagination to fill in its sinister mystery.
Covenant’s early action sequences are exciting; even though much of what unfolds has been seen before in the series, it’s testament to Scott that he’s able to find new and visually striking ways of tackling these set pieces. Covenant is the first film in the series (not counting the awful AvP spinoffs) to take full advantage of outdoor locations adding novelty to what could’ve otherwise be a staid sequence. One particularly memorable and violent attack takes place in a field at night, with juvenile creatures scurrying between sheaves of wheat by torchlight.
Scott’s compositions and visuals benefit from how he dovetails detailed sets with impressive location work. It’s like watching an idyllic postcard of New Zealand fade into one of Hieronymus Bosch’s hellish landscapes.
The procession of slaughter feels all more heart-wrenching this time around because the crew is composed entirely of married couples. Although it makes plenty of sense for when you need to populate a new planet, it proves to be a less than a good idea when difficult decisions need to be made in fraught situations. It does a better job of justifying why smart, highly-trained people people end up doing such dumb things than most Alien movies.
The cast is strong: Katherine Waterston plays the resourceful Daniels and deftly handles the tricky transition from supporting role to heroine; Billy Crudup perfectly suits the friendly yet out-of-his-depth captain; Danny McBride, meanwhile, does a lot with limited screen time to establish pilot Tennessee as the most likeable crewmate. Of course, the crew is violently whittled down by the end, but each death feels much more impactful because they’re mourned by their partners – the person who loved them the most, and with whom they left Earth to start a new life. The person left alive is not only totally alone but in mortal danger themselves. It’s yet another effective spin on a familiar set-up.
Towards the end of the movie, however, the invention that dries up to a degree, with Scott delivering what feels like a compressed version of the original Alien. The outdoor scenes are replaced by claustrophobic corridors and pinging motion-trackers. I’m not sure if it’s knowing self-homage by Scott or a lack of new ideas for how to end this sort of movie – regardless, it’s still a fun conclusion, though slightly cliched next to the invention that precedes it.
Sandwiched between the fresh first act and that somewhat more predictable conclusion, Covenant smuggles in a more thoughtful and philosophical second act; it’s where the movie is at its most Prometheus-like in tone – ponderous, even a little pretentious – but unlike the divisive prequel, Covenant has some genuinely satisfying answers.
It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to ask big questions but, more often than not, it does so by unsubtly spouting them out of the mouths of its characters. While the original had enough uterine architecture and slimy things slipping down throats to raise scholarly eyebrows, Covenant confronts its ideas head-on; it’s the sort of movie where characters quote Paradise Lost and listen to Wagner’s Das Rheingold to make their points. It’s unapologetically bold and brash in its handling of intellectual material, but it sort of works for a few reasons.
For one, the reveal of how and why the xenomorphs were created is rewarding within the terms Scott laid out in Prometheus. And none of this would’ve worked without the performance of Michael Fassbender, who once again plays the ship’s android. He delivers a lot of the stodgier material with ease while gracefully wading through the rising melodrama, conducting Scott’s bombastic sci-fi symphony with total conviction. Even when things become faintly ridiculous, he remains utterly compelling.