The Alien franchise has been around for the same amount of time as I have, and it’s fair to say that (alongside many other people roughly the same age as me, no doubt) the alien creatures of its universe still feel as ingenious and horrifying now as they ever did, having been around in our peripheral vision for so long. I’m not one of those people who maligns Aliens 3 or indeed Alien: Resurrection, either – I think that they are each, in their way, compelling further chapters in the mythos – but, when it turned out that Ridley Scott was coming back to add a prequel to this story, it was exciting news. The resulting piece of work, Prometheus (2012) is undoubtedly an attractive film, with meticulous photography and striking visuals throughout, but its plot is sadly garbled, and it contains a series of unforgivable plot holes which are large enough to lose a ship in. After so many years of waiting and wondering about where the xenomorphs had come from, it didn’t feel as though we were any further ahead by the time the titles rolled – in fact, many viewers had more unanswered questions than ever, even taking into account the general murmur which said that this was NOT an Alien film, and shouldn’t be treated as such. So, what about all those questions then? Turns out Ridley Scott didn’t intend Prometheus to be a stand-alone prequel, and he was working on another prequel – this time a film which picks up a decade in time after the loss of the Prometheus.
I hope this doesn’t count as a spoiler, but the trailer for Alien: Covenant is somewhat misleading, as we don’t see some of the linking footage which it contains in the actual film. Instead, after we glean something of the formative years of the robot, David (more anon), we catch up with a new ship, the Covenant (which looks exactly like the craft from Space 1999) and a new crew, where both the crew and the cargo – around two thousand terraforming colonists and a drawerful of embryos – are in hypersleep while they travel to a new world, approximately still seven years away. The ship is in the meantime being run by a robot, Walter (Michael Fassbender) and ‘Mother’, the ship’s computer. However, a serious accident jars the crew out of sleep, injuring and killing some of them – including the captain – and during vital repairs to the vessel, a further complication intervenes in their plans when crew member ‘Tennessee’ (Danny McBride) picks up a mysterious transmission while he’s space-walking. A mysterious transmission from a planet where the ship isn’t scheduled to stop; now where do I remember that from? Anyway, it turns out that there’s a large, habitable planet a damn sight nearer than their designated destination of Origae-6, and they’d missed it during their selection process, so rather than simply investigating the signal – which is a reasonable thing to do, if someone’s out there in peril – they decide that they’ll then stay and terraform the new, uncharted world which they’d somehow not noticed during the lengthy process of researching and planning for this one-way mission.
If I sound a little sarcastic there, I suppose it’s because I cannot believe that Alien: Covenant rattles through so many of the same silly plot holes as its predecessor, Prometheus. Science fiction it may be, but fictional worlds and their inhabitants still need to behave in ways which make sense, and so we have here another team of alleged terraformers who arrive on an uncharted planet, crash through a storm and then set about, with no safety equipment, interfering with the flora and fauna: it does not make sense. More than that, when believability feels like something which only happens to other movies, you feel less inclined to engage with the great leaps of faith which films of this kind demand of you – and Covenant makes many such demands, asking for great patience when it lulls, and expecting the audience to fill in the blanks when it either can’t, or is keeping its answers for yet another film (which, if Covenant is intended only as a bridging project between the first prequel and another, is pretty unforgivable.)
Still, the film undeniably has a saving grace and that is Michael Fassbender, playing both the creatively-deranged David and a later model, the physically identical, but otherwise steady, dependable Covenant crew member, Walter. Fassbender as David really is superb here, a futuristic Frankenstein’s Creature with some superb hang-ups about the nature of life and creation. Just as with the Creature, David’s disillusionment with mankind compels him to do terrible things, but David lacks the final impulse to reconciliation, something which makes him into a great villain. Walter and David share quite a lot of screen time, too, further testament to Fassbender’s abilities. This is even when he’s being given awful lines of dialogue which never should have made it through first reading: consider the scene where he assures Walter, “I’ll do the fingering.” (They’re playing a musical instrument together.) A wave of giggling swept through the cinema at that stage; again, not the sort of thing you want to happen when – at least in places – you’re evidently going for a literary, philosophical piece of sci-fi.
Covenant is certainly a film which, unusually, pays lip service to the arts in a way which other installments in this story do not. David names himself after Michelangelo’s David, it turns out; there are nods to Wagner, the poem Ozymandias, and I enjoyed spotting the homage to Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (a painting which the late, great HR Giger loved and personally reworked) as well as a location which to my mind comes straight out of Clash of the Titans. On the other side of the coin, it’s also a very grisly film, which is possibly intended to balance the more staid elements: it’s not for me to spell out what happens with regards the aliens themselves, but suffice to say, gone are the long incubation periods or critters slowly pacing along the goddamn walls; the new xenomorphs are unrepentantly CGI, peckish (don’t blame them, really) and in a hell of a rush. Some of the justifications for their form(s) and behaviours are quite interesting; as an idea, a mad scientist with a specialism in genetics has potential, but the impulse to splatter the ideas all over the walls sees the ideas lost in a rather uneven mix. So, thanks to all of this Covenant goes sadly awry; it swings between slow-burn and high-action in ways which aren’t convincing, and because it is trying to accommodate two disparate things, it then lacks the time and space to flesh out elements of the story which could have been oh-so satisfying.
But perhaps most unforgivable is the way that it carbon-copies key scenes from the existing Alien films, which to me looks like the screenplay is waving a white flag; ultimately, it’s uneven because it rehashes a bit from Alien here, a little from Aliens there, even a dash of Alien 3 for good measure (and there was me thinking no one liked that film!) No wonder Covenant isn’t coherent. It has cherry-picked scenes from very, very different films in the franchise. They never belonged together in one place, and we didn’t need to see them enacted again anyway; any attempt to use the excuse that ‘Covenant isn’t really an Alien movie’ has at least now been knocked into the weeds, were it to be used at all. It’s an Alien movie alright – and was Ridley Scott really happy to re-shoot scenes from years ago for his newest venture? Somehow, that makes me sad.
There are odd flashes of intrigue in this prequel, and as with Prometheus it’s all visually striking stuff, but overall Covenant wastes its best ideas and prefers to give the screen time to old ones. What a bloody shame. Fassbender is great, though he dwarfs the rest of the characters to an embarrassing degree (I have already forgotten all but one of their names) and anyone expecting the big answers will now just have to wait, or go disappointed. I fear only habit would take me back to this universe again, should another prequel be forthcoming. Sometimes it turns out that mysterious origins are no bad thing.
Alien: Covenant is on general release now.