“Alien: Covenant”. It’s fascinating that the sequel to “Prometheus” styles itself more after “Alien”, but then, the film itself is in many ways more a synthesis of “Prometheus” and “Alien” than a sequel in its own right.
Understanding and appreciating the film is easier when viewing it in the context of director Ridley Scott’s intentions. It’s been nearly forty years since he directed “Alien”, and in those years, while there was one fantastic sequel in James Cameron’s “Aliens”, the titular alien got a pretty raw deal in increasingly messy and nonsensical follow-ups like “Alien: Resurrection” and “Aliens vs Predator: Requiem”. When Scott returned to the universe of “Alien” with the prequel “Prometheus” in 2012, he was often vague about the status of the film in the franchise, eventually saying it shared “strands of ‘Alien’s’ DNA”, but after a long period where what was originally scripted as a direct prequel to “Alien” morphed into something more unique and of its own focus.
[Note: This review covers spoilers of the film from here on.]
So, if the existential questions of “Prometheus” were Scott’s focus more than tying into “Alien”, why did the “Prometheus” sequel change from what “Prometheus” writer Damon Lindelof described as “tangentialising even further away from the original ‘Alien’”, to a film called “Alien: Covenant”? The film had a huge marketing focus on being similar to the original “Alien”, and the third act is a direct riff on “Alien”. What changed? Perhaps Scott felt more possessive of his series than he used to – rumours say he had a hand in nixing Neill Blomkamp’s “Aliens” sequel that would ignore the events of later films, in favour of focusing the series entirely on his prequels, and Scott has talked of being frustrated at the state of the franchise, when other ostensible science-fiction franchises like “Star Wars” are still going strong.
Whatever the motivation, despite the optics, “Alien: Covenant”, in my eyes at least, is definitely not fanservice. Sure, it references “Alien” heavily in its third act, but to focus solely on that would be extremely reductive. It is not fanservice. It sets itself up as a sequel to “Prometheus”, only to concentrate nearly all of the actual sequel elements to an online-only video (”The Crossing”), the only speaking appearance the protagonist of “Prometheus”, Elizabeth Shaw, gets. And while facehuggers and chestbursters appear, as in the original “Alien”, the film doesn’t just idly replicate the thrills of that film. Instead, it reframes them so drastically that many, many fans are sure to be outraged. No longer is the titular alien a mysterious, otherworldly, Lovecraftian nightmare, a freak monstrous force encountered out of ill luck. Instead, “Alien: Covenant” reframes and retcons them to be the design, the experiment of the android David, playing god.
This move truly fascinates me. All thematics aside, and looking only at the events of the films themselves, it makes sense in some ways and lacks sense in others – it jives well with the android Ash in “Alien” calling the titular monster a “perfect organism” (a machine recognising something designed by a superior machine as perfect while the humans are disgusted and terrified works rather well really) , it plays well with H. R. Giger’s biomechanical design for the alien, but it also doesn’t work so well with how ancient the star jockey (or Engineer, rather) seemed in “Alien” (as he had the distinct “normal” form of the alien in the facehugger state in his ship), or how there was a mural in “Prometheus” that seemed to depict the fairly distinct shape of the alien. But I think when it comes to continuity concerns like that, there’s a real difference in values amongst viewers that causes a lot of different reactions.
Personally, I care vastly more about storytelling than continuity. Some don’t see a distinction, which is perfectly valid, but I just cannot bring myself to particularly care about “canon” or carefully-maintained continuity in fictional works. I’m vastly more interested in the stories, the themes, the characters, rather than all these fictional events and worldbuilding points linking up in a way satisfactory for the devoted. I do not see how “Alien: Covenant” reframing the alien as an engineered creature changes the alien in “Alien” to be engineered. In the context of “Alien: Covenant” itself, of course it does, that’s the clear implication for viewers. But “Alien” came out in 1979, many decades before Scott presumably first had this idea. “Alien” hasn’t been retroactively edited to include David. “Alien” still exists pre-”Alien: Covenant”, but now it exists post-”Alien: Covenant” as well. You can watch “Alien” and take it on its terms, or you can think of it in the reframed, “retconned” way that “Alien: Covenant” suggests. These are not contradictory positions. The film existed in 1979, and it exists now in 2017. For all Scott’s love of science-fiction, he cannot literally change the past.
As for the actual construction of the film itself, the cast is strong, with Danny McBride surprising me in how effective a performance he gave. Fassbender was brilliant in his dual roles, but I expected that. Composer Jed Kurzel often returns to a methodical kind of pulsing beat that reminded me of a quickening heartbeat, I found it really effective (one of his cues also really reminded me of his great work in the 2015 “Macbeth”). I was disappointed that, like “Prometheus”, some fairly vital story information is confined to online-only videos, with important crew dynamics established in “The Last Supper” and important “Prometheus” follow-up in “The Crossing”. I liked how the acts of the film were fairly self-contained, with the more loose second act following David and his motivations my favourite, but the third act playing directly off “Alien” a nice surprise. Scott handled the tension very well, especially in the flurry of action ending the first act. The designs for the new creatures of the film (particularly the very human-like “Neomorph”) were excellent, playing off H. R. Giger’s original designs in interesting ways. David himself having artbooks full of Giger-esque drawings was a nice touch too.
The film unified the more existentialist questioning of “Prometheus” with the horror of “Alien”, but did so in a way that built off past ideas (the divine parallels with Weyland and David, the “perfect organism” of the alien) to make something new, examining a sense of divinity more intimately with David than the (in-story) disappointment of the Engineers. The films after Scott’s original increasingly demystified the aliens, but only “Aliens” did so in service of the story. With his prequel series, Scott is recognising the inevitability that any post-”Alien” film featuring the eponymous creature will demystify it more and more, but he is now deploying this inevitability for story purposes. We see it in broad daylight, we see how it is created, but it’s in service of a new story and its themes and characters. If there have to be more films in this franchise, I’m very glad they are self-aware and recognising how best to use their own status as films of this franchise to tell new stories, rather than just to sell more tickets (which comes with the territory in any case). I give “Alien: Covenant” three and a half spores, and a haircut.