The formula is easy to figure out: a bunch of rough-and-ready spacers trapped in an enclosed space with a big, scary alien creature that’s only interested in one thing: eating them. This formula has not only worked for five previous Alien movies with small variations, but for countless other horror/sci-fi films too. Though much debated, it’s the original 1979 film Alien that offers the purest vision of this storyline and it not only set the stage for the crossover genre sci-fi horror, but did a damn good job doing so. All these years later, it’s still a surprisingly effective and gripping storyline.
In 2012 director Ridley Scott released Prometheus, a new film in the Alien world after a many year gap. There was a lot to like about the film, including the lush production and gorgeous visual effects, but for many fans, it was impossible to overlook the dumb chances and lack of narrative clarity that plagued the movie. I’m a fan, but every time I watch it I find the ending is sloppy and poorly thought out. It’s worth going back and watching Prometheus, however, because its end becomes an important part of the narrative for the terrific new chapter, Alien: Covenant.
That’s right. I really quite enjoyed Alien: Covenant, and part of it was because of how neatly the team of writers wove elements from previous films into the story. Prometheus ends with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and android David (a fantastic Michael Fassbender) heading off to find The Makers, the race that might have created mankind.
Alien: Covenant opens with a profound and zen-calm musing on creation and whether the created can exceed the expectations of the creator, a scene that feels almost existential. It’s a curious way to start the film, and when the film wraps up, you might be a bit confused how it fits into the rest of the story. But that’s okay, because soon enough we’re into the Alien film formula: An android named Matthew (Michael Fassbender) keeps an eye on the deep space colonization vessel Covenant while 15 crew sleep and over 2000 colonists and thousands more embryos are in cryosleep, waiting to arrive at the destination planet still seven years of deep space travel away.
When a space storm is encountered, the ship is battered and “Mother”, the onboard computer, wakes up the crew. And so we meet Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Oram (Billy Crudup), Tennessee (Danny McBride), Lope (Demián Bichir), Karine (Carmen Ejogo) and the rest of the gang. The captain doesn’t awake from cryosleep which triggers a somewhat predictable conflict between the crew over whether his number two, Oram, has the savvy and people skills to effectively lead. As his second in command, Daniels — “Danny” — offers a calmer, more thoughtful perspective.
While fixing the ship they come across a signal from a previously unmapped planet. People? Far out in deep space? The planet itself looks like an excellent candidate for colonization and Captain Oram takes the ship into orbit, and thence sends down a landing crew to investigate.
They find the android David (also Fassbender) and a whole lot more than they expected, though had they have actually known the film of their adventures was in the “Alien” series, they would have known to be a bit more careful! 🙂
The story keeps moving forward at a good clip with lots of obligatory dark rooms, dark corridors and flashes of monsters in the light of gunshots or laser targeting systems, and there are both the Engineers from Prometheus as well as a variety of Alien creatures, along with lots of the real heart of the film: David.
Indeed, as the first scene suggests, this is a movie about life, about creation, evolution, survival of the fittest and whether the created can be better, more powerful, and more deserving of life than the created. As a creation outside of humanity and yet created by man, David serves as the vessel for much philosophical musing. In a chilling and (appropriately) heartless way.
Not to worry, though, there are lots of beautiful vistas, excellent visual effects, good performances and a sense of wonder throughout the film, even as the humans are running down halls, being chased by the preternaturally fast alien creature! There are moments of building terror and an ending that will leave you squirming, even as you smile a rictus grin, ready for another Alien movie to follow.
There’s also a really interesting narrative thread that carries throughout the Alien series about masculine and feminine, and about maternal roles. As we learn from earlier films, the aliens tend to be female and it’s the female human that’s the protagonist, the one with enough cojones to stand up to the alien and dispatch it. It’s also no accident that the computer’s called Mother in the movie.
All of which isn’t to say the film is without flaws. As with so many of these movies, it’s the science, the logic that falls victim to the desire for a fast-moving narrative. In Prometheus people criticized the landing party pulling off their helmets without proper analysis of the air on the planet but in Alien: Covenant they started right out without any breathing or safety apparatus at all. On an alien planet they’d never even scanned before. It’s no surprise that alien spores infect them but even in that scene, I found myself upset that they couldn’t follow even basic isolation protocols. Then there’s the classic horror film trope of “separate the party” that happens again and again in the film. Why can’t they just stick together on this hostile, alien planet?
Just know going in that there are going to be at least one or two points where the logical, scientific part of your mind is going to balk and complain. Tell it to shut the heck up, however, and enjoy Alien: Covenant for what it is, a fun sci-fi horror film that takes place in a rich, well-known universe.