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Alien: Covenant

Culture, film, Reviews

May 19, 2017

The Alien series shifts genre in a strange parallel to the xenomorph upon which it was based and as commentary on the era in which it was made. The first movie was about horror and suspense as took us from the seventies to the eighties, where the suspense we felt moving from one decade to the next gave way to the horrors of corruption and disease that we’re still feeling to this day. The second movie was all about action and consequence and how the greed of a few might kill the rest of us, about how our society will blindly follow the people that are profiting off our work into war and not heed the warnings of those with the most experience. Sounds like Iran-Contra, the AIDS epidemic, the Iraqi War… all those messes that we barely survived.

Alien3 was a thing that happened; we had settled in nihilism by that point, and David Fincher captured the entropy that had taken root in the human soul, the disappointment of his movie caused by forces far beyond his control but still being forged into something better than it had any business being. The fourth movie was a music video written by Joss Whedon, a high action disaster that started strong and ended weak… and that was okay. We weren’t expecting anything more than a close to the series and that was it.

It should be noted that Neill Blomkamp’s Alien movie is apparently dead, but it was supposed to be the Alien3 movie we had been promised thirty years ago. Instead of that, we got Prometheus, a wildly ambitious high-concept sci-fi adventure movie that would have been stronger without a connection to this franchise. Honestly, most of the problems people have with that movie is that it ties into the others, acting as a direct prequel to the very first movie. This movie acts as a direct sequel to that movie, which makes it the second chronological movie in the six-movie-long series, with a third part to begin shooting in fourteen months, which will make this a seven-movie long franchise if you don’t count the two AvP movies.

Confused yet? Don’t be. One of our staffers didn’t see Prometheus and went with me when I saw this, and he seemed to have a good time. I had a good time, and you will, too. Just try to relax your brain a little because this is, like Prometheus, not what you’re expecting from an Alien movie.

“We’re all still going to die. Morituri nolumus mori.”

Whatever that may be. C’mon, guys, given how loose the continuity is and how much these movies change from one installment to the next, you just kinda sit back and accept the movie for what it is. Have some popcorn.

Covenant very much aims to equal the ambition of Prometheus while also taking into account fan backlash – there’s a lot of concessions made that directly address problems that fans had with Prometheus, and some of those are for the better. To illustrate those points, though, we need to talk spoilers. You have been warned. The whole movie is summarized below, so highlight at your own discretion or skip past it to where we talk about the movie without spoiling it:

We cold open in a white room where Peter Weyland is waking up David, an android played by Michael Fassbender and one of the big reasons so many things went wrong in the story of Prometheus – that movie is basically about David being creepy and touching things and here we get to know the beginnings of his dissatisfaction with humanity, as his creator is kind of a tool. Thankfully, they both got ripped apart in Prometheus, so we cut to

A crew of colonists in deep stasis, heading towards a planet that has been researched for them. They are being cared for by a robot named Walter who doesn’t do creepy things but is still played by Michael Fassbender. They’re doing a recharge of the electrical systems when there’s a solar flare that causes that system to be damaged and wakes up some of the crew while also burning one of them to death in his pod as his girlfriend looks on.

The person that died was supposed to be the captain, which puts Oram in charge. He’s not good with people and thinks people don’t like him because he’s religious, which he brings up a few times and doesn’t play into his character arc at all but does play into the themes of the movie, so we’ll let that one go. The crew is full of couples (including a gay couple, which is a nice touch), and dead captain’s surviving partner is Katherine Waterston’s Daniels. She leads a funeral that Oram isn’t onboard with, but he lets it go without comment because he’s not an asshole.

As they’re fixing things they pick up a distant distress signal from… somewhere. They use long-range scanners and find a planet that is much closer than the one they’re supposed to go to that is suitable for human habitation – they could get to this one in a week, and the one they’re supposed to go to is decades away and requires more sleeping in cryo-pods like the one the captain burned to death in, so off they go explore the new world. Daniels objects, but not loudly given that her lover was just turned into BBQ.

Oram and Daniels lead an away team down to the planet and find it full of plants and, strangely, wheat, but no animals. They test for toxins in the atmosphere and find none, so they head out and discover the crashed ship that Shaw and David stole in Prometheus, along with Shaw’s dog tags. There’s no sign of Shaw or David, though. Everything is okay until two people are infected by microscopic spores and hatch white not-xenomorphs that blow up the ship they came down on and nearly kill them all until they are rescued by David.

David leads them to a necropolis that is clearly an alien city (actually one built by and for the Engineers) and David tells them a story about how the Engineers and Shaw both died and it was sad and he is sad. David and Walter have some conversations that are the core and most interesting part of the film that infers questions about the act of creation and what is owed between creator and creation. It’s some interesting stuff that hints at the horrors to come.

David watches as a human gets killed by one of the white not-xenomorphs and tries to communicate with it, but then Oram blows it up and tells David that he is the devil. So David offers to show him something and Oram, instead of shooting him, follows him down into a pit where there are xenomorph eggs and David reveals that he created them. Oram gets face-huggered and out bursts a mini-xenomorph. Oram is dead, a xenomorph is on the loose, and Danny McBride is in charge of the mothership and brings it down for a rescue.

We get Daniels fighting the Xenomorph on a flying ship while David and Walter have a conversation and one of them dies and the winner goes on the ship. Daniels beats the xenomorph but there is another and that one ends up on the ship and kills the whole crew except for Daniels and Danny, who jettison it from an airlock in a tense battle because that is how the first, second, and fourth movies ended and it worked for them.

Daniels and Danny go into their pods and go to sleep, the android on board is revealed to be David, and that’s where the movie ends.

So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the movie.

First off, this movie is gorgeous. Ridley Scott has some flaws as a director but set design and cinematography have never been among them, and this movie lives up to the high expectations he sets for himself. The ship looks good and practical, the necropolis is fascinating, the ruined Engineer ship is as haunting as you might remember if you saw Prometheus. The score is gorgeous and perfectly sets the mood and compliments the visuals and the direction is spot on.

The writing is also stronger here than it was in Prometheus. Aside from a couple of character moments that are never followed up on – like the replacement captain being a man of faith and that being why he wasn’t fit to be the actual captain – we get the sense that these are people that know and trust one another and that they are professionals. Their deaths are the result of circumstance and panic rather than idiocy, and they feel like experts who have hit a situation they’re not prepared for. It makes the movie more enjoyable when we want the characters to live, and we do here; even Danny McBride brings surprising nuance to his performance, and it makes the movie stronger.

Fassbender is transcendent, playing two understated characters with very different experiences and goals. There are subtleties to each of them that set them apart from one another, small tics in body language that speak about the intelligences that they are. His David is heartbreaking and terrifying, his Walter aloof but sympathetic. The dichotomy of these two characters are what makes this film as good as it is, and their conversations are what allows us to see two very different ways of accepting the role of created and the drive to create.

Likewise, Katherine Waterson is also incredible. Fassbender’s characterization wouldn’t work without her, and if he is the backbone of the movie than she is the movie’s heart. This is entire tale is very much hers to tell, and her sense of loss is palpable throughout, her acceptance of Walter as a surrogate for her lost love heartbreaking in its conclusion. She is smart, agile, and courageous in the way we demand that protagonists in this franchise be. She is a worthy successor to Shaw, but perhaps not to Ripley and it’s painful to type that – this movie, like Prometheus before it, would be a much stronger film without being attached to the Alien franchise.

She is great.

The central question of the film is a good one and justifies the religious subtext and populates the undertones of the movie: where Prometheus was about stealing answers, Covenant is about building relationships with what is created. This trilogy is about David but is told through the eyes of heroines who do not live through their meeting with him; they are the main characters of the chapters they are in with David as the clear antagonist of their story, while he remains the protagonist of the trilogy as a whole. It’s an interesting means of framing a tale about an immortal creation plaguing his creators, all while creating something as monstrous as he perceives his creators to be.

Make no mistake: David’s reliance on human poetry and art to express himself is as defining as his sociopathic outlook on the human race as a whole, and it makes him both pitiable and more monstrous. He is alien in his mindset and outlook simply because he was alienated, and it remains to be seen what final revelation awaits him.

Which is not to say that the movie is perfect: it isn’t.

Like Prometheus before it, Covenant is a highly ambitious but flawed masterpiece.

The promise of the last film was that Shaw was going to find and confront the Engineers that we might learn more about them. David has killed them all sometime between the end of Prometheus and the beginning of this movie, so we learn nothing more about them. The humans that discover this have no time to seek answers to any questions they might have because they are trying to survive the white not-xenomorphs, the actual xenomorphs, and David (two out of three ain’t bad~!). It’s frustrating but understandable – the Engineers were a framing device in the first movie but are of no importance here – but that lack of resolution is irritating.

And, again, David’s creation of the xenomorphs adds nothing to the franchise as a whole and detracts from the mystery of the creatures somewhat. The xenomorphs aren’t scary anymore – we know all about them, what they do and what they’re about, and it’s hard to be afraid of them when we know so much about them. Because of this, the xenomorphs are denigrated from terrifying presence to a simple obstacle to be overcome.

Worse, we know them but the characters don’t, and that drives a wedge between us and the people we should be rooting for. If the characters were informed – if they had a chance to even glance at David’s notes – they might have been able to put up an informed fight and that would make the monsters scary again by showing their intelligence and versatility. The monster that shows an ability to learn is much more terrifying than the one that doesn’t, but they are not the antagonist here: David is. David does learn, David does show his intelligence, and David is terrifying.

Terrifying.

The xenomorphs are nothing more than a tool being used by the true villain in a movie that they are named for.

Aliens: Covenant is not a scary film. It has a couple of jump scares and it flirts with horror, but much less so than even Prometheus did. It will not give you nightmares and I don’t think it was designed to. This is a movie that is about the journey and the questions more than the destination or the answers, a complex exploration of a god’s responsibility disguised as a science fiction film.

It’s likely to be as divisive among Aliens fans as Prometheus was. It adheres to some tropes from the franchise it’s nominally a part of to its detriment, clearly a response to the backlash the first suffered, but that reining in of that ambition gains the film nothing and hobbles the scope of the potential trilogy as a whole. If this had been a new property I get that sense that people – including fans of the franchise – would love it, but as an Aliens movie, it confuses itself as it stumbles along.

All that said? It’s a fun movie and a good way to spend a couple of hours, and the conversations it inspires will be worth the price of admission. Fassbender and Waterson turn in incredible performances and the artbook is going to be a must-have for people that go in for that sort of thing (I am very much one of those people). Definitely worth seeing.

All photo credits are Mark Rogers.

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