By Jack Mansfield
(some mild spoilers for Alien: Covenant)
After all of the Alien Day celebrations two weeks prior, I was incredibly excited to see Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017). The footage we were shown as part of the programme was absolutely terrifying (as I wrote in my article, read here) and early press reviews had all fallen under the general consensus that, if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy Covenant. Coming out of the cinema afterwards, I can say that I agreed with this: the aliens – old and new – were excellent, there were some strong performances, and it felt like a strong second place behind the original (I haven’t seen Aliens yet but I’m told it’s the second best out of them all.) I also felt that Covenant has left a lot to be explained or clarified in the upcoming prequel-sequel Alien Awakening, which at times worked, and at others, not so much.
Covenant is technically a sequel to Prometheus (Scott, 2012), but it’s not a direct sequel by any means. The story does not follow Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and android David (Michael Fassbender) on their continuing quest to find the Engineer home world, but instead follows the crew of the colony ship Covenant on their mission to a distant planet with over 2000 dormant colonists on board. The film begins with a prologue-type scene that takes place chronologically before Prometheus, where Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce, not in old-man make up this time around) lectures David on the mysteries of his creators and his desire to unearth their secrets. As David asks Weyland about his own creation and the fact that he will outlive his creator, Weyland exerts a power-trip move by making David play Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla on the piano: a triumphant, roaring piece which “loses something without the orchestra” according to Weyland (which turns out to be dramatic irony upon its use in the shocking final frames of the film.)
We then meet the crew of the colony ship Covenant, on their mission to the planet Origae-6. Harking back to the original, we see the crew engaging in some back-and-forth banter, which felt like a refreshing turn after the near-completely serious Prometheus. The mood amongst the crew soon turns from light to fearful when they pick up a distress signal in the unusually familiar form of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’, and the crew reluctantly decide to take a detour and follow the call, only to find danger and death at every turn. Upon their first encounter with the hostile inhabitants of the planet, they are rescued by David, whose previous experiences with humanity and creation seen in Prometheus only endanger the crew further. This feels like Scott is slowly returning to the original (and the best) Alien format, and a welcome one at that: we have horrifying monsters old and new and a completely expendable crew, ticking all of the right boxes.
And unlike the rather unlikeable, unsympathetic crew of the Prometheus, the crew of the Covenant (made up entirely of romantic couples) feels a lot more human. With a crew of this size, we only get to truly know a handful of them: Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), first mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston), pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), and advanced android Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender). The rest of the crew of 15, however, are never quite as well developed, and therefore make great alien fodder. Each of these new protagonists give strong performances in their own right; Oram, thrown into the captaincy after the death of Daniels’ husband, Branson (played very briefly by James Franco) simply tries to do right by his crew. Daniels was often described as “the next Ripley” in a lot of media coverage before the film’s release, and this description isn’t far wrong; Katherine Waterston’s character fits the “infallible badass” role, ticking another ‘like-the-original” box. Tennessee was something of a welcome surprise, with Danny McBride in a serious role: something I hadn’t seen before or expected him to thrive in, after seeing him in such films as Pineapple Express (2008) and This Is the End (2013). Naturally, he still gets to crack wise, but to see him explore a wider range of acting was truly impressive.
But the standout performance (or performances) once again come from Michael Fassbender, both reprising his role as David as well as playing new android Walter, an upgraded, “more perfect” version of David. His ability to switch between the emotionless David and the more human-like Walter is incredible, and at times you could forget that these two characters were played by the same man. Such a scene occurs after David has saved the crew from an infant Neomorph and taken them to his sanctuary; the two androids discuss their creation by Weyland, trade notes on Romantic poetry and, in what must have been strange for Fassbender to watch back, kiss. As excellent as his performances are , all of the on-the-nose creation themes (especially in the Fassbender-on-Fassbender scene) for which Scott is known are explored through dialogue, and it just feels like a shame that this couldn’t have been expressed visually. Perhaps Scott chose this to prevent similarities with all the creation imagery in Prometheus.
While the human performances were of a good quality, what would an Alien film be without any aliens? (Actually, that’s just Prometheus.) We get lots of alien action in Covenant, and a lot of it is good, pants-wetting fun. The new, faceless Neomorph is born out of a harrowing back-bursting scene, harking back to – but not quite on par with – the shock factor of the original chest-burster scene. The Xenomorph, or ‘Protomorph’, is an unfinished, imperfect version of the creature that infiltrates the Nostromo in the first film. The creature’s movements reflect this as it careers through hallways in an almost feral manner, a far cry from that of the calculated, predatory terrors we’ve seen before. And naturally the pseudo-sexual horror that comes with the aliens tearing through an unsuspecting crew (from both the inside and the outside) is as pervasive and pants-wetting as ever.
Sadly, though, this tension and horror comes in peaks and troughs as Scott is unable to maintain for a sustained period of time the isolated, claustrophobic atmosphere that gives the aliens a lot of their fear factor. When the crew are initially saved by David, this provides them with a brief(fish) setting of calm and safety, which only proves to unravel all of the suspense Scott had been building previously. We didn’t get this in the original Alien simply because there was no way out for the characters: there was no open world to traverse, no lore to uphold, just a crew and an alien, and the struggle for survival.
While it feels like Alien: Covenant is closer to Alien than it is Prometheus, there’s still a way to go to restore the franchise to its 1979 glory. Nevertheless, Covenant is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for the franchise, and I’m glad that when I saw it, I wore the brown pants.