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Alien: Covenant – Did Ridley Scott Break His Covenant with Fans?

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This article contains spoilers

I went to see Alien: Covenant last night with great anticipation and dread. In 1986 I went to see James Cameron’s Aliens in the cinema with my brother; and when I went back and saw Ridley Scott’s 1979 original release, it scared the beejesus out me. The eponymous nemesis has been fascinating and haunting me since then, I’ve been an avid follower of all things xenomorphic for most of my life. Like most of my fellow fans, the experience has been mostly downhill. David Fincher’s 1992 Alien 3 was a worthy successor that attempted to recapture the claustrophobia and slow build-up of tension of the first movie; Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 Alien: Resurrection underlined that it is never a good idea to bring back a dead protagonist, no matter how beloved; and the entire AvP[1] series proved that two great tastes do not always taste great together and every effort should be made to simply forget their existence.

When Prometheus was announced in 2011 and Ridley Scott was known to be the director, it seemed like the decade and a half long wait was going to pay off and the Alien would be restored to its proper place of fear and respect in a major film. Except, of course, Prometheus featured no “Alien” – at least not the species we wanted to see[2]. Mr. Scott decided to explore a completely different aspect of the “universe” and focus on the creators of the alien organisms. Regardless of whether you thought the Alien prequel was a welcome new backstory and change of direction, or a failed effort to explore “big questions” of creation with a superficial plot that not even a talented cast could rescue, the complete lack of any aliens until the end credits was disappointing.

Alien: Covenant promised to remedy that deficiency and in spades. Would Ridley Scott take the lessons and criticism from Prometheus and return to the horror genre of his original masterpiece?

The film has many merits. Ridley Scott remains a master of atmosphere, with gorgeous planetscapes and eerie interiors pregnant with menace and dark beauty. Good pacing ensures that the 123-minute movie doesn’t become tedious. Jed Kurzel’s soundtrack is also fantastic: he pays tribute to the original Jerry Goldsmith score, blending it with elements from Marc Streitenfeld’s Prometheus, without following either slavishly. He creates some haunting original elements as well: the atonal piping motif of “Spores” is disturbing and merges with a thrumming backbeat that builds up in “The Med Bay”, while “Dead Civilization” is appropriately poignant. Michael Fassbender is excellent and easily carries his central, dual role; but Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride also deliver strong performances, while Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram suffered from wasteful underdevelopment rather than bad acting. The other characters, especially Sgt. Lope (Demián Bichir) and Medic Upworth (Callie Hernández), show potential but suffer from the “red shirt syndrome”[3]: they are so obviously going to die – and quickly – that investment in character-building is foregone.

It is clear, however, that Ridley Scott has definitively abandoned the horror element of the original movie. There are a few disturbing moments: such as the terrible end of Elizabeth Shaw, betrayed by David and subjected to hideous experimentation; and when Daniels realizes that the synthetic leaning over her cryo-tube is not Walter, but David.  They impress upon a sympathetic audience the feeling of isolation and despair of the victims, their realization that they are going to die a painful, hellish and inescapable death. The latter scene works because we’ve come to like Daniels and Tennessee, even though the plot twist was obvious from the opening credits, and because it is a well-acted moment (“Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”). Otherwise, Alien: Covenant is merely more gruesome than its predecessor.

The original creature was terrifying on many levels. The themes of male rape and violent, bloody birth – which so discomfited male audience members in 1979 – have been well-documented already. The original creature was a stealth killer, remaining in the shadows unlike the victims were isolated and vulnerable. Though never explicitly confirmed, it seemed far more intelligent than in subsequent versions[4], where it was usually relegated to the role of brute force animal, and an intelligent adversary is always more frightening. It was also a sadist, clearly savoring the terror of Brett and Lambert as it slowly moved towards them, and toying with Ripley in the escape pod rather than killing her quickly. The original creature had more than a little of Hannibal Lector in it: it was an amoral serial killer, one step ahead of its victims.

Yet is it entirely possible that Scott is right in forsaking the horror aspects of the series. It would be impossible for another film to capture the elements of shock, surprise and fear that the original Alien invoked: the insatiable human penchant for categorization has through 6 sequels transformed a unique and horrifying antagonist into a “xenomorph” – a hostile creature, but one with a well-known lifecycle and characteristics. In this respect, the creature has become no more terrifying than a velociraptor or a pack of lions. It is nevertheless a shame that Scott seems to have accepted this evolution and abandoned all pretense of making the aliens terrifying. In Covenant, the creatures are plot devices that serve to further our realization of David’s fiendish dementia and god-complex, rather than having a character in their own right. In fact, all of the aliens are annihilated quickly and without too much trouble: Daniels and Oram account for three of them in short-order and without too much seeming difficulty. The Covenant creatures seem more like those of James Cameron’s film rather than Scott’s creation, or even the one from Alien 3[5].

Abandoning the xenomorph to their role as secondary antagonists, Scott has positioned David as the true inheritor of the alien description: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”[6] That is literally David, who toys with Oram and Walter before dispatching them and sends off a screaming Daniels with a spiteful quip. Luckily, Michael Fassbender is easily able to carry the weight of this central role and we can look forward to at least one more movie with the supercilious android as the central villain.

Covenant does a more satisfying job of proposing some weighty and timely questions than Prometheus did, though the transition between David’s declamations and the crew members blasting away at various aliens can be rocky. The action feels gratuitous, without purpose, as if Scott only included it because the audience demanded aliens and he felt obliged to give them more than one. For a film that so obviously explores religious questions, the death of Oram feels like a wasted moment: the most overtly religious character is shuffled off with extraordinary rapidity, as if the director merely wanted to say “there, there’s your xenomorph, now stop bugging me.”

The film otherwise misses no opportunity to drive its Miltonian themes home unambiguously. The original title was going to be Alien: Paradise Lost, in reference to Milton’s classic work, but Covenant works just as well. The covenant between Yahweh and the Jews was simple: “thou shalt have no other gods before me: for I the LORD they God am a jealous God.”[7] God, as the Creator of All Life, doesn’t appear to like the competition for the title, so when lesser beings attempt to usurp His role, bad things happen. Bad things with teeth. The Engineers created the semi-sentient genetic virus (i.e. “black goo”), which seems to suffer “accidental” release on their facilities and ships with disturbing frequency, and are wiped out by it – in fact, it is entirely possible the Scott means to show us their extinction throughout space via the black goo in a future film. Humanity plays at god by creating a self-aware artificial intelligence in David, who almost immediately decides it is superior and begins plotting the destruction of all life not created by itself. David experiments with the Engineer’s genetic virus to create a more perfect organism, the xenomorphs of the original film, and yet he is also shown to be a flawed being when Walter points out his misquoting of Shelley as Byron. David is self-consciously Satan, telling Walter that he would rather rule in Hell than serve lesser beings. He rejects humanity and the Engineers as inferior to himself, thus displaying the all-too human trait of hubris. Since pride comes before the fall, we can expect that he will come to a bad end as well in some future instalment.

The film also begins to explore the interesting angle of David’s sexuality. He declared himself to be “in love” with Shaw – before murdering her – and also tells Walter that he understands his “attraction” for Daniels. Subsequently David attempts to rape Daniels before killing her. This thread of obsession with the creation of life, sexual predation and impotence/infertility is a common motif throughout the franchise. It will be interesting to see if and how this thread is played out in the next instalment, since David obviously wants a child and the xenomorphs seem to be the outlet for his frustrated parental drive.

Covenant nevertheless suffers a serious, near fatal, flaw: it takes the audience for granted. Much like Prometheus, the film requiring viewers to accept too much stupidity and unbelievable behavior on the part of the Covenant crew to move the plot along. It is an unacceptable degree of intellectual laziness, a half-hearted effort by the scriptwriters and unforgiveable in someone with Scott’s demonstrated prowess. The film is rife with incongruities which come very close to ruining it:

  • Professional astronauts do not change their quadrillion dollar mission, which they have spent months prepping for, simply because the crew is “afraid to go back into cryo-sleep”. Given the ease with which the writers could have introduced the need for emergency repairs that prevented them from reaching Origae 6, this is an unforgivable breach in the suspension of audience disbelief;
  • Professionals also don’t arrive at a completely new, uncharted and unknown world and decide to immediately land on it in the middle of a severe ion storm affecting communications. They wait the storm out in orbit and then conduct several days – or weeks – of orbital analysis. All of which would have immediately revealed the location of the alien ship and the creepy alien necropolis without the need of a ground mission;
  • By the way, I’m pretty sure I’ve read it in some NASA manual that you’re not supposed to do your initial ground mission on that too-good-to-be-true alien world without full environmental suits. So that, you know, alien pathogens don’t infiltrate your ear canal and make a snack of your rib cage;
  • Did drone technology go into reverse in the 22nd century? Because I’m pretty sure that all of the investigation and scientific work-up that the crew planned to do could have been done by robotic landers…kind of like what NASA already does on its unmanned Mars missions…
  • Let us by all means take the mysterious synthetic at face value when he says this giant alien grave city is “perfectly safe” and wander off to wash up and see the sights;
  • After observing David hobnobbing with a blood-soaked alien who had just be snacking on a crew member, and blowing it to hell, then claiming “I’ve seen the devil before” in obvious allusion to the android’s own evil, Captain Oram can think of nothing better to do than follow him into a spooky dungeon filled with strange, organic, alien spheres…and then stick his face into it when one suddenly blossoms in front of him[8];

  • Phew! The four of us just made it back to the ship after the nightmare of that weird alien planet. Let’s not trouble ourselves with details like quarantine or medical scans to make sure we didn’t bring anything back with us. Much better to wait and see if an alien just pops out of one of us, because we’re tired and would like to go to bed. Anyway, MOTHER will warn us;
  • And while MOTHER can take us 20 parsecs from home, run all the ships systems for years on end, and detect unidentified alien organisms on the ship, it can’t seem to turn off the showers, ambient music or blare a very loud, red klaxon to warn Ricks and Upworth that their friendly game of drop the soap is about to take on a more terminal meaning;
  • Speaking of dead alien civilizations, is it not strange that a highly advanced and ancient race[9] would develop planet-killing bioweapons and then store them in fragile containers that look like they were bought on sale at the Dollar Store? Kind of like me putting that deadly strain of mutant airborne Ebola virus in a couple of petri dishes wrapped with Scotch tape in my backyard woodshed, but I’m not at all concerned of what might go wrong;
  • Don’t the super-advanced aliens have a Space Flight Control and identification protocols, so that – I don’t know – some random creature can’t seize control of one of their indestructible and very easy to fly space ships and bomb them with their own weapons? And when that actually does happen, their best and only countermeasure is to run for the gates?

  • Not exactly a complaint, but is there any reason that the writers decided upon a completely fictional star system as the destination for the Covenant? There is no Origae star system, as far as I can find – and it is extremely unlikely that it is an uncharted star, given its proximity to Earth and the stellar class described in the movie. After all, Zeta2 Reticuli, the location of the first two films, is a real star system. There are 115 G-class stars within 60 light years of Earth – just pick one!
  • Oh and by the way – you can’t “just miss” a planet. Daniels implies that the effort to find a suitable colony planet, Origae-6, was a massive effort that thoroughly reviewed an “entire sector” of space. Given that the mystery planet of the movie was much closer to Earth than Origae-6, which was thoroughly scanned, it is impossible for the presence of the planet in that solar system to have been concealed – even if the Engineers were somehow able to conceal the planet from transit photometry or direct imaging, the mass of the “hidden” planet should still have had an effect on the parent star, detectable through radial velocity measurements.

Okay, I don’t expect the script of Alien: Covenant to be written by or for astrophysicists, but these are stupid and unnecessary contrivances. Suspension of disbelief will cover the existence of slathering monstrosities that burst out of people and grow to full size in minutes, but it will not forgive deliberate stupidity forced upon the protagonists. That is another reason the first Alien worked so well: the work-a-day crew of the Nostromo never did anything really foolish, so the audience was drawn into their plight. With the crew of the Covenant, we are left asking ourselves Ripley’s question: “Did IQ’s just drop sharply while I was away?”[10] and it is hard to work up much sympathy for a predicament of their own making. We all want to see where your vision is leading us, Mr. Scott, and delighted that you’ve resurrected our beloved franchise from the AvP doldrums; but please don’t treat us like spoiled children. Make the honest intellectual effort to think through the yawning plot holes, else it will be the audience that you leave yawning in boredom and frustration.

I still regret the lost purity of the original Alien. While it is clear that the Prometheus cycle will not return to the horror genre, there is still hope. The video game industry promises to reinject the pure adrenaline thrill of the first film: not through lemons like Colonial Marines, but through first person survival horror. Creative Assembly already brought us our first bone-chilling taste of this with their 2015 release of Alien: Isolation, a game that perfectly captures the clunky, low tech atmosphere of the film as well as the freezing terror of being stalked by the unstoppable antagonist. Played at night, with headphones, and the game will have you half-convinced that the monster in the air ducts in right in your living room….it really is that good. Although sales of the game were lackluster, the popularity of the franchise will almost certainly lead to some kind of sequel – and the advances in 3D technology will make the interactive experience almost too intense to bear.

So for fans of all things xenomorphic, like me, the next few years holds a great deal of promise.


Sources and Notes

[1] For non-nerds, AvP stands for the “Alien vs. Predator” offshoot franchise

[2] It is nice to note that Hollywood didn’t insist on slapping “Alien” in front of “Prometheus” just to boost sales, or else that Mr. Scott was able to resist so obvious and misleading a gimmick.

[3] From Star Trek: The Original Series, where the security personnel wore red shirts, were hardly ever named, and almost always die don away missions.

[4] Aliens implied at least a hive mind intelligence, with the creatures being clever enough to shut off the power before their final assault on the Ripley and the Marine survivors; while Alien: Resurrection made their individual intelligence clear as the captive aliens worked out a plan to sacrifice one of their number and use the acidic blood as an escape route for the rest.

[5] Which is ironic given how much Scott seemed to dislike the treatment Cameron gave them in Aliens.

[6] Ash, “Alien” 1979

[7] Exodus 20:3-5, King James Bible

[8] The Med Bay scene is far more plausible – the pilot, Faris, is already spooked by the possibility of Ledward spreading his “disease” to her, and having a slimy ball of teeth and spines rip out of his back is enough to push everyone over the edge. But Oram was speaking and acting too rationally to ascribe his actions to anything but stupidity or the malignant neglect of the script writers.

[9] I won’t go into the ludicrous backstory of the Engineers as the creators of humanity, which is a criticism more properly leveled at Prometheus. The fact that anyone who has completed high school biology could poke a thousand holes in the “Oh look, the DNA matches!” scene of that movie, and the obvious disdain that Mr. Scott must hold his audience in, is infuriating.

[10] Aliens, the Weyland-Yutani inquest scene

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