When I was wondering what to write about Alien: Covenant, I remembered a snippet from a reviews round up that briefly swam past my eyes on my Twitter feed last week.
It came from the above, which I include not to criticise or directly reference, but simply to point out as my jumping off point.
I think there’s a lot to be said for going where you see the story is sitting, waiting – I’ve never been a fan of Aliens, as I don’t feel, personally, that it works as a sequel to the original Alien. It isn’t, to me, where the best story was waiting, as a follow-up. Remove the name Ripley and you have almost an entirely different film to the first, tonally, thematically, in terms of genre—even the creature itself changes to become disposable cannon fodder, with only the Queen showing any intellect.
It takes the concept and just does it all again, right down to the structurally mimicking finale, just as an action movie and not as a horror; a well-made action movie, but not a spiritual Alien successor. All the sequels have done the same, to a degree. I like them but, for the most part — with the exception of the much maligned, but actually my second favourite, Alien 3 — they don’t go where the best story is, at least not obviously.
It found the story between the lines – it came from Ridley Scott’s fascination with what the hell the Space Jockey from the first film, seen but never explored, actually was and where it came from. That’s the part of the first film that remained unexplored – where the xenomorph actually came from, who the race of giants it had infected actually were.
It still somewhat followed the Alien movie formula — the central level-headed heroine, the disposable supporting characters, the spaceship, the slightly orchestrated chaos — but added a genesis element and utilised the untrustworthy synthetic quite differently. It had aspirations of high concept and philosophical depth, both in terms of biological and machine creation…and whilst visually arresting and superbly designed, its script was uneven and the unravelling of its plot threads debatable in terms of effectiveness.
It told a new story, in a familiar way. Covenant continues that new tradition – whilst its narrative structure is now hugely familiar, right down to the mechanics of its now second-nature finale, it grows something new in the ground that Prometheus ploughed up. There’s a clear build towards the end goal, which is the original Alien movie – there were shadows of it in Prometheus, but you didn’t see the xenomorph, facehuggers or chestbursters, the familiar elements that scream Alien. That film set up the origins of those things but didn’t stretch far enough to get to those final forms; that’s clearly the master plan for the prequel trilogy Scott has embarked upon.
Not only the biological weapon that the Engineers created, but the philosophical considerations that Prometheus posited from the very beginning. That philosophy becomes more of a complicated take on morality in Covenant and, for arguably the first time, the villainous architect of the film isn’t the creature or a company, but a humanoid character. Perhaps with the exception of Carter Burke’s plans to bring an embryo back to Earth in Aliens, there was no real central, identifiable nefarious architect to the events in any Alien movie; Ash was following pre-determined commands from a faceless conglomerate and even Burke’s actions were incidental to the mission.
The xenomorph causes chaos once introduced to a situation seemingly by accident, but really by inferred corporate greed – Covenant changes that standard formula considerably with its approach to how the creature develops, why it develops at all and how it’s introduced to the Covenant crew. It also plays with the nature of the creature – the perfect organism, perhaps, but not just a mindless killing machine; there is a moment of sincere compassion simply from David’s reaction when the Neomorph is shot, but it’s the reasoning behind that compassion that develops not only our view of the creature but of that aforementioned “architect” of it all and his driving force.
Covenant is masterful in its subtlety, shadowing not only scenes from the original movie, but design elements that show a progression towards those familiar franchise tropes.
The fact that the Covenant itself is controlled by the MUTHR artificial intelligence; the icon displays on the vessel’s screens, familiar from the Nostromo; certain shots of the xenomorph, framed in a way familiar to anyone who remembers the lips parting and the drool cascading before the maw opens out on Lambert; scenes as removed from one another as the bulkhead sealing in the finale that echoes Dallas’ journey through the ventilation shafts, through to Daniels’ plight in the Acropolis that vividly calls to mind the choking scene between Ripley and Ash…even the Covenant itself — with its landing craft, removed from the smaller Prometheus — and its vast corridors, brings us closer to the Nostromo, to the future this new trilogy is building towards.
None of these indicators to the past (or future) are so on the nose that they stand out as homage; they’re signs along the way that blend in unless you’re familiar enough with them to see them, part of a bigger filmic tapestry Scott is putting together alongside his exploration of the philosophical and moral elements that drive the creation of humanity, synthetics, the xenomorph and that, in particular, drive David.
They’ve found the best story angle and actually come at it from a significantly more high-end sci-fi perspective than I think many were expecting. They’ve resisted the urge to regurgitate the same formula, but they’ve managed to maintain a structure that is recognisably Alien (ironically). Perhaps that does not always work to Covenant’s best advantage as it tends towards story beats that we’re all familiar with after the five films that preceded it, but I think that’s perhaps all that held the movie back from blowing me away – I really enjoyed it, I loved what it was doing with the material, how it ran with what Prometheus left messily dangling in the vacuum.