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Josh Reviews Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott’s Alien (released in 1979 — can you believe it?) is a masterpiece of science fiction/suspense/horror, a near-perfect film that has barely aged a day.  James Cameron’s Aliens (released in 1986) is one of the greatest sequels ever made, a spectacular action/adventure film that took the universe and concepts from Mr. Scott’s film, as well as the character of Ripley, in a thrilling different direction.  The subsequent thirty years have seen one failed attempt after another to create another successful film from this universe.  Even Ridley Scott himself, when he returned to the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, flamed out spectacularlyPrometheus is a gorgeous-looking film, and there are some wonderful sequences in the film, but on the whole it is a muddled mess, with non-existent characters (with the exception of Michael Fassbender’s android David) and a plot that makes little sense.  (One can still see the skeleton of Jon Spaihts’ original script, which was intended to be a more direct prequel to Alien, which makes the confusing finished film all the more frustrating.)  Remarkably, Mr. Scott has returned to the Alien universe once again with a new film, Alien: Covenant, which is a terrific course-correction from Prometheus.  The film is a sequel to Prometheus, but it’s also far more directly linked to the original Alien (as Prometheus should have been) in a way that brings focus and cohesion to this wandering franchise.  More importantly, unlike Prometheus, Alien: Covenant tells a focused story with interesting characters that is exciting, scary, and terrifying.  The film has its flaws, but it is easily the best film in this eight-film franchise (if you count the two Alien vs. Predator films) since the original two.

A decade after the events of Prometheus, a solar flare damages the colony ship Covenant, and the crew are awakened from hypersleep to effect repairs.  The ship, bearing 2000 colonists, is still seven years away from its destination.  The pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) detects a human signal from an unexplored planet, which appears well suited for human life, even better than the planet the ship was originally heading towards.  The acting captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate.  What they discover is a beautiful world that seems to be devoid of any sentient or animal life.  But several the unwitting Covenant crew-members are soon infected with the Engineers’ black accelerant (as seen in Prometheus) and become hosts to horrible monsters.  However, the most dangerous monster of all might be the planet’s other inhabitant: the android David.

I was incredibly impressed by the way in which Alien: Covenant manages to go a long way towards redeeming the uneven Prometheus, making that film’s wild missteps feel more of a plan with the franchise’s previous films.  Prometheus was clearly set in the universe of Alien (the Engineer’s ship is a direct duplicate of the one found crashed on LV-426 in Alien) and yet its story didn’t seem to make any sense with what we knew from Alien.  What felt like narrative blunders in Prometheus are recontextualized by Covenant to make sense, and to pave the way for a revelation that I loved regarding the origin of the xenomorphs from the original Alien.  (More on this revelation in a moment.)  And so Covenant retroactively makes Prometheus into a better film, while managing to be the type of prequel to Alien that so many of us had hoped Prometheus would be.

But while that’s all great, and made me happy as a fan of this franchise, the real reason that Covenant works (and Prometheus didn’t) is that it tells a story that makes sense and that unfolds in a clear and understandable manner, with characters who are interesting and who we care about.  Covenant is a far more tightly focused film than Prometheus.  It is actually an almost complete duplication of the structure of the original Alien (in which a Weyland-Yutani company space-ship intercepts a signal and diverts to an unexplored planet, where the crew gets infected and a dangerous monster is released and wipes out almost everyone), and while this is a bit of a weakness, it doesn’t bother me the way, say, The Force Awakens’ duplication of the original Star Wars (ANOTHER Death Star??) did.  The smaller-scale story of Covenant is one of its strengths over Prometheus.

As is its terrific cast.  There are too many characters in the film, no question.  But even the minor ones make far more of an impression than they did in Prometheus (through the combination of a better script and strong performances by a terrific array of actors). I particularly love the duo of Danny McBride and Katherine Waterston.  Who knew Danny McBride would be so spectacular in a serious film??  But he is phenomenal, with a crackling on-screen presence.  Ms. Waterston, meanwhile (so great in Inherent Vice), is very strong as the broken woman attempting to overcome the untimely death of her husband, forced to find her courage in a terrifying situation.  I really enjoyed this character, and was struck by the unique choice of having such a quiet character in a main role.  (And while Alien movies have often wound up with a woman as the last person standing, I liked the way Ms. Waterston and Mr. McBride became a duo in the film’s third act.)

But while all those pre-release production stills that showed off Ms. Waterston’s very Ripley-looking haircut might have seemed to position her in the main role, by the end of the film it was clear without question that Alien: Covenant belonged to Michael Fassbender.  Mr. Fassbender reprised his role from Prometheus as the android David, while also playing a different synthetic, the Covenant crew-member Walter.  The confrontation between David, who has become obsessed with the idea of creation, and Walter, who was designed witout the ability to create, emerges as the central narrative of the film.  Mr. Fassbender is beyond maginficent in the dual roles, effortlessly creating two identical-looking characters who are so completely different from one another.  It is quite extraordinary.  Whereas the original Alien films had Ripley as their main character, the shockingly downbeat ending of this film positions David as the main character of this new Alien series of films.  (I expect we will get at least one more film to complete a new trilogy.)  This is a bold and unexpected choice, but as Covenant’s end credits rolled, I was 100% on-board with this wild idea.

With that mention of the film’s ending, it is time to enter SPOILER territory, so readers beware!

I absolutely adore the film’s bleak ending.  It surprised the heck out of me. (Not that Walter and David had switched, that was pathetically obvious, and I wish Mr. Scott had been able to better conceal that switch so to have made the ending more of a surprise.)  But even if that aspect of the finale wasn’t a surprise, that Dany didn’t realize it until it was too late, leaving herself entirely at the murderous David’s mercy, was a shocking way to end the film.  The thought of the horrors that David is about to unleash on her, and on the two thousand poor sleeping souls who have fallen into his clutches, is absolutely terrifying.  I have found this ending hard to shake in the days since seeing the movie.  I am stunned that Mr. Scott was able to outdo even the stunningly downbeat ending of David Fincher’s Alien 3.  I did not see that coming.

I also love the idea that it was David who was responsible for the creation of the xenomorphs seen in the original Alien and beyond.  That is a great idea, and it is a big part of how Covenant is able to redeem Prometheus.  Not only does this help justify all the time spent with David in Prometheus, but it also makes all the random monsters seen in Prometheus feel less like a waste of our time and the sight of a film without direction.  (This killed me about Prometheus.  As an example, it felt like such a disappontment that the final monster seen in the film, birthed from the Engineer’s body, was not the original xenomorph — clearly that was the intention of the original script, before it was changed to make it less of a direct prequel to Alien.)  But now all those random monsters from Prometheus can be understood as all that the Engineers’ accelerant can create — while the awesome, terrifying original xenomorph from Alien was created by David.  That works for me!

Alien: Covenant clarifies what Prometheus had hinted at, but then muddied with the sort-of happy ending in which Shaw and David’s head flew off together into the sunset: that David is a monster.  David was the most interesting character in Prometheus, and in many ways also the one I had the most sympathy for.  His evil actions seemed somewhat confusing to me, rather than an indication that he was a villain.  The opening scene of Covenant also gave me sympathy for David, as we see more of his cruel father/creator Peter Weyland.  (I loevd seeing Guy Pearce reprise the role!!)  But by the middle of the film, Mr. Scott had completely transformed my feelings.  Marvelous.

Alien: Covenant is remarkably patient for the eighth film in a series.  Whereas most sequels cannot wait to get to the action, Covenant is a slow burn.  The film makes us wait a good long while until the chaos erupts.  I love that about the film.

(Though one sign of impatience? As Has been a problem in some of the other Alien sequels, the aliens gestate way too fast. The two soldiers breathe in the spores and a fully grown creature cuts its way out of them only hours later.  Oram is implanted by a face hugger and a chest-burster erupts mere minutes later. By contrast, in Alien, consider how long Kane was unconscious, then able to eat a meal, before the chest-burster emerged. In Alien 3, Ripley is implanted on the ship and lives for days on the prison world before the chest-burster emerges.  Even in Prometheus, when Holloway is infected by David, it’s not until the next day that he dies.)

While I have been heapng praise on Alien: Covenant, the film is not perfect.  While I was impressed by how skillfully the film was able to take the many loose ends from Prometheus and tie them together into a coherent story, Covenant still leaves way too many questions unanswered.

The biggest is that we still have no idea how thousands of Alien eggs wound up in a crashed Engineers’ ship on LV-426.  This seems even weirder now that we know that it was David, NOT the Engineers, who created those eggs.  Clearly this is a piece of the story that Mr. Scott and his team have decided to leave open for a future film.  I can live with that.

But Covenant left me with so many other unanswered questions:

If David destroyed the Engineers intentionally, why did the Engineer ship that he was in crash-land?  David at first said that the Engineers’ weapons got loose and the ship crash-landed in the chaos.  But we discover that was a lie.  In my head, I imagine that Shaw tried to stop David from murdering all the Engineers and caused the crash, but the movie doesn’t tell us any of that.  I wish we knew more about what happened to Elizabeth Shaw, a character with great potential left unrealized by Prometheus who Covenant kills offscreen, much like Hicks and Newt in Alien 3.

Who planted the wheat? At first I assumed that Shaw did after she and David arrived on the planet, because David would have no need. But it’s hard to imagine Shaw living and farming peacefully with David after he committed genocide.  Was it the Engineers who were living on the planet who planted that wheat, and this was intended as further evidence of humans being descended from/created by the Enginers?  I am left unsure.

(I wrote that David committed genocide, but is that really what the film is suggesting happened?  The Engineers are an interstellar species, so there must still be lots more of them out there, right?  I wish that either Prometheus or Covenant had allowed us to learn more about these mysterious aliens.  Although Covenant’s opening scene reminds us of the questions asked in Prometheus about why the Engineers created human life, and why they then chose to destroy that life, Covenant provides no answers.)

Are we to assume that David lured the Covenant to the planet? How did he do that exactly?  Did he fake the signal of Shaw singing?  Did he cause the solar flare?  I don’t understand how either would be possible.  Was it just dumb luck that the Covenant intercepted the signal, preventing David from being stranded on that planet for all eternity?  It seems mighty lucky that David was only trapped on that planet for ten years.

Why didn’t the Covenant crew’s exhaustive scans, looking for a planet to colonize, stumble across the planet? The movie seems to suggest the planet was hidden somehow, which I guess makes sense if it was, until a few years ago, the home planet of the powerful Engineers, but how/why?

What exactly happened to Walter?  Did David find some way to defeat him?  Did David destroy him, or just maroon him on the Engineers’ planet?  Or did Walter succumb to David’s temptations and agree to help him?  It is weird that the fate of one of the film’s most central characters was left unclear.

How did Shaw fix David so perfectly (after his decapitaion in Prometheus) on an alien ship without any compatible human technology?

So, OK, whew, the movie does have some plot holes.  I wish the film had been able to answer more of these questions.

Other comments:

* The original Alien had some sexy kink, and I enjoyed that Mr. Scott was not afraid to dive back into that aspect of the franchise.  The scene in which David teaches Walter to erotically play the flute (“I’ll show you the fingering”) was a show-stopper.  Wow.  So wrong, and yet so gripping.  Magnificent visual effects combined with a fantastic dual performance by Michael Fassbender.

* I love that David draws like HR Giger.

* Billy Crudup’s character Oram is introduced as a man of faith, whose faith put him in conflict with the corporation’s structure, but like Shaw’s faith in Prometheus, that interesting idea isn’t really explored by the film.  I can see the ideas, in both case, that Mr. Scott was interested in incorporating into these films, but in neither film did I feel that thise ideas really came together.

* There are a few references in this film to “jumps,” which is, I believe, the first time in an Alien movie that we hear the suggestion of light-speed/warp-speed like hyperspace jumps as the way ships travel through space.  Nerd alert!

OK, it is time to draw this lengthy review to a close.  Alien: Covenant isn’t perfect, and in some ways it is derivative/repetitive of Mr. Scott’s original Alien.  But I nevertheless found it to be relentlessly entertaining, filled with interesting ideas, gorgeous visual effects, and a terrific cast.  The film is intense and scary and nightmarish in all the ways you want a film like this to be.  I really dug it, and I would love to see Mr. Scott return for another Alien film to hopefully tie this story all together.

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