As with Prometheus (2089 – 2093), there’s a great movie somewhere inside Alien: Covenant (2014) it just doesn’t entirely find its way out. Like androids David and Walter mimicking the humans who created them, something about the whole thing rings hollow, copying an original, made to be better than, but more than anything, Covenant is homage. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and for avid fans, this (arguable) sixth entry in the franchise retrofits important pieces of a decades long puzzle, which in itself is impressive. In that, the story is admirable and unlike its immediate predecessor, there’s at least some logic to follow.
After a telling flashback reveals an arrogant father-son connection that transcends biology, we meet updated model and David’s identical twinthetic, Walter. Along with Mother, Walter watches over the the Covenant, a colonization ship on its way to Origae-6 with fifteen crew, a couple thousand colonists and drawers and drawers of frozen human embryos. When an unexpected neutrino storm causes an emergency situation, Walter wakes the crew from stasis; a malfunction immediately disposes of the captain, Daniels’ (Katherine Waterston) husband (James Franco). In the only scene grieving what’s to become nonstop crew loss (I mean, come on; it’s an Alien movie), we meet next in line of command, and purported man of faith (though he doesn’t outwardly display much), Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), along with the rest of the team. Unfortunately, there’s almost no character development and — unless you’ve never seen any film in this franchise — to an extent this is understandable. Still, with so very little connection to the crew, it’s hard to feel much more than an offhand Oh-there-goes-another body as one by one, folks are ripped to pieces; the onscreen terror rarely translates to the audience. Almost before the rampage starts, it’s obvious who’ll be the last woman standing, and as good as Waterston is, she’s just not as compelling as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley — partially because Covenant‘s focus isn’t really on its all too disposable humans. This movie belongs almost entirely to Michael Fassbender’s doubled-up, powerhouse performance, and despite what could easily come across as hammy monologue, his just-over-the-top-enough delivery of Walter reciting Byron’s Shelley’s Ozymandias reveals his pompous creator’s fatal flaw.
Slowly unveiling exactly how the horrorific xenomorphs came to be, and understanding Alien life cycles, biological and artificial is Covenant‘s rim shot, as it were. As many of us had already surmised from the hints dropped in teasers and by Ridley Scott at press events, Giger’s terrible creatures weren’t simply an alien life form native to a particular planet, nor a naturally occuring product of nature. Beginning with the (Prometheus‘) Engineers’ sacrificial black goo — which begat humanity who in turn, created artificial life — a continuous, purposefully manipulated process was set in motion. Just like those who came before him, David longs to become a father … to keep his devil-repelling, would-be idle hands busy, as he explains to his brother. And, oh how busy David has been since the beheaded droid left LV-223 with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.
Drawn away from Covenant‘s destination by a repeating transmission and what seems to be a human voice singing John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads, Oram overrides his Second’s (Daniels) objections, choosing to investigate the source planet in case it might be the habitable paradise it appears. When a wisp of the spores covering the lush landscape infect two of the crew (Benjamin Rigby, Nathaniel Dean) on separate exploratory teams, it doesn’t take long for bizarre symptoms and panic to kick in. Faster than you can yell “Run!”, half the crew are screaming in horror as their friends — human hosts — bear nightmarish “Neomorphs” who immediately attack those left standing. Communication with the Mother(run)ship is predictably hampered, but lo and behold, a helpful hooded savior appears out of nowhere to escort the still living to relative safety. Covenant‘s Walter meets his brother, David, “lone survivor” of the Prometheus, and teller of tall tales that are soon revealed as lies. David’s hubris, his utter disregard of and for humanity (introduced in the opening flashback, with a much younger Peter Weyland [Guy Pearce]) becomes clear; and would have, even without that vignette to guide us. A few important model modifications ensure Walter is firmly on Team Covenant. and he does his best to keep and protect according to Asimov, while David demonstrates exactly how wrong Daddy got it the first time around. Without getting too specific, Elizabeth Shaw’s fate is revealed, and we come to understand the true process of xenomorphic evolution.
In its last quarter, the remaining Covenant crew reunite; one more affected by their side trip than others and thus, the inevitable alien/human ship-chase ensues. Ever-heroic (though not nearly as intuitive as Ripley), Daniels has her improbably epic showdown with a full-on xeno, and her crew almost entirely wiped out, prepares to resettle into well-deserved stasis. In the final moments, before helplessly falling unconscious for the rest of the journey to Origae-6, only then, does Daniels realize just how clever David really was.
Afterthoughts, with questions and outright ***Spoilers***:
Alien: Covenant is a great case of the less-would-have-been-more marketing philosophy. From teasers, trailers, instagrams and Ridley Scott’s quotes, I pretty much had worked out the (shoulda-been) unknowns before ever walking through the theater door. The movie would have been so much better had I gone in cold (and yes, reading and watching all that stuff is on me), and discovered what David had done through the storytelling.
Although the Covenant crew on the whole is smarter than the Prometheus (run sideways, dammit!) folks, there were still mostly ridiculous decisions. Crudup’s Oram, after figuring out what David’s been up to, still follows a clearly mocking and irritated David into the egg chamber, where he takes David’s suggestion to have a peek at a “perfectly safe” egg. COME ON. You know David is being purposefully duplicitous, and yet you completely trust him to direct you to a slimy, live egg, put your face over it? You deserve what you got. After the crew has been attacked by Neomorphs and David brings them back to his place, Rosenthal decides going off by herself to get undressed and wash up in a fountain is smart. Look people, after you’re attacked by anything even remotely resembling that thing, you don’t go anywhere alone. Probably, for the rest of your life.
The whole man of faith (Oram) thing made no sense. We never once heard him speak in any way that indicated his faith in a god or gods; he didn’t pray or talk about god affecting his descions. What was the point of bringing up this aspect of the character?
Daniels, even as — ostensibly — the smart one, had every opportunity to pick up on David/Walter. In fact, any person who’s seen Alien knows Ripley would have double checked David/Walter every chance she got, not trusted either of them. Nobody ever questioned AI, or that the “boys” would do anything other than respect and protect humans, even after one of them proved otherwise. For a short time, I thought David chopped off the wrong hand, and that Daniels noticed, and was playing him. But, oh no, she didn’t for a second seem to realize anything. She and every character left me with that “You-deserved-what-you-got” feeling. If people really are this stupid, it’s easy to understand David’s POV.
Tennessee was one of the better written characters, and well-played by Danny McBride (“I never heard my wife scared, before”), but when Daniels actually tells him his wife died, he has nearly no reaction. This is a disturbing theme all the way through. Daniels has a lengthy reaction to her husband’s death at the very beginning, but after that, nobody really seems to give a shit as people are methodically (and a little too quickly) wiped out.
There is, after the initial Neomorph attack, not the trademark terror of an Alien movie. It’s almost as if, in the Alien-Attacks portions of the story, Scott and Co. were going through the motions. Especially during the ship scene with the Xenomorph running through sections and Daniels and Tennessee hunting, there was barely the tension of previous entries. They easily worked it (with a little technological help) into the area they wanted it, blew it into space … kinda. The scenes of Daniels tethered to the ship were ridiculous; she hung close to the ground as the ship skidded along the planet’s surface, and should have suffered pretty serious injuries, but instead swung around with ease.
Kudos, though, to the writers who worked out the whole story of David and the alien’s experimental evolution. That part of the continuous story makes the whole movie worth it. It helps us makes sense of Prometheus (as poorly executed as that story was),
In the end, this is a cool, new take on humanity’s destruction by robots/A.I. I’ve warned you all as much as I possibly can, the rest is up to … Elon Musk, probably.