So today I went to an afternoon screening of Alien: Covenant in a big-screen cinema with fuck-all people in it. As you can probably tell, below.
I have long been a fan of the Alien franchise, largely because the first two movies are practically untouchable. The first (and best, let’s face it) is a peculiarly English thing, despite its cast: it’s almost a locked-room film, a And Then There Were None-style elimination game. It’s claustrophobic and sweaty, Das Boot in space, and its reliance on biomechanical similarity – the creature is kind of like things you know, but not really – is deeply fucking creepy. There’s something about the first that gives you bone-deep chills. Is it because it’s a big ole filmic rapefest? Is it because everyone is weak and at the mercy of uncaring fate? Is it because of a feeling of entrampment, of isolation? Take your pick, but it sticks in the mind.
I remember seeing video copies of it sitting in the Video Ezy of Orange when I was growing up, and wondering what the fuck that egg thing was about. Years later, when I finally watched it, I discovered that nope, you don’t really want to know.
Aliens is probably the film in the series I’ve seen the most. This could have a bit to do with my age when it came out: I was in prime gross-out teenager territory, and was watching practically anything horrific I could at that point – Hellraiser and Robocop being other favourites. In this sequel, James Cameron takes the inward-looking franchise and sends it out: it’s a tiny replay of how military might will always be defeated by opponents more nimble, more aware of the terrain. It’s Vietnam as the bidding of the military-industrial complex, but with LV-426 and Weyland-Yutani taking the roles. And as far as the ’80s run of USA! USA! bracketed films goes – you can file this right next to Commando or Predator, in terms of the reaction they’d glean – it’s almost unbeatable. Except for the fact that blunt force testosterone trauma counts for nothing. It’s Game Over, man, unless you’re Ellen Ripley, who will outlast all your fucking hides. (Well, almost.)
So the first two were classics of their respective genres: thriller and action, both draped in SF horror. The rest of the films are – obviously – not on par with the first two. But they’re not as fucked as they’re commonly thought to be. The third instalment brought a kind of dieselpunk vibe, to my mind. Watching it about six months ago, I was surprised that it held up as well as it did, given the bullshit involved in its production; this is largely to the cast, I suspect – it felt like a more traditionally theatrical outing. The studio fucking over both Vincent Ward and David Fincher (here’s Charles Dance on that) during the creation of the film didn’t help, but I can’t help but like this weirdly tribal setting and group; you can hear the lice scurrying around the joint. It also marks the point where the religious overtones of the series would start to emerge: Ripley’s swan-dive exit has a sort of beatific holiness to it that seems to echo through the later films.
The fourth? I was surprised to find it was a Joss Whedon script, but found I liked it more on later rewatches than I did at the time of release. It’s more overtly camp than I remembered, and kind of funnier, which I suppose is a Jeunet thing. But ultimately, I find it the most disposable of the lot: Weaver appears to have fun as a half-Ripley, half-xeno basketball ace, but the leaden weight of Winona Ryder’s ‘acting’ makes it more of a trudge. I can’t help but imagine what might have been had Danny Boyle – the producers’ first choice for director – made the film.
Prometheus was the one that most people want to throw rocks at, because it was something – a prequel – that held so much promise and then turned into a kind of backstory involving some kind of buff albino SpaceJesus terraformer/weapon. It brought Scott back but didn’t deliver on the prequel promise, instead ending up being something that shared “strands of Alien‘s DNA”, according to the director. From the sounds of it, Alien: Engineers was more what fans were expecting: instead they got something that looked amazing, but wasn’t an Alien film.
I remember seeing the film at the cinema – it was the first film I’d seen in modern 3D – and enjoying it. It had a lot of mystery about it. Or, rather, what others labelled plot holes, I took as mystery. I thought Michael Fassbender’s David was brilliant, and thought Noomi Rapace was a suitably gritted-teeth Ripley stand-in – that abortion scene, dear god – but despite all the visual goodness, something still kind of nagged. It didn’t seem to have the important bits of the series DNA in place; it was an adjunct, rather than something to stand on its own.
And so here we are with Alien: Covenant. I had some thoughts after today’s watch, so figured I’d write something and see where the typing took me. I guess we can assume that there’s going to be some spoilers from here on out, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading. Or don’t. But don’t get pissy with me if you read something you don’t want to.
Firstly, it takes place a bit later than Prometheus – ten years later. There is a pre-title (and pre-Prometheus scene between Fassbender’s David and Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland that illustrates a) Weyland’s expensive tastes and b) David’s inability to choose nomenclature beyond what he sees. It’s an interesting little bit of yoking together and serves lovely visuals before everything kicks off.
And kick off it does. Immediately we’re in space, on a ship ferrying terraforming equipment and colonists towards a new home and a new hope. It’s all computer display porn and vistas: the sort of SF stuff – eyecatching yet supremely functional – that the series does well. There’s a solitary caretaker, and an all-knowing computer. Mother’s here, once more. And Fassbender’s playing another synthetic, this time called Walter.
(Here let me just say that he does a good job – again – in this film. It gets a little bit silly later on, but that’s kind of explained, albeit not entirely to my satisfaction. But let’s say it’s not just hairdos and accents that delineate David and Walter.)
After surviving in-flight tragedy, the group follows a freak transmission to a small planet – a freak transmission of a John Denver song. Frankly, I would’ve thought that enough reason to stay the fuck away, but no, there’s a dropship scene (flashbacks, anyone?) and we’re plunged to the surface, which if you’ve paid attention throughout the series, you’ll know is A Really Bad Idea.
And it’s a Really Bad Idea. Because it’s here that things start to go wrong: the enormous alien ship from Prometheus is found, with Weyland-Yutani dog-tags inside. Spores become infections become creatures burrowing out of your innards. It becomes a place where your way off the rock burns while people die. And it becomes a place where – in the middle of a firefight with xenomorphs, David makes his reappearance, leading the survivors to a Pompeii-like place of death and curiously elegant sketchwork.
In a way, a lot of the movie relies on the idea of small mistakes careening into larger and larger fuck-ups. I’m not talking in terms of a company-run meaning, I’m talking about what individuals do. The inability to open a chamber in time costs a life. Billy Crudup’s Oram is unable to take command in the manner he needs to, to be effective – flashbacks to Aliens, here – and it costs lives. A grunt, craving a crafty cig, steps on some spores and is fucked. Everyone takes off their helmets. Everyone lets down their guard. Once unbalanced by the unexpected, every small failure points towards larger catastrophe. Grief plays a large part, too, and it seems something which affects not only human drives.
What’s slightly different about the mix here is the way the xenomorphs aren’t the most horrific part of the film. Sure, they’re eviscerating nightmares, but they lack the horror of the uncanny valley – the coiling ick of an artificial human who copies lines from Lawrence of Arabia. David. It’s David that’s the real fucking creeper here. And it’s the horror of David’s abilities – his uncannily human behaviour – that’s important in this film. He is as much a Big Bad as the xenomorphs themselves. Bigger, if you take his actions as the very end of the film into account.
It’s foreshadowed at the beginning of the film: Weyland speaks with the newly-operational synthetic man about our reason for being, and is countered with an observation – that he will die, whereas David will live for ever. The creation outlasting the master is not well received: Weyland demands tea is served, insistently. He doesn’t yet know – though we do – that David will be there when, in Prometheus, his search for eternity ends, poorly. What we also don’t know – but will learn, later – is that at the point of Weyland’s death, David pities him: the creation had become the dominant figure, the master.
“I was not made to serve,” he remarks.
It’s this master that informs the second half of the film – the darker part. We learn that the blasted templescape, peppered with corpses, is that way because David made it so. We were told in Prometheus that the xenomorphs were the result of a kind of weapon – and there’s a horrific scene where we watch him – curiously emotional – destroy thousands with the black goo of death. The synthetic man’s curiosity, his desire to examine and to surpass humanity, has no qualms when it comes to genocide. Everything here is planned. It’s watched with the remote gaze of the creator.
At one point, Walter speaks to David about emotions, in mechanical terms: David is surprised that Walter doesn’t dream, and Walter conveys that David’s semblance of emotion disturbed people, so future iterations were made with fewer complications. (Complications being a double-duty word: it refers to the layers of complexity found in watchmaking as well as the more widely-used meaning of difficulty or setback.) He is, alone among the synthetic men, a god – closer to a human than his descendants could ever be. Indeed, there’s heavy inference that David believes himself a god; he quotes Proverbs when explaining his work to the suspicious Oram, and he refers to Walter as if to a disappointing son.
But there’s a fly in the ointment. A note that’s off. David’s been busy, the ten years he’s spent marooned on the planet. While he misremembers poets, he’s been at work on the xenomorphs, with the aim of perfecting them, knowing them. He’s been seeking perfection, and worked at attaining it through experimentation on the monsters – experimentation that can only go so far without animal hosts.
What’s interesting for me is that though Prometheus and Covenant both take place before the rest of the series, they show us how the Company’s control has been lost, long before we thought. Weyland-Yutani are the all-seeing, all-knowing puppet-masters of the original series films, orchestrating capture and development of the xenomorphs, despite the horror that idea gives anyone who’s ever had to deal with the fuckers. (Let’s face it: you were with Ripley when Carter Burke got his smarmy arse handed to him by a mouth with two sets of jaws.) But their creation is so much better at it – and furthermore, he believes humans shouldn’t exist: that our resurrection through planetary colonisation is something to halt.
Here’s the meat of it: the covenant of the title isn’t one between god and man, or even between the company and the settlers, as we might think. It’s a deal between David and his kin – he meets Walter with the term brother – and between David and the xenomorphs he has studied for a decade. He has discounted humanity, and will aim to stop it spreading throughout the universe any longer. He is superior, and smarter, and cannot be stopped. Through various turns, he reaches the upper hand: with the surviving crew in hypersleep, he has the run of the ship – dominion over “good souls” who are unaware that their synthetic overlord has brought alien embryos aboard, and will, presumably, continue his research with the benefit of better lighting.
I enjoyed Alien: Covenant. It wasn’t the super-great film I’d hoped it would be, but it was more cohesive – and more importantly, more true to the series – than its immediate predecessor. It feels like it’s much more in the same universe as Alien. Parts of it feel like a canon stocktake – there’s a motion-tracking ping, here’s some laser-sighted pulse rifles, there’s a face-to-face-with-the-xenomorph moment – but this is its own beast. It’s darker, for sure, than some of the other films: any triumph over Daniels and Tennessee’s heroics is eliminated by the complete nature of David’s power. To the strains of Wagner he strolls the decks, eyeing his charges as they hurtle towards experimentation and death. All Oram’s faith, and the crew’s belief in the safe haven of their destination is eliminated.
I enjoyed the performances of Fassbender, obviously, but the cast is uniformly strong: Danny McBride’s Tennessee is a better-realised character than Idris Elba’s Prometheus pilot; Katherine Waterson’s Daniels is flawed yet determined, and Billy Crudup’s Oram is nervily weak. These four pull the thing together, and the performances serve the work well. Guy Pearce’s returning Peter Weyland – a bit younger – is delightfully obnoxious, too. (Of course the fucker has Michelangelo’s David in his fucking lounge.)
The thing looks the part, and the production values are strong. There’s an excellent soundtrack by Jed Kurzel, and the landscape shots are absolutely spectacular. (As critiqued as Prometheus was, you can’t deny the power of the waterfall shots as it begins: there’s a lot to match it here. Milford Sound is ridiculously beautiful.)The resurrected weird architecture of Prometheus has more purpose here, now, and the distinct Roman feel gives everything a sense of timeless tragedy that didn’t seem apparent in the previous film. The spacecraft sets feel utilitarian but have the clean industrial elegance you’d expect; everything feels right.
(Well, everything except the things stuck on the wall in the galley that I know are doorbells the crew must have got from Bunnings, because I almost bought some the same myself.)
This has rambled on long enough, but suffice it to say that if you have any affection for the franchise, this is worth seeing. It’s more grim than expected, but that’s welcome; given that the films are as much about failure as they are success, it’s interesting to see Scott give us a world where the darker side is triumphant. I’ll certainly be picking it up when it hits blu-ray.