The Alien franchise’s latest entry embraces the weird, and is better for it. Spoilers ahead.
If you watched Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) at any point in the last five years and subsequently decided to not invest interest in any more of his Alien prequels, then you probably did not pay much attention to the recent release of the latest instalment, Alien Covenant. Beautiful cinematography aside, Prometheus featured some of the most idiotic characters to ever grace the big screen, and eschewed the franchise’s trademark tense horror for a bizarre human origin back-story, doing little to assuage doubts that this new breed of films in the canon could elicit and sustain the same level of shock and awe in audiences that its early predecessors did. Certainly then you could be forgiven for assuming this newest title would be simply yet another contemporary sci-fi / action blockbuster with the occasional gory death and jump-scare thrown in, and for the most part that’s not an inaccurate assessment. But hoo boy, at just over an hour in, Alien Covenant suddenly throws a curveball of weirdness, unexpectedly securing the film’s status as a pleasingly strange entry in the franchise.
That being said, it is for the most part generic, derivative, and laughably silly. The plot treads a familiar path, and the cast of disposable characters is bloated with indistinguishable white guys whose names you never learn, and whose faces you never quite see clearly (which would be a great meta-commentary on the state of Hollywood blockbusters, if you could believe that Ridley Scott – he of the infamous “Mohammad so-and-so” comment – is willing or able to make such a statement).
Alien Covenant follows the crew of a huge transport ship called, er, Covenant, which is en route to a planet called Origae-6 for the purposes of colonisation and terraforming. If you were playing Space Travel Bingo, you can now cross those two buzzwords off. The crew is woken early from their cryo-sleep (bingo!) by an incident that results in the untimely death of their Captain. He is succeeded by one of the few vaguely fleshed out characters, Oram (Billy Crudup), who is concerned that his crew will second-guess his decisions because of his religious proclivities. (Although this is an interesting character attribute in theory, characterisation is forgotten about halfway through the film, and this idea goes nowhere.) Second-in-command is Daniels, AKA Dani, who had planned with her husband to build a lakeside cabin on Origae-6, except her husband is the now charred and crispy ex-Captain. This leaves her at a loss for how to continue because – as she dramatically exclaims – she doesn’t know how to use a hammer and nails. This seems like something that would be a severe limitation in her job considering she is in charge of all the machinery in the cargo hold but this film defies logic so roll with it.
Also on the crew is a man called Tennessee, his wife, Faris, Carmen Ejogo playing the wife of the new Captain, Jussie Smollett off of Empire, his wife, and some other men, and their wives. You see, they’re on a colonisation mission, and apparently you just can’t move to a new world and raise a frozen embryo unless you’ve exchanged marriage vows with somebody. Oddly for a film released in 2017 and set roughly 100 years in the future, not only is monogamy strictly observed by every character but a lot of the men in this crew are also very possessive of their wives, and insecure about them spending time with other men or even being talked about. It seems intended as banter, to establish their level of camaraderie, but it’s incredibly jarring to see this much casual sexism and marital insecurity on display. If you’re thinking this all sounds rather heteronormative, you may be surprised to learn that there are also two men on the crew who are married to one another. That’s right: token gays! Only, you don’t realise that they are husbands until after one of them has died, their names are utterly immemorable – if ever revealed – and the dimensionality of their characterisation does not go beyond the laughably flat ‘married man who doesn’t want to die’. Not exactly the height of LGBTQ representation we’re aspiring to reach.
Neatly rounding off the cast is Michael Fassbender’s ‘synthetic’ (an android), Walter, a less free-thinking, more duty-bound (and upgraded) version of the David model that appeared in Prometheus.
When the crew intercepts a transmission of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, they change course and head for a planet that won’t take them a further 7 years and 4 months to reach. Captain Oram and Dani discuss the pros and cons of such a decision, with Dani advising against completely abandoning their carefully researched plan – but she is dismissed. Of course, the Captain later tells her “you were right” but by that point they are doomed so it really doesn’t matter. If you’re thinking “hang on, John Denver? ‘Country Roads’? Is it okay to laugh at this?” then the answer is: absolutely. Laugh away. This film is best enjoyed if you lean in to embrace the ridiculous.
And so, Tennessee, Jussie Smollett, and Jussie Smollett’s wife stay on board the Covenant with their cargo of 2,000 or so passengers in cryogenic-sleep, whilst the rest of the crew descend to the ominously perfect-but-previously-undiscovered planet. The explorers fly into the eye of a storm, then are shocked by the storm’s vigour, because in apparent Alien prequel tradition, they are fucking idiots.
Some stunning location shooting amongst mountains, lakes, and forests brings fresh life to the franchise, which has mostly shied away from landscape scenery, and there’s quite the ‘arriving on Dagobah’ vibe to the crew’s touch-down on the planet. There’s a real sense of scale conveyed in some of the establishing shots as the crew traverse through a landscape of eerie silence, and the tension ratchets as they explore the alien environment.
Though they are supposed to be searching for the source of John Denver, they start splitting up and of course two of their members soon end up ingesting unknown biological substances, because they are clumsy, incompetent fools. This idiocy is a recurring theme. For example, Faris accidentally blows up their lander transport because she keeps firing her gun on board. But she doesn’t just blow it up. She BLOWS. IT. UP. The explosion is a spectacle to behold, every last drop of combustible fuel on board milked for the sake of an unforgettable action set-piece. At one point, a woman on fire staggers out, but there’s no chance to discern whether it is Faris or Carmen Ejogo because then the lander explodes AGAIN and you are left to marvel at and accept its fiery destruction.
At the same time, the others are discovering what the alien version of a velociraptor attack in the long grass is like. This is the point in the film where the characters hit a crescendo of panic, and witness their very first chest-buster death. It has to be said that some of the deaths in this film are very comical, even when they don’t involve ridiculously prolonged explosions. Though the requisite gestation period for an Alien is unclear, one thing is certain: when an Alien is ready for birth, it will find its way out. This film is filled with imagery of men giving birth, and the first such image is one not yet seen before in this franchise: that of an Alien bursting through a man’s spine. Though the death itself looks horrifically painful, the visual of the man’s body flopping backwards over the edge of the medical bench he was sat on is just plain funny. Similarly, one of the men in the long grass appears to have his jaw whipped off by a neomorph and it’s simply humourous in its sudden, unexpected violence.
In the midst of the pandemonium arrives a Messianic figure garbed in a hooded robe, who beckons for the remaining crew members to follow him, fleet-footed, through the forest. Except as it turns out, he is not the Messiah; he is a very naughty boy, for he is David, Michael Fassbender’s sinister android from Prometheus, and he has been living alone in his “dire necropolis” (his words) for the past ten years, longing for someone to play his flute.
Buckle in, folks, for this is where the film gets deliciously weird. David offers the Covenant crew respite in the supposedly fortified (they never actually check) ancient city he now resides in, then steals away to cut his hair, which he once modelled on that of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but which now falls almost to his shoulders. He is evidently an incredibly adept hairstylist, and by the time Walter finds him in his creepy study full of alien taxidermy, they look identical. That David has chosen to wait until now – when an identical being is present – to cut his hair only reinforces just how suspicious his intentions are.
He then proceeds to sit intimately close to Walter and instructs his ‘brother’ on how to use his lips to play a small, simple flute-like instrument. “I’ll do the fingering,” he says, his voice soft but firm as he places his fingers over the holes, and Walter blows. Satisfied after a few notes, David then tells Walter to place his own fingertips over the holes, and David applies pressure to each finger when it’s time to lift. “You have symphonies in you, brother!” he tells Walter triumphantly, content with his companion’s fingering and blowing. (It’s easy to forget during this mesmerising interaction that Walter has lost his left hand to Alien acid by this point, and can only hold the flute one-handed.)
It’s hard to imagine that any early audiences watched this film expecting it to feature an intensely homoerotic music lesson involving identical androids, and yet Alien Covenant apparently aspired to deliver in this regard. David has a flair for the dramatic, conveyed in his loping gait, his enthusiastic declarations, and his self-important proselytising. He flits breezily from one emotion to another, dangerously unpredictable. At one point, Captain Oram finds David standing eye-to-eye with one of the neomorph aliens, a decapitated crew member’s bloodied corpse just beyond them. “Breathe on the nostrils of a horse and he’ll be yours for life,” David informs the Captain, a maniacal gleam in his eye. But when the Captain instead shoots at the monster, an incredible mix of rage and torment flashes across David’s face as he screams. Then he is instantly composed again. With glee he lures the Captain to a chamber filled with those incubator eggs that are so familiar to Alien (1979) audiences, then with a seductive whisper, encourages the Captain to investigate one of them, observing with the pride of a parent as a face-hugger leaps out to orally impregnate the Captain. When he is later confronted by the rather placid Walter, David decides that the only way to top off his evening of entertainment is to bring closure to the homoerotic tension between he and his ‘brother’, and so he plants a kiss on Walter’s lips, and then promptly stabs him.
All of this entertainingly peculiar behaviour is rendered by Michael Fassbender in a nuanced performance. Although David is [delightfully] over the top, Fassbender is not. He imbues David with a different energy to that of the compliant Walter. He constantly looks dangerous, even when standing bare-foot in the pouring rain wearing a three-quarter length, figure-hugging bodysuit. He wields the extreme violence and melancholy of Roy Batty, but none of the existential anxiety. In fact, Scott goes so far as to directly reference his infamous Blade Runner (1982) replicant; when Dani stabs David in the chin with the iron nail she originally intended to build her cabin with, he grins at her and hisses “that’s the spirit!”. He might as well be holding a white dove.
David is a creator of life; he is mother; he is father. Ten years is a long time to nurse a God complex in solitude. In case you were pondering on the extent of his aspirations, his preferred soundtrack as he carries out his work is Wagner’s Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla, with or without the full orchestra. Just when his magnetic presence threatens to overshadow the dangers posed by the xenomorphs, he retreats to the shadows, content to observe the carnage. Yet his existence is intrinsically entwined with that of the alien creatures, and his position within the mythos of the franchise is now deeply rooted. If the next instalment in this prequel series does not include him, it will be sorely lacking.
As it stands, what could have been a onenote sci-fi / action romp is instead elevated by a sub-plot involving a character so operatically offbeat, so comfortable in his idiosyncrasies, that he offers a welcome distraction from the tedium of yet another generic monsters-in-space offering. David the egocentric synthetic steals the show and defies the odds, to make Alien Covenant one of the most unexpectedly memorable sci-fi blockbusters in recent times.