By Preston Wilder
It was all so simple in the days of the first Alien: human vs. non-human, human good, non-human bad. Fear and emotion vs. big scary teeth and a bad attitude. It may even have been too simple (I’ve never understood why Alien is considered a timeless classic, as opposed to a glorified monster movie) but still, you knew where you stood. Alien: Covenant comes on like a throwback to that first, 36-year-old film – but things are no longer simple because intelligent machines have been added to the mix, “synthetics” in the parlance of the crew of the colonisation vessel Covenant, raising thorny questions of where human ends (or begins) and muddying the waters irrevocably.
Actually, it was never that simple – because human and non-human also tended to intermingle in disturbing ways. There was always a fear of violation, of the line being breached between Us and the Other. That’s the fear underlying That Scene from Alien (I speak, of course, of the beastie bursting out of poor John Hurt’s chest) – and it’s also, incidentally, a fear behind many classic Westerns, notably The Searchers with its hero’s irrational hatred of miscegenation, which is relevant because Alien: Covenant also feels like a Western. The Covenant is a space-age wagon train, carrying some 2,000 (unseen) pioneers into the unknown – which is why the crew are no longer the rugged soldier types of Alien. Instead we have families, or at least couples, reinforcing the theme of duality (as in human/non-human) as well as a more sexual aspect. There are human couples, human/machine couples, even two male synthetics (both played by Michael Fassbender) bonding over a very phallic flute. “I’ll do the fingering,” offers the more experienced cyborg suggestively.
The bad news is that Alien: Covenant flatters to deceive. Despite all its themes – the rise of the machines, the fear of violation, the sexual undercurrent, etc – this is really just a cheap horror thriller. The good news is that it’s a very slick horror thriller, even branching out into action; a climactic chase on the deck of a moving spaceship, with Daniels (Katherine Waterston) hanging off the edge and dodging heavy objects as she tries to trap the big mama alien, is so kinetically exciting it feels like Ridley Scott trying to out-Spielberg Spielberg. Still, genre thrills only get you so far. It’s annoying, for instance, that so much is made of Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) being “a person of faith” yet the sub-plot turns out to be largely irrelevant, lost in the many iterations of Alien! Look Out! It’s Behind You!
The aliens (‘xenomorphs’, I believe is the term) are limited characters, even as they grow hydrocephalic and unnervingly monkey-like; the next-level stuff in Alien: Covenant comes from the machines – specifically David, the serene synthetic from Scott’s Prometheus, who’s come to realise that his human creators are unworthy of their creations. (“If you created me, who created you?” David asks his master, tying in with Oram’s God-bothering.) David’s creative streak is considered a bug, and he’s now been replaced by a newer, less troublesome model named Walter – a possible metaphor for the plight of the Hollywood filmmaker, especially Scott who’s spent most of his 50-year career working for big-studio bosses who’d take efficiency over creativity. That said, the actual film is still rather B-movie-ish, David performing mad-scientist grafts like Dr Moreau from The Island of Dr Moreau while Fassbender does the Anthony Hopkins thing of wearing a faraway look in his eye to denote ‘sinister’.
Scott isn’t always known for his good judgment: his Plagues of Egypt sequence in Exodus: Gods and Kings was so crass and literal-minded it derailed the film all by itself. Here, too, there are obvious missteps, like a silly bit where the alien joins a naked couple in the shower (it might’ve worked as a gag in the early scenes, but it comes near the end of the film and just seems unworthy). But he’s also learned from Prometheus, which felt weighed down by its own self-importance: Alien: Covenant not only has actual jokes – “I hate space!”; “This is why you need to do yoga” – but also strikes a balance between the grand, gorgeous stateliness of the build-up and the short grisly scenes that come later.
It may not be a perfect balance (the monsters are just too simplistic), and the human/non-human balance may be even more imperfect: most of the crew are indistinguishable alien-fodder, though Waterston and Danny McBride make an impression. Still, this is credible filmmaking, offering splendid visuals and some pacy excitements along with big themes and a dash of the elegiac. When David talks of humans as “a dying species”, or recites ‘Ozymandias’ – the Shelley poem about the transience of everything – you can feel Scott, who’ll be 80 in November, casting a weary old man’s look over this whole alien malarkey. Nothing is simple anymore.
DIRECTED BY Ridley Scott
STARRING Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Danny McBride
US 2017 122 mins