The second Alien prequel arrived in the cinema five years after Prometheus; the first prequel that ended up having a very mixed reception from general critics and Alien fans alike. As pre-production ramped up on Alien: Covenant, rumours centred around Noomi Rapace not being in the sequel, and that story was all but confirmed as production began. However, during filming it was eventually revealed that she would be back, but clearly Dr Elizabeth Shaw wasn’t going to be a major character in the plot. Then, as filming progressed we got to see the first publicity shot of lead actor Katherine Waterston looking very Ripley-esque in a vest and holding what looked like a gun in her lap at the end of a spaceship corridor.
Other casting decisions were announced. Michael Fassbender would return, but would play dual roles as the androids David and Walter. The other cast were announced, and comedian actor Danny McBride was included in the line up, causing some fans to worry about the possible direction the story might take. As it turns out, they needn’t have worried about the cast in general, although quite why so many people have a problem with James Franco is beyond me. He was barely in the film at all.
Before looking at the film in more detail, a quick summary of the general story is in order.
The Weyland-Yutani colony ship Covenant is en route to a promising new home on the planet Origae 6. The ship has a crew of fifteen, 2000 colonists and over a thousand human embryos. Unfortunately, a lethal neutrino burst from a nearby star wreaks havoc with the ship and as a result, 47 colonists die, sixteen embryos perish and the ship’s captain is killed when he burns alive inside his sleeping pod.
Forced out of their slumber, the remaining crew set about restoring power to the ship. Whilst space walking, one of the crew intercepts a transmission from a planet that is just two weeks away from the Covenant’s present position. Upon further investigation, the new acting Captain agrees to go and investigate this previously uncharted planet, as it looks like a better colonisation prospect than Origae 6, which is still over 7 years’ journey away.
Unfortunately, what they find on the surface of this new planet is the android David, the only surviving crew member from the ship Prometheus, which went missing ten years ago. The Covenant’s own android, Walter, believes that there might be a problem with David, who has had no upgrades or servicing for many years. Unfortunately, by then the crew have already started to become infected by the results of David’s continuing experiments, leading to the crew being picked off one-by-one…
So, is Alien: Covenant any better than Prometheus? Yes, although many would argue that it isn’t hard. Sadly, most of the crew in this sequel are still nowhere near as developed or rounded as those characters in Alien or indeed Aliens, and they still do some very dumb things that could and should have been ironed out at the script-writing stage.
Let’s begin with the obvious. You’re going down to an alien planet that you’ve not previously been aware of. This planet could have all manner of wildlife, microscopic organisms and environmental dangers that could prove lethal to the crew. Not only does their planetary landing shuttle craft have no airlock, but the crew take no precautions, they don’t wear any kind of suits for protection and nobody seems to take any kind of readings before they begin breathing in the local air. If you have an android in your crew, then a sensible step would have been to send them out first to take readings, survey the area and report back. Instead, the crew all look like they going on a hiking trip and behave accordingly.
As the crew walk away from the ship, they come across wheat growing in the field. This is pointed out by Lope and then never returned to. Presumably this was part of the original script that got chopped at some point, but it makes no sense at all, even in hindsight. Why would there be wheat on that planet? What significance does that have to the plot? None at all as far as I can see.
The behaviour of the crew once they are exploring the planet is also incredibly naive and it makes you wonder if any of them had any kind of training at all. Their actions are so irreverent to the situation they find themselves in that in the end you have very little sympathy for some of their fates as the story unwinds.
The casting of Michael Fassbender as David and as Walter was announced quite early on, and indeed a photo of him as Walter was one of the earliest publicity photos to be released. Sadly, all this did was make it easy to predict that at some point, David and Walter would swap personas. When this happens near the end of the movie, it came as no surprise at all.
David is a very interesting character and one of the few good things to have come out of the previous movie, and his significance to the Alien saga becomes more clear as the movie goes on. The idea that Ash was an android and was acting on secret company orders was added into the original Alien script by producers Walter Hill and David Giler, against the wishes of Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusset. In the intervening years, director Ridley Scott has clearly become fascinated with the idea of androids and A.I. and the naming of the two android characters in his alien prequels is surely no coincidence. David presumably after David Giler and Walter presumably after Walter Hill.
The character arc for David is one of the fundamental cornerstone’s for Ridley Scott’s entire approach to the Alien prequels. The disdain that both his creator Peter Weyland and some of the crew of the Prometheus in the first movie (mostly notably Dr Charlie Holloway) had towards David helped to shape his utter contempt for the human race in general. As the story unfolds, we learn the ultimate fate of the only other surviving character from the previous movie. David initially lies to the Covenant crew, telling them that Elizabeth Shaw died when the alien ship they were flying crashed onto the planet. The truth, discovered all too easily by Walter later on, was that David overcame her and used he body for some gruesome and grotesque experiments.
However, it becomes apparent that the road Ridley Scott is laying out for David is fairly clear. He is destined to become the reason why the alien that we all know (and love?) exists and also why the Nostromo ends up encountering it. This can really only be confirmed if and when a third prequel is made, but it seems obvious that David intends to wreak revenge on the whole of humanity by using the tools and materials left behind by the race Dr Shaw called ‘engineers’.
As with Prometheus before it, some elements of the plot for Alien: Covenant are too easily picked apart, unravelling to the point where you wonder if the story tellers had ever taken a step back and looked objectively at what they were doing. However, you could argue that – for example – David is unhinged and his programming too far corrupted for him to consider how easily his lies could be exposed. Having Dr Shaw’s body laid open for all to see in his chambers could have been down to poor writing or down to him simply no longer able to tell the difference between truth and lies.
The vast majority of the film turns out to be a mixture of gothic horror influences; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula intertwined with a dose of Lovecraft. Indeed, at one point in the movie, as if to labour the point, David even quotes directly from Shelley, although from Percy Shelley rather than Mary.
So, it goes without saying that the alien elements in Covenant are much stronger than its prequel. The clue after all is in the title. By the end of the film we see what looks very close to the creature encountered in the original Alien movie. Before that we are shown other earlier manifestations of the beast that we all recognise. However, it is here where my biggest problem with the movie lies. It is a problem that Ridley Scott himself pointed out when making Prometheus and it’s a problem that has been present in every Alien move since Aliens. There are no surprises anymore in regards to the lifecycle of the creature. This time, instead of a chestburster, we get a back burster. When we do eventually get a more classic chestburster scene later in the movie, it becomes farcical for two reasons. The first is the ridiculously shortened timescales involved with going from being face-hugged to giving ‘birth’. There is no suspense anymore. We all know what’s coming and modern pacing in movies means things have to move much quicker than they did back in the late 70s (more’s the pity). The second disappointment is what happens immediately after the chestburster. David sits above and watches as Captain Oram dies. However, what unfurls from Oram’s chest is effectively a miniature adult alien, complete with arms and legs. It then stands up and I honestly thought that for a moment, it was going to produce a top hat and cane (subtle reference there!) and start dancing like the one from the Mel Brook’s movie Spaceballs, where John Hurt parodied his own character’s demise in that late 80s comedy. This one scene completely ruined the rest of the movie for me.
Unfortunately, the story ends up using an often-used doppelganger cliche, where characters switch places and you’re not meant to notice. David overpowers Walter, and having miraculously cut his hair so he looks just like his counterpart. It’s odd because the lead female character – Daniels – looks like she doesn’t trust Walter soon after they defeat the alien and yet she then trusts him explicitly soon afterwards. Just a mistrustful glance or two and her being slightly wary would have kept that suspense alive, but it’s quickly forgotten and then just as suddenly resurrected right at the end with a very poorly crafted scene where she mentions the log cabin conversation she had had with Walter much earlier in the story, and a slight look of puzzlement on David’s face betrays who he is.
The biggest flaw with the whole David/Walter swap plotpoint is this; why doesn’t Mother realise that this android is not Walter? How does David know so much about the ship and how it operates? Surely security isn’t so lapse that Mother can’t tell if it is the same model of android or not?
Sadly, the strong female character lasting until the end of the movie is now a huge cliche in Alien movies. I would have preferred them to have pulled the rug from under our feet again at the very end and have no survivors at all. As it is, we have already been burned twice in the past with Alien films where survivors from the end of the previous film have been cheaply disposed of at the start of the next. In Covenant, we know that neither Daniels or Tennessee are likely to be alive in the next movie (if there is one!), but that is a limitation of prequels in general. We know what is coming.
The final scene in the movie shows David conveniently regurgitating two alien embryos that he has smuggled onto the ship. They are miraculously the perfect size to fit into the embryo storage drawers on the ship, and were completely undetected by Mother when he, Daniels and Tennessee (the only other survivor) came back onboard.
There are a few good points though. Covenant looks terrific, the score is very reminiscent (or should that be prescient?) of Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully evocative score for ‘Alien’, and the acting is solid (even if some of the characters have little going for them) and the effects are top notch. There are genuinely good moments in the film, and overall it is much better than Prometheus.
I know that some people have had huge problems with the idea that David is the trigger for the set pieces that play out in ‘Alien’, but I’m actually fine with it. Storywise, you need a protagonist that can speak a language people can understand. You need to know the motivation behind their actions, and David is at least able to elucidate his reasons. However, I still want to know more about the ‘Engineers’. I am hoping that there is still an alien creature that looks like the pilot in the chair from Alien and that it wasn’t a suit worn by an ‘Engineer’. Who is to say that the Engineers did not base their technology on a superior creature? The SOS message heard in the director’s cut of Alien is nothing like the language spoken by the Engineers, so hopefully we have one more reveal to come – a deity for the Engineers to worship? I would also like to see David’s last act to be sending special order 937 so that a company ship intercepts the crashed ship on LV-426. That would tie-in with the company executives in Aliens knowing nothing about the orders to collect the organism at any cost.
Ridley Scott did hint soon after the release of Alien: Covenant that the next film would be more about the androids and A.I. than about aliens. The fact that the film only did half as much business at the box office as Prometheus would suggest that he might only get one more chance at this story. Assuming he is able to make one final Alien prequel, all the loose ends need to be tied up. Despite the overwhelming problems in both films so far, I’m still hopeful we can get one more half decent Alien movie in the series. I really like the AI back story, and hopefully we will get a satisfactory conclusion. Time as always, will tell.