by Benjamín Harguindey
Alien: Covenant (2017) is as much of a direct sequel to Prometheus (2012) as it is a remake of sorts. As if director Ridley Scott wanted to continue the story but also right some of the wrongs of his maligned earlier movie.
It is very much in vogue these days to have these kinds of movies sprouting like so many fungi under the shade of sleeping franchises. Spin-offs is a good catch-all term. Either they’re barely related via Easter Egg or they’re there to fill in the blanks for questions nobody asked. In the case of Alien: Covenant, it’s both. As with Prometheus, Scott continues to chronicle the icky evolution of the xenomorph alien into the “perfect organism” that will one day birth out of Kane’s chest and hunt down the crew of the cargo ship Nostromo in Alien (1979).
The premise here is that the spaceship Covenant is on a colonizing mission when suddenly the captain is felled in his hypersleep and the rest of the crew decide to cut the mission short by 7 more years and land on what appears to be a planet that’s just as habitable as Earth. That leaves 14 crew members, which readers will note is twice as many poor bastards as the original Nostromo crew, though they will be hard pressed to signal out more than a couple as memorable characters.
It was decided in Prometheus that an ‘Alien’ movie couldn’t do without a feeble Ellen Ripley stand-in, and so Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) was born. Today’s Ripley stand-in is one Daniels (Katherine Waterston), of whom it is no exaggeration to note that is either crying or about to cry throughout the whole movie. There’s Oram (Billy Crudup), the insecure acting captain. There’s Danny McBride, played by Danny McBride. Then there’s the impeccable android played by Michael Fassbender, Walter. The rest of the cast are all quite forgettable.
An expedition is formed. The Engineer spaceship is found. Teams are split up. Scientists become infected. Monsters are birthed. Chaos ensues. You could describe both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant with those same six phrases, though to Covenant’s credit stupidity isn’t as big a factor this time around as sheer bad luck. Then again, why aren’t any of these people wearing helmets? The answer, of course, is that the movie would be over before it even got started.
Don’t let this discourage you. At the heart of the story lies David, the surviving android from the previous movie, also played by Fassbender. It is David who’s arguably the true focal point of the movie rather than Final Girl Daniels, for it is his actions that guide the plot and his fervent proselytizing that which exposes the movie’s ideology. A robot with the power of creation, he has taken to the alien lifeform like a god to clay and become like a crazed alchemist, splicing and impregnating species.
It is interesting to note the historical obsession the ‘Alien’ androids have for the title creature – “The perfect organism,” as Ash (Ian Holm) puts it, “I admire its purity“. Similarly, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) in Aliens (1986) is shown to be awed by his study of facehuggers. David’s own obsession thus has canonical precedent: it makes sense that he would spite his mortal creator, and it makes sense that in his own disappointment he would try to create “the perfect organism” when given the means, such as the pathogen fabricated by the ill-fated Engineer race.
Without spoiling too much, it is when David and David’s plight take the stage that Alien: Covenant becomes momentarily something other than a mere retread (while every other time it seems to play like a second draft of Prometheus). At least the movie is about something rather than simply being an exercise in nostalgia: intriguing, unsettling and genuinely creepy at times. There’re a series of revelations halfway through that give the movie a distinct 1970s pessimistic nastiness, up to and including its somber (if excruciatingly predictable) finale.
Not to be condescending to the movie, but for a sequel of a prequel to a series of four movies plus cross-overs, Alien: Covenant ends up being a surprisingly strong contender. So the cast is weak, the story is but an upgrade and the alien has been overexposed and overexplained to death at this point. But at least this new batch of xeno movies has found its center in the megalomaniac madness of a rogue android, bestowing a sense of dramatic weight that the preceding title didn’t quite achieve.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).