“If you created me, who created you?”
If the original Alien and its first sequel Aliens are both nearly perfect films, perhaps their most remarkable quality is how unique they are from one another. The first is a sublime adrenaline-fueled horrorscape, using few locations and few characters to tell a dramatically simple story in a profoundly unsettling way. Aliens multiplies everything: the sets, the cast and, as the title promises, the number of creatures themselves. Wisely, James Cameron didn’t attempt to squeeze a larger prospect into a similar box and largely eschewed horror in favor of action thrills and humanist beats. Of course the two retain similar qualities, from their general look to Sigourney Weaver as one of the great film heroes of all time. These two films proved how malleable this particular universe could be, and many other sequels and diversions would test that argument to its limits.
Prometheus remixed certain elements, but added on a philosophical bent and a cleaner, sleeker aesthetic. Now we arrive at Alien: Covenant, joining Prometheus as a new prequel series leading up to the 1979 original. As the events commence, after a prelude featuring Michael Fassbender returning as the android David, we’re still a couple decades off from Ellen Ripley and the Nostromo crew setting foot on LV-426. Appropriately, and somewhat effectively, Ridley Scott utilizes this film’s place in chronology to meld a tonal and genre bridge between many of the things the Alien franchise has been over the years.
The story begins ominously for the crew of the Covenant with a tragic loss due to technical errors rather than any foreign beast. Here we get a glimpse at one of Aliens most astute observations, that the evil wrought by Ash in the first film was the fault of humans and corporations, not a pure, incessant cruelty inherent to AI. Technology is creation by man and therein resides its greatest flaw, the series argues as its best. The film will return to the notion of creation, and fault, many times before the final credits roll.
After this tragedy, the crew takes a bit of time to recover but must split that mourning with patching up the ship after it’s taken a severe hit. The captain, Oram (Billy Crudup, able to conjure gravitas out of thin air), would rather see everyone stick to their roles and get the work done than waste time crying over a loss that’s already over. This may seem at odds with his position as this film’s “man of faith”, but the contentious relationship between religion and science appears to be at the core of this new series of films. He’s not cruel, but he’s determined, enough so to demand an investigation of a planet that appears to be sending out a beacon featuring the tune “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (a perfectly eerie choice for the both the film and its marketing material). Daniels (Katherine Waterston, doing her damndest to create an icon out of a rather thinly drawn character) objects. The mission of the Covenant is to colonize a planet that they’ve already scouted further into space. Oram figures this one has breathable air, so it’s worth a look. Daniels thinks that sounds a little short-sighted and potentially dangerous. If you’ve seen an Alien film before, you’re guaranteed to know which character is correct.
That knowledge, the series’ fear of stupidly rushing into the unknown and valuing momentum over humanity, doesn’t take away from the pleasures of watching what exactly happens when a group sets down on the planet. A group goes out to investigate the beacon, some split off to take in samples, and then somebody steps on a small pod and a toxin is released into the air. Mysterious substances and the human body don’t mix well in this franchise (or any, really), and it’s only a matter of time before a new creature has materialized and begins wreaking havoc. This new variation on the Xenomorph is much more skittish and agile, and when it attacks the camera matches in pace, sputtering around to handle the chaos. There’s a nihilistic dread attached to these sequences that’s effective, though Scott looses the thread in a scene shot mostly in dark where it becomes impossible to tell if the latest victim is an extra or Daniels herself (and that ambiguity is certainly not the point).
Once the monster has been unleashed into the world, the survivors retreat to a massive, abandoned palace and the film goes all in on combing the rollicking action of Aliens with dumps of exposition and musings on life from Prometheus. For the most part, the former is more attractive than the latter. To some extent this prequel series suffers from a similar ill that befell Episodes I, II and III of Star Wars. Much of the allure of those first two films was the sense that this was an entire world and we were only getting a glimpse into it. Even more than with Star Wars, Alien offered extraterrestrial iconography without even hinting at its origins. In Prometheus, we discovered the owners of the ship found on LV-426. Now we’re on the trail of seeing just how the black goo from that piece ended up spawning the creature that Ripley tore into time and time again.
Some of this existential anxiety, which is tremendous in theory given how few franchises even risk ballooning ideas alongside their set-pieces, is helped by the presence of Fassbender. This time around he plays Walter, an android for the Covenant who doesn’t seem to have the destructive and vindictive tendencies that caused David to unleash horror on the Prometheus. He’s developed a slight friendship with Daniels, and it would have suited the film’s endgame to put even more into that relationship. Much of the fallout of Covenant ties back to that divide between the android and the human, and how creation begets creation. That looks to be the notion driving this prequel series as a whole. The only prominent link in casting between the two films is Michael Fassbender (to say nothing of Noomi Rapace, whose presence or lack thereof would constitute spoiler territory). So if Ripley was the protagonist of the original works, David/Walter/the android itself is the continuing lead here. That doesn’t bleed into a tonal concern; I wouldn’t argue these films are any less human or more mechanical than the originals. But it does speak to the philosophical pursuits.
And, again, all of that is fascinating in theory and occasionally does pay off here. But much of it is blocks of time given to characters spelling out exactly what their issues are and how those personal concerns are tied to cosmic shifts in evolution. Alien: Covenant is better when it makes the intellectual into something visceral. The last chunk of the film does this well, especially a final sequence whose timing in the denouement is also a staple of the franchise (and a likely remnant of its time in the horror genre, where such narrative moves are more common). That last section finally delivers on everything the film has promised, taking the characters who remain and forcing them to use a harrowing combination of wit and brute force. This new series is obviously interested in finding out what it means to be create life and, even more so perhaps, what it means to be created. That’s a good core on which to rest the story, but as those last minutes make clear there’s no existential query as nauseatingly tense as the sight of a creature popping up out of the dark and spewing acid from their injuries. This isn’t to say the new films should drop those high-minded pursuits. Rather, Scott’s personal abilities in this universe reside in wedding the expansive questions to the claustrophobic spaces, where air is sucked out of your lungs as if an airlock just opened in your throat.