With the passing of the legendary John Hurt earlier this year, I went back to the original Alien (1979), in which he experiences what is perhaps cinema’s most iconic onscreen death. What I was struck by, having not seen the film in years, is how brilliant Alien is as a character piece.
While Ripley’s presence in the larger series has afforded her an iconic status, the original film is more of an ensemble effort, focusing on the interplay between the whole crew. You grow to love them as a unit, so when people die off it sends emotional shockwaves through the fabric of the film. This was one of the many shortfalls of Prometheus (2012)—its conviction that Elizabeth Shaw was to be ‘The Next Ripley’ led to other characters feeling like mere cannon fodder to be killed off in increasingly gruesome ways.
With its pontifications on gods and monsters, and the frustrating lack of resolution to many of its core questions, many fans felt that Prometheus was a philosophically ponderous lump of celluloid that didn’t cohere with the lean original film. Alien: Covenant attempts to meld the styles of the two films into a cohesive whole, resulting in an intriguing exercise in style and fan service.
Ridley Scott, directing once again, is having fun reconfiguring familiar elements from Alien and Prometheus into new shapes. From small nods like the ship’s computer being called MUTHUR, to the conspicuously Alien-esque title sequence, many elements of Covenant are simply intertextual nods to keep fans happy. Even pivotal story elements, such as the creation of the Xenomorph, are a result of the social media backlash about the lack of the iconic aliens in Prometheus.
But delving into the backstory of the Xenomorph is the kind of fan service that may ultimately prove to be a disservice. The fear of the unknown is much of what made the Xenomorph so scary, so learning more about it, even if it deepens the mythos, will only make it less scary. And, while the callbacks to the previous films are mostly entertaining, they can often highlight how much of the film feels recycled from other Alien movies, pulling you out of the cinematic experience—especially when the final conflict feels like it was lifted straight out of the first two Alien films.
Instead, the film is at its best when carving its own path, especially in its attempts to meld serious philosophical contemplations about God, the act of creation, and the nature of man with schlocky, B-movie thrills, and gross body horror.
The film also repeats some of the mistakes of Prometheus, especially during its first act. The crew of the Alien: Covenant is meant to be made up of brilliant scientists, and yet the plot is predicated on them acting like absolute morons, such as stepping foot on an uncharted planet without spacesuits or scans of the environment, simply assuming there are no highly dangerous aliens or deadly pathogens awaiting them in the wilderness. The film also makes Prometheus’s mistake of clearly marking several characters out as cannon fodder, so their deaths are far more yucky than shocking—but these issues are mostly consigned to the first act, leaving the rest of the film more space to play around in.
More than anything, the film is incredibly handsome to look at, playing to Scott’s strengths as a worldbuilder and a visual stylist. He also draws great performances from Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterstone, and Danny McBride. It proves more than ever that Ridley Scott can direct the hell out of anything, but he can’t make up for the shortfalls in a script. Alien: Covenant is ultimately fun, disposable entertainment and, for all its good qualities, Ridley’s latest experiment in his iconographic toybox might do lasting damage to the rest of the Alien continuity.