Contractual Obligations: A Review of Alien: Covenant
In contemporary Hollywood, the announced information about a film often conveys an implied contract – a covenant, as it were – between filmgoers and filmmakers: if you buy a ticket to see this movie, you are guaranteed to experience certain desired forms of entertainment. Thus, a picture with the word “Alien” in its title, directed by Ridley Scott, promises potential viewers that they will observe numerous images of H. R. Giger’s iconic “xenomorphs” bursting out of human bodies and energetically attacking any person in their vicinity. And unquestionably, Alien: Covenant fulfills its contractual obligations: so, if you have been longing to watch scene after scene of lunging aliens latching on the faces of intended victims and gruesomely slaughtering every one of them, this film represents the answer to your prayers. The very open question is whether anyone without that fervent yearning will want to sit through two hours and three minutes of this otherwise lamentable movie.
There is no need for reviewers to be coy about the film’s basic plot, since that is also part of the implied contract. So, when the good starship Covenant, carrying a minimal crew and large population of hibernating colonists, gets an enigmatic message from a planet that seems ideal for human habitation, everyone in the theatre knows that they will land on its surface and promptly encounter the first of many homicidal grotesqueries that will proceed to kill off crew members one by one while the survivors strive to both slaughter the pesky aliens and ensure that they don’t get on board the ship and infest the entire galaxy. To be sure, Scott and his writers (Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan, and Dante Harper), perhaps after finding Ezra Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” in one of the books of quotations they kept consulting while polishing the script (as discussed below), do endeavor to add a veneer of novelty to the tried-and-true pattern they were obliged to follow, but the results of their ruminations are less than inspiring. Hey, let’s make some of the xenomorphs look a little different – explaining that they are “hybrids” of the original species and the creatures they penetrated, cannibalized, and emerged from – but don’t make them look too different, because we don’t want to disappoint the fans. Of course, emulating the famous scene in the original Alien (1979), we have to show a baby alien erupting out of a man’s chest, but we can also have one come out of a man’s back and a man’s mouth. Remember how neat it was when the alien attacked Ellen Ripley in her underwear? Why not have an alien attack a naked woman and man taking a shower? And the first film employed the hoary horror-film device of making the characters believe that the monster has been destroyed, then bringing it back on the scene for a final shocker; so, this time, why don’t we do it not once, but twice? One already starts to dread what Scott and writer/director Neil Blomkamp might dream up for the next Alien film now being planned – an alien bursting out of a man’s buttocks?
Still, a film cannot consist entirely of battles with vicious aliens, and Alien: Covenant also features ample doses of down time to allow audiences to relax and provide opportunities to develop characters and provocative themes; but the film’s quiet moments are disappointing as well. Consider my favorite part of the film – the opening, alien-free sequence when a huge starship, solely controlled by the robot Walter (Michael Fassbender), is suddenly beset by a “neutrino surge” that damages its systems and requires Walter to reawaken the ship’s fifteen-person crew, who must then decide whether to continue on to their original destination or “take a look” at the new world they have just discovered. Here is a story that Hollywood hasn’t told a thousand times before, and I think it would have been far more interesting to have the starship proceed on its planned journey, as in the sedate but nonetheless involving Czechoslovak film Ikarie XB-1, aka Voyage to the End of the Universe (1963). The film also nods to tradition by showing a burial in space, as a body is dispatched to drift through the void, as occurs in many science fiction stories and the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982); and when protagonist Daniels (Elizabeth Waterston) proposes to lure the alien into outer space because it is “our turf,” she suggests that her crew are thoroughly comfortable in that environment.
Yet the standout scene in this part of the film, when two astronauts don spacesuits to venture outside their ship to effect repairs, is a huge letdown. In sharp contrast to the meticulously sustained realism of Gravity (2013 – review here), or even the short spacewalks in Passengers (2016 – review here), Scott’s outer space never looks real; a character exclaims “You should see this view,” but audiences will always be aware that they are looking at actors on wires in a studio with a black backdrop. Given the talent and resources that Scott could command, his inattentiveness to this potentially memorable scene is surprising; but clearly, he just didn’t care, and perhaps assigned his son, second-unit director Luke Scott, to handle all the outer-space stuff while he was busy consulting with the special-effects people about another alternate model for the xenomorphs. (It may be telling that one character exclaims, “I hate space!” – which is, after all, the one place where the aliens cannot survive.)
Alien: Covenant is also an official sequel to Scott’s Prometheus (2012 – reviews here and here), which intriguingly intimated that strange white-skinned aliens, after first engendering the human race and monitoring its progress, turned against their progeny and bioengineered the xenomorphs to bedevil and eventually exterminate the species. One would have expected that this film would have more to say about these matters; however, while the film’s prologue has Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) explaining that he created the robot David (also Fassbender) to help answer “the only question that matters” – “Where do we come from?” – the film unfortunately proceeds to ignore the issue of humanity’s origins, and the xenomorphs’ origins for that matter, while wryly acknowledging the absence of explanations by having a character complain, “There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense.”
Instead, it seems, Scott and his writers resolved to present their story as a thoughtful exploration of humanity’s destiny. “Humans,” David announces, “are a dying species,” seeking to colonize other worlds solely as a desperate effort to remain viable. As David sees it, though, humanity is destined to be supplanted by the xenomorphs, who are “perfect” creatures – a notion perhaps derived from an imperfect reading of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976), observed in the film and listed in the credits. But can one seriously maintain that the ultimate goal of evolution has always been to produce a species that would mindlessly exterminate every creature it sees and thus drive itself to extinction? I am strangely reminded of Dr. Alfred Brandon’s argument in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) that the only way for humanity to advance is to turn people into werewolves. And since David, like Brandon, has clearly gone insane, that would call into question the seemingly more defensible notion that robots might someday emerge as humanity’s successors; true, the improved model Walter seems more stable, but we are told that he has a shortcoming as well, as he is inherently incapable of being creative. The film also appears to denigrate robots by showing a table on board the Covenant with one of those automatic drinking bird toys, an image of both mechanical endurance and mechanical ineffectuality.
Reinforcing the theme of human destiny are the two literary references that recur throughout the film: Percy Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818), announcing the inevitable decline and fall of mighty leaders, suggests that humanity is doomed; and Richard Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from Das Rheingold (1869) suggests that new godlike beings, like xenomorphs and robots, are arriving to take our place. However, these are only the most prominent of the film’s numerous allusions to both high culture and popular culture; indeed, even if Scott and his writers did not really consult books of quotations, one could almost compile such a book by reading their portentous screenplay.
First, since the crew’s new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) describes himself as a “person of faith,” references to the Bible are hardly unexpected: a person skeptical of the new planet’s virtues is derided with the phrase “Oh ye of little faith”; searching for a missing crewmate, Oram says he must “gather my stray flock,” like a Good Shepherd; accounting for his questionable activities, David observes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”; and he says that a dead person has “left this vale of tears.” An adage associated with Saint Ambrose, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is partially quoted when Walter joins crewmates drinking a toast by saying, “When in Rome …” John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) is referenced when David tells Walter that he must “serve in Heaven or reign in Hell”; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is cited when David, having long been alone on the planet, describes himself as “Crusoe on his island”; and Lord Byron is mentioned when David misidentifies him as the author of “Ozymandias.” As for popular culture, David at one point sings a line from “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” (1892), suggesting his belief that he has hit the jackpot by encountering the Covenant and its accessible resources. A scarred crewman is said to resemble The Phantom of the Opera (1925), presumably referencing Lon Chaney’s horrific appearance in the silent film because the speaker says that he didn’t know it was also a musical. The message that attracts the Covenant to the aliens’ planet is a garbled version of John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (1971), indicating an effort to delude them into believing that the world would, in fact, become their ideal new home. And when a crewman beginning starship repairs shouts, “Let’s get this party started,” he recalls Pink’s 2001 hit, “Get the Party Started.” This list is certainly not complete, but one can only take so many notes in a darkened theatre.
Clearly intended to make the film seem deep and meaningful, all of these references are actually irritating, since they are so palpably incongruous. Let’s face it: despite its pretensions, Alien: Covenant is not a profound meditation on the human condition; it’s a gore-splattered horror film. And one cannot transform the Grand Guignol into Hamlet by having the butchers quote Shakespeare. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making gore-splattered horror films, since that’s how many people want to be entertained, but Scott and his writers denigrate their own work by conveying that they are ashamed of what they are doing and want to make it seem like something it’s not.
There is, though, precisely one serious issue that the film actually explores, albeit in an understated and sporadic manner, and that is the conflict between religion and science. At the start of the film, Oram laments that he was not named the captain of the Covenant because his superiors believed that a “person of faith” could not make “logical, rational decisions.” And almost immediately, he seemingly confirms that attitude by failing to make the logical, rational decision to proceed to the ship’s original destination and diverting to a planet broadcasting a John Denver song (that praises a place said to be “almost Heaven”) – in part because of a perceived moral duty to rescue possible imperiled humans. Yet after the aliens show up, Daniels, who protested his decision and now has an ideal opportunity to say “I told you so,” instead asserts that “We need your faith” in dealing with this menace; and that faith fleetingly appears to be an asset when he confronts David in the company of an alien that he is surprisingly not attacking. Oram announces, “I met the devil when I was a child,” undoubtedly because he now again recognizes the devil in the persons of the alien and its apparent ally, David. The robot, a presumed atheist who also describes himself as “an amateur zoologist,” adopts the proper scientific attitude of withholding judgment on alien beings that might merit scientific scrutiny and might be transformed into friends; and he would denounce Oram for his distorted, Manichean belief that he is good and the aliens are evil. Yet Oram’s religious perspective, of course, is absolutely right: David and the aliens are indeed devilish, as David himself acknowledges by mentioning “the devil’s workshop” and preferring the Devil’s choice to “reign in Hell.” All of this recalls the dispute that surfaces in the original cinematic ancestor of the Alien films, The Thing (from Another World) (1951): the foolish scientist wishes to preserve and study the alien “intellectual carrot,” while the wise soldiers resolve to kill it. (One also remembers that the introduction to the original Frankenstein  criticizes Frankenstein as “a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.”) Vindicating religion, and condemning science, thus represents yet another longstanding tradition in science fiction film that Alien: Covenant accepts and perpetuates.
Finally, in one marginalized respect, this film should be heartening to science fiction enthusiasts; for unlike the 1979 film, which featured a small starship with a seven-person crew, Alien: Covenant begins and ends inside a huge space ark, partially powered by immense solar sails, with 2000 colonists necessarily hibernating during a long journey – which represents, realistically, the only way that humans will ever travel to other solar systems. In earlier science fiction films, interstellar travel was either not depicted at all, or portrayed as fast and easy, as the starships of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises blithely “warped” from star to star in a matter of days, if not hours. Films depicting large starships traveling at sub-light speeds to distant stars were rare; only the aforementioned Ikarie XB-1 and the wretched television series The Starlost (1973) immediately come to mind. Yet in the past decade, I have reviewed four films – Wall▪E (2008 – review here ), Pandorum (2009 – review here ), Passengers, and this film – that feature variations on this form of interstellar travel. Considering the other trend I have noted elsewhere – increasing numbers of “spacesuit films” featuring near-future astronauts facing plausible threats in the Solar System, like Gravity and The Martian (2015 – review here), one might conclude that audiences are growing weary of the magical space adventures of Star Trek and Star Wars and are increasingly interested in how humanity might actually conquer space in the decades, and centuries, to come. So the central conceit of the Alien films – that we are likely to meet up with relentlessly lethal alien monsters – may be silly, but the franchise’s background is becoming more plausible. And that, if nothing else, is a reason to celebrate Alien: Covenant.
7 thoughts on “Contractual Obligations: A Review of Alien: Covenant”
FYI: In PROMETHEUS, the android David watches David Lean’s film LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. LAWRENCE features a brief scene in which Peter O’Toole sings “I’ the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” So when David mentions the line, he refers back to both LAWRENCE and PROMETHEUS.
Whoops! Apologies: s/b “I’m the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” not “I’ the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”
Thanks for your reviews which is the first item I check on this site. Always to the point so I will trust you and pass on Alien – The Covenant although I was looking forward to it. Now worried about the next Blade Runner. I would just disagree on the upbeat ending, we do still enjoy, to a point, the magical silliness of space operas and Alien is a gory space opera which, as you wrote, tries now to look more serious that it is instead of embracing it. There are great stories with fast space travel like Greg Bear’s and Joe Haldeman’s that could have served as reference. Also, I would disengage from the movie each time a cultural reference is made, this is not Guardians of the Galaxy, it is doubtful Shakespeare’s legacy will survive until then, let alone John Denver’s. It is also a paradox that Ridley Scott should be so optimistic about this cultural permanence vs. that of mankind itself. On the contrary, a part of mankind will probably survive itself in a form or another but its culture may not or as a dead one (thinking Aristophanes and the likes here).
I feel sorry for you, Gary, contractually obligated to watch and review crap like this. I really, really do. (But, as always, in an exceptionally beautiful essay.)
The reviewer missed the point. Alien: Covenant was meant to entertain, not provide fodder for thought. It nailed every single aspect a fan of the series would expect it to, including the basic plot and the xenomorph’s physical appearance. Deviating from either would’ve led to serious disappointment, which anyone who’s studied Science Fiction at any length should know. I suppose it’s fashionable among the pseudo-intellectual set to sneer at popular entertainment, but such an attitude hardly provides a helpful review for movie goers.
Wow guys that won’t help science-fiction from declining if you block freedom of speech as you did with my perfectly valid comment – feels very Orwellian. I am disappointed at the moderator’s mind-closedness after taking the time to share thoughts with you. It doesn’t help that the website has not improved in years and is smartphone-unfriendly, somewhat ironic given its topic. Nevermind, I am just gonna go ahead and avoid the site altogether, you stay in your little bubble. Did you know the Internet is accessible from outside the US ? Good !
No block intended — comments are manually approved and sometimes a few days or week goes by before they are. And a site redesign, smartphone friendly, is in work.