Editor’s Note: Alien: Covenant is now playing in wide theatrical release.
Five years ago, as I walked out of Prometheus, my imagination was ablaze with the possible trajectories the sequel would go as David and Elizabeth’s journey to their creators continued. That film, while certainly dreary, had a streak of optimism in discovery that high school Austin expected to continue. I was totally unprepared for Ridley Scott to submerge my soul into an inescapable hell.
Alien: Covenant: is unrelentingly nihilistic in its philosophy, seemingly suggesting that humanity is a disgusting species that deserves extinction. The terror as blood collects along the dirt and pools out of the frame is like glass cutting deep into a nerve. And it all serves as a sort of meta-commentary on franchise filmmaking and Mr. Scott’s passions being jerked around by fan demands.
The film gives fans what they asked for in including a greater emphasis on the aliens, but Scott subverts and eviscerates this desire by taking a razor and gutting that very desire.
Prometheus is deeply concerned with the disappointment of finding answers, of realizing our creators do not have a grand plan and are apathetic to our very existence. Covenant on the other hand dismisses both humanity and our creators (the Engineers) as lower lifeforms dooming ourselves to ruin through stupidity and arrogance. David (Michael Fassbender), the “synthetic” from the previous film who just loved to cause a bit of trouble, is now misanthropy personified. His and the movie’s primary belief is that our species deserves to wither away in the ruin we have birthed for ourselves, that he is superior and his creations are genetic perfection.
What’s truly remarkable is the film echoes this idea; kindness, passion, and love, while certainly present, seem to ultimately disappear into a void. Scott seems to simultaneously have great empathy for the trauma and heartache of his characters while also preying on that pain as a way to send them on their way to death. Attachment and care are meaningless here. Everyone dies and love puts you in the grave.
The contemplation of Prometheus is mutated by a cracked mirror and the horror of Alien blankets every second in horribly dark terror. The black chill of it all is a natural extension of how grim nearly every moment is. The aliens feel demonic, with the CG freeing them to move unnaturally and ghoulishly. They are relentless sources of carnage. Scott also utilizes the sexual-horror that has always surrounded the aliens and allows the subtext to become more physical, particularly in a very gruesome shower sequence.
The horror-philosophy fusion is enhanced even further through a meta discussion of Scott’s conflict with the material. I came across this reading of the film on Twitter by Jeremy Wainwright, and while I’m totally unfamiliar with this person, I completely agree with their take. One scene in particular seems to support this, as David and another synthetic, Walter (also played by Fassbender) discuss the nature of new and old, robotic “perfection” and messy ambition. It seems to me that Walter is a stand-in for the fan desire to box Scott into making Alien again and David is Scott’s desire to create something daring and unique.
Prometheus is deeply concerned with the disappointment of finding answers, of realizing our creators do not have a grand plan and are apathetic to our very existence.
The film apparently gives fans what they whiningly asked for in including a greater emphasis on the aliens, but Scott subverts and eviscerates this desire by taking a razor and gutting that very desire. Every bit of horror is so damp and caked with blood, every body so absolutely gutted, Scott rewards the fan desire with the total annihilation of hope.
Hope is also disemboweled through Ridley’s Gothic formalism. Space is endless and isolating, the infiniteness of the blackness forever creeping and crawling into the crew’s hearts until they descend onto a planet that seems like a literal hell. Littered with husks of the former living and painted with shadows that consume all light, the planet is an abyss. The visuals a nightmarish abstraction, the score suffocating, and the camera wild and manic.
Technically perfect, this is also full of brilliant performances. The Covenant crew is exceptional, with Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, and Billy Crudup doing terrific work. Crudup in particular is quite emotive, and Waterston is immensely gifted in her range. Just as in Prometheus though, Fassbender absolutely dominates. This time in a dual role, his angelic and devilish sides flourish and bubble with endless wells of charisma. There’s a strong argument to be made that Fassbender is a literal god amongst us all.
The past two weeks I’ve marathon-ed Ridley Scott’s entire filmography, and I’m confident in saying this is one of his absolutely best films. I might go so far as to say it is his masterpiece, above even Blade Runner or the original Alien. The complete descent into the macabre and perpetual pit of misery is unparalleled.
Technically perfect, Alien: Covenant is also full of brilliant performances where Michael Fassbender absolutely dominates. A dark visionary, director Ridley Scott seems to simultaneously have great empathy for the trauma and heartache of his characters while also preying on their pain.