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The broken promise of Alien: Covenant

May 18, 2017

Alien-Covenant-Trailer-Breakdown-1I saw Alien: Covenant last night, late, hoping the screening would be empty. It wasn’t, in the end – there were maybe ten people inside, including a pair of bald middle-aged guys in the third row who looked like they could have been extras in Alien 3, and whose sibilant whisperings flitted over the trailers before falling silent for the main feature.

I rewatched Prometheus in preparation (and then re-read the thing I’d written in reaction immediately afterward) having seen both Alien and Aliens in recent weeks. Coincidentally I also played through Alien: Isolation last month, and wrote about how it’s probably the best sequel Alien(s) will ever get. I was so right.

I was surprised by Covenant – I found it less frustrating than Prometheus and more forthright in its ideas, even though those ideas are often clumsy, and the aggregated whole is savagely dark. Still, taking a lead from Andy Kelly, here are some things about Alien: Covenant that I liked:

Peter Weyland’s room, in which the opening takes place. Others have pointed out quite rightly that this room does not belong in the world of Alien, but I would add that it does belong in the world of Blade Runner. Below I’ve put two images together for comparison: Weyland’s room, in which he first talks to his synthetic human, David, and the office of Eldon Tyrell from Blade Runner, in which Deckard interviews Tyrell’s replicant. These are both opulent, futurist-classical spaces and, as someone who was very excited by the prospect of Prometheus bridging the shared science fiction worlds of Blade Runner and Alien, I am here for Weyland’s giant, decadent white room.

 

The visual and audio throwbacks to Alien. These were more pronounced than in Prometheus (I guess this time the name is on the box) and though Covenant struggled with showing a slightly earlier moment in time using much improved effects technology (weird that the Nostromo didn’t have any touchpads or holographic displays) hearing MU/TH/UR’s whirs and clicks was fun. Below I’ve included a couple of images from the trailer than give a sense of what I mean. That is my favourite corridor on the big screen in 2017 (although – extended and slightly negative diversion – this whole thing also highlights the impossibility of getting an aesthetically faithful Alien sequel on film. Isolation succeeded partly because it was happy to stick to the look of Ridley Scott’s original film – a period piece, effectively – but Covenant shows that even Scott himself can’t resist the ease and possibility of new effects technology).

 

The scene of devastation on the Engineer homeworld. I didn’t watch any of the prologue shorts before the film itself, so I had no idea the planet found by the Covenant was the Engineers’ home, or even if David would play a significant part in the film, which probably gave this more impact. Again, the imagery here – cowed figures and fallen monuments, vast symbols of gods and men – isn’t really a good fit with the world of Alien, which is a film about people who want to get paid, not people who want to meet god. But it’s a continuation, and a refinement, of the ideas from Prometheus.

Covenant arena

Below is a shot from Prometheus of the vast statue of an Engineer head found in the film’s off-world pyramid. The pyramid itself is based on an HR Giger design for the Harkonnen castle in Dune,  originally created for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandonded version of the film (Giger would also work with Ridley Scott on his abandonded version of Dune, right before Alien). Both the Engineer’s head, and the original Giger design for the pyramid, remind me of the iron-faced furnaces on the Harkonnen homeworld in David Lynch’s not-abandoned version of Dune, which is also below. In other words, watching Covenant was a chance to trace lines of connection between things I love already.

 

I also liked, or at least found myself interested in, Covenant’s take on the theme of creation introduced by Prometheus. Prometheus is about a group of humans looking for their maker, joined by a robot that mankind has created in its own image. The climactic scene of Prometheus, Weyland begging the Engineer for more life, is a replay of Roy’s meeting with Tyrell at the close of Blade Runner. And in Covenant, David’s motivation is an urge to create in turn – he is frustrated by the restrictions on creativity with which he was designed, and his obsession leads to the creation of the xenomorph.

I like everything except that it involves the xenomorph.

Above all else, Covenant made it very clear to me that Prometheus’ mode of science fiction – grand and philosophical – is totally at odds with the wrench-in-hand practicality, the blood-and-bones mortality of Alien. The xenomorph, originally, works as a symbol of the universe’s indifference. Space is an endless, lifeless abyss, and it’s blackness is reflected in this monster. It is meaningless, the chaos of the unsupervised cosmos visited upon us. Hitching it to specifics, motivations and designs diminishes everything that makes it powerful.

This leads to my second major gripe – the film’s inability to allow us to imagine anything. Prequels are too often exercises in extinguishing wonder – the richness of the Navigator’s unknown origins reduced to a giant rubbery man in a helment – but Covenant stamps out ambiguities with singular purpose. Did David really wipe out an entire civilisation? Yep – look, here he is doing it, in a flashback. What really happened to Shaw? Here is her hollowed corpse and a series of diagrams to leave you in no doubt. And – my god – could that be David at the end of the film, and not Walter at all? Yes, don’t be tantalised by mere suggestion, here is a firm answer and a sense of closed hopelessness.

And the hopelessness is really the thing. Alien is a film about resourcefulness and survival. Prometheus and Covenant are, on a wider scale, extraordinarily unpleasant stories that end in darkness. Faith hovers in both films, but the facts are bare: we meet our makers, and they hate us. “There is nothing” says Weyland, as he dies. “I know,” replies David. Shaw survives this encounter, and her reward is offscreen experimentation and dismemberment. Her counterpart in Covenant, Daniels, ends the film writhing in terror as cryosleep takes hold, knowing that her ship full of colonists is at the mercy of David.

We are a long way from the story of a determined woman who kept her head when her ship was invaded by a supremely destructive parasite. Now: we were made by monsters, we have created monsters, and we are dying. The spirit of the film is like the abundant mutagen that has taken the place of the xenomorph as the series’ primary threat: black, voracious and unstoppable, logicless apart from an aggressive, corrupting hatred of everything alive. These films aren’t dark in a stern, philosophically pointed way. They are vacuums of meaning and warmth that – to my surprise – I find morally objectionable. Whatever else they might be, I think these films are Wrong.

 

 

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