Movie Review – Alien: Covenant
Ridley Scott gestates another fiendish fetus in the continuing Alien saga, yet for all the blood, gore and acid burns, Covenant leaves a gaping hole
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Running time: 2 hrs 2 mins
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Dissect the title and you get all the insight you need to start probing the wriggling innards of Ridley Scott’s latest. Alien: Covenant certainly sounds better than Alien 6, and after following the somewhat confusing prequel, Prometheus, it suggests a return to the core dilemma of a fiendish alien force threatening humanity. And really, when it comes down to it, isn’t that what we really want out of this franchise birthed amid the detritus of disco in 1979?
I know it’s what I want. Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley blast an exoskeletal terror into outer space formed the foundation of my construction of feminism. Later, an intensive dose of academic film studies would add a layer of seductive semantics that helped me understand the film at an even deeper level.
Alien, according to James H. Kavanaugh in his essay “Son of a Bitch: Feminism, Humanism and Science in Alien,” is as a first-class example of the Greimasian rectangle — a diagram designed to distill meaning through complementary and opposing relationships within a given system. Ripley is ‘human,’ the alien is ‘anti-human’, the android Ash is ‘not-human’ and Jones, the cryptic kitty that survives until the final frame with Ripley, is therefore the ‘not-anti-human.’
Kavanaugh’s geometric reckoning of the film serves several academic functions as he launches into a discussion of Marxism and humanism, but it’s not the theoretical mumbo-jumbo that resonates. It’s the idea that Ripley, the alien, the android and the cat are all intimately related manifestations of sentience.
At some core, subconscious level, these elements worked some existential magic that made Alien the cultural signpost it’s become. Stylistically spartan, dramatically stripped down and scary in a sophisticated way, Alien wormed its way into the collective psyche, spawning a string of sequels and genetically modified iterations such as the Alien vs. Predator series.
Then, five years ago, Ridley Scott returned to the franchise he founded with the release of Prometheus — the seminal chapter of the Alien story featuring a God-like race that scattered its glowing strands of molecules across the galaxy, apparently seeding life on Earth.
Prometheus referred to the mythological Titan who broke the divine rules by sharing Fire with humanity. In doing so, it introduced a different type of ‘not-human’ — the marble-like giants with white skin and black eyes. These creatures knocked the whole rectangle off its rocker, blew apart the internal mesh of Alien’s narrative flesh and pushed the viewer into a different landscape where horror, science-fiction, nihilism and divinity studies suddenly cross-pollenate.
It’s a far more confusing place and probably one of the central reasons why Prometheus had a harder time connecting with the masses. Alien: Covenant tries to remedy that disconnect by going back to the divine. A ‘covenant’ is a ‘sacred agreement between God and a group of people’ — which means Alien: Covenant features a group of people and a god-like presence.
In this case, the people are the crew of the space ship Covenant — a colony ship destined for an Earth-like planet light years away. Aboard are a few thousand colonists in hypersleep, as well as a handful of crew — all couples looking to start over in Eden.
There is the plucky Ripley-like character, Daniels (Katherine Waterston). An apprehensive new leader Oram (Billy Crudup). Some meat and potato crew played by Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo and Jussie Smollett. Plus, an ever-undependable android character played by Michael Fassbender — the only returning presence from Prometheus.
Scott is an expert at creating mood through mise-en-scene. The way he pulls the camera through space, giving it a sense of otherness, turning it into an alien eye that serves the audience, is one of the reasons why we never feel entirely settled in an Alien movie.
We’re not quite sure who’s who, and who’s not who they say they are. Identity turns into bloody bits, randomly scattered in the lunch room by an internal force that will not be denied its own freedom.
Human truth and an alien essence are at war. It’s a straight battle with crisp edges and an easy source of sympathy. But throw the idea of god in there along with multiple androids, however, and things get messy fast.
Covenant has a tighter narrative than Prometheus, but it’s still unbound. The crew receives a garbled distress call from an unknown planet in the Goldilocks zone. The insecure commander decides to send a landing party which is promptly marooned, forcing the Covenant close to the planet’s surface and its swarming threats.
As far as these alien iterations go, they’re loyal to the HR Giger original inasmuch as their phallic heads and expandable stapler-like jaws match up, but Scott’s design team imagines a variety of other beasts — all realized through the aid of computer imagery.
It’s a tiresome chorus, but computer-generated monsters lack any real oomph. Designers may create lifelike bits and bytes, offer up veiny details of cranial circulation, but none of it is terrifying. Covenant tries every brand of monster, from the octopus-like babies to the undeniably human-like warrior drones. It even adds a few new ones, but to no effect.
These aliens may fill the role of ‘anti-human’ but they are ill-defined elements that never accumulate a collective personality. Scott also fails to chisel out the other side of the semantic diagram and show us ‘human.’
Katherine Waterston looks and behaves like a young Ripley, but the script doesn’t allow her to achieve the same heroics as her predecessor. She has to share too much screen time with her co-stars, especially the artificial variety. The motley crew of the Covenant also lack chemistry as a team, meaning our central touchstones feel a little out of touch.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But without a direct connection to the crew, why would you even bother? Scott tries to harpoon a leviathan of metaphysics with a toothpick of thought and a few barbed allusions to American culture.
At times, the movie’s intellectual ambitions feel laughable — which turns out to be okay because those moments also tend to include Michael Fassbender — the veritable X factor who also wears a slight smirk throughout.
When Alien: Covenant works, it’s because Fassbender is finding all the loose emotional threads and pulling them tighter than a forced smile. Yet, the grand design is still a ruin. The movie suffers from a sense of deja-vu as well as some overcooked acting, but it’s the unbalanced, dramatic schematic that really pokes a hole through its chest because after all the entrails are ejected, you get the sense something deeper, creepier and far more terrifying is still struggling to get out.
THE EX-PRESS, May 19, 2017