Never let it be said that Ridley Scott, and company weren't strident in their ambitions with PROMETHEUS. A film that both galvanized me with a certain slackjawed awe at its unique perspective, and attempts at heady themes, and also infused me with inescapable rage at how jumbled the final product unspooled. When the subject of ALIEN: COVENANT came into a discussion with friends, up came a shared belief; that an artist should never apologize for the past. Even if we, the audience may not agree with it, there was a concerted effort to expose something new to us. And that this alone should be commended in a medium so often submerged in sameness, and repetition.
Enter: ALIEN: COVENANT. A sequel/"course corrected" vehicle for what ever kneejerk impulse director Scott has in mind for his universe of face raping parasites, psychotic androids, and hapless blue collar saps.
Here, we begin with a little flashback to what seems to be the incept day of PROMETHEUS' David(the always excellent Michael Fassbender), receiving his first lessons in recognizing life and creation by way of his father, Peter Weyland(Guy Pearce, sans scary Goldmember makeup). And it is at the order of tea do we begin to at least scratch the surface of David's future indifference to human life before flashing forward ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS, with the multi-year colonization mission, the COVENANT. A ship carrying within it over two thousand souls, helmed by a group of married coupled in hypersleep, and scores of frozen human embryos to be used on their destination, the distant star known as Origae-6. Awakened suddenly by a freak stellar phenomenon ending in the death of several crewmembers, including Captain Jacob Branson(the only really seen in YouTube marketing, James Franco), the husband of terraforming specialist, Daniels Branson now left to help pick up the pieces with the help of what remains of the crew. Assisted by the advanced synthetic Walter(Fassbender again), who while looks exactly like a certain other, seems to sport an american accent, and a much more stable temperament. Their repairs are cut short when they receive what seems to be a distress signal of seeming human origin just a short jaunt away on a planet much closer than the anticipated seven years they still had to go.
So yeah, despite the relationship dynamics, which weren't of Scott's concern in the 1979 original, this all begins to sound rather familiar to the initiated. Which is where the film begins to take steps both familiar and unfamiliar. In the absence of their original captain, the duties fall to the less than up to the task, Christopher Oram(Billy Crudup), a man of often questionable spine to lead an expedition while ship pilot, Tennessee(Danny McBride), and others remain in orbit. Problems? An ion storm that can last up to months is brewing, and while the surface looks peaceful, what lurks beyond the woods is both familiar, and none too friendly.
With all that out there, it's easy to see how much we've already seen compared to what writers, John Logan & Dante Harper were saddled with considering the sprawling disarray that PROMETHEUS ended up being. This problem is exacerbated by the David/Walter scenes, as they come off as if they belong in an entirely different film. While the ground team explores this mysterious, almost Earthlike planet, we are host to not only what happened to what remained of the PROMETHEUS crew, but of new forms of parasitic monsters that have no trouble decimating the team's numbers in a sequence that echoes some of the best in the series. The problems again being that there is a clear tug-of-war at play between the new, more exotic ideas of the previous films, and some studio need to hew so close to familiarity that it becomes shackles on the story. I can go so far as to even suggest that the voice to express this hidden tension throughout belongs to David himself. Created to BOTH serve and create, he finds humans far too limited to grasp the world of possibilities he sees. And as such, is unfazed about the lives he destroys in the process of seeking them. He is a classic mad scientist with a warm composure, but a sly grin. With COVENANT, we experience a film that both wants to be a follow-up to Elizabeth Shaw(The much missed Noomi Rapace) & David's journey to the planet of engineers, as well as a standard ALIEN feature. And as such, we get well visualized ideas wrapped around a spine with an ingrained curvature.
The return of the classic xenomorph, as a result, ends up being the film's most banal element. It's a film that eagerly wants to explore new territory, but is hobbled by the past. Deep within the confines of ALIEN: COVENANT, there is an exasperated legend, embittered that his wish to repurpose the universe he created into a canvas for his own love of classical literature and art is being held back by market forces that expect him to not be so "creative" so open, so..odd. It isn't hard to see David as an analogue for Scott in that he sees himself as a romantic, eager to paint new worlds that echo scripture and poetry of the past, as we endlessly cycle through between the cold machinery of capitalism, and passionate overtures of art. In COVENANT, as in PROMETHEUS, creativity is both herald of beauty, and an act of brutality. There is no safety to be had in discovering new corners of experience.
How in the world did we get here? It's almost as if Scott is asking us, no demanding that we expect more from our tales. To understand why the classics are what they are. This deep seated need, however is later exposed in all too blunt terms when the final twenty five minutes plays like a speed run of the original film, complete with slasher movie kill. It's a moment so crass and jarring, it's hard to believe that this is the same man who brought us the quiet elegance of the original derelict spacecraft, the wrath of the facehugger, and the unrelenting slow build of the fate of the commercial starship Nostromo. It's a final raspberry by a man who's made a career of some of the most beautiful imagery in film. COVENANT, indeed feels like that moment friends and I have commented on for years coming to light.
Maybe David's right. Maybe we don't deserve the grace.