Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

“In space, no one can hear you scream”.  

That simple, brilliantly effective tagline, devised for a little genre picture called ALIEN (1979), would become the de facto Big Bang of a massively-successful science fiction franchise.  With each subsequent installment, the brand steadily accumulated wear-and-tear, moving further afield from the visceral horror wrought by its iconic extraterrestrial monsters.  At the franchise’s lowest point, we weren’t screaming so much as we were cheering, encouraging these jet-black xenomorphs to prevail in gladiatorial battle over interstellar hunters from an entirely different franchise.  Simply, put, the ALIEN universe needed us to scream again.

The idea of original ALIEN director, Sir Ridley Scott, returning to the series he helped create seemed like a prime opportunity to rebuild and restore.  The end result, 2012’s deeply-divisive PROMETHEUS, didn’t so much return the series to its roots as it spun the mythology off in an entirely different direction.  PROMETHEUS established a majestic, sprawling universe in which the xenomorphs played only a tangential part, proposing an entirely new franchise in the process.  A staggeringly beautiful, profoundly evocative film in its own right, PROMETHEUS nonetheless left many audiences wanting— both because of its teased (yet mostly undelivered) ALIEN connections, as well as the many salient questions it left unanswered.  Scott’s intent had always been to build upon PROMETHEUS with a number of sequels that would eventually back into the ALIEN franchise proper, but the 2012 film’s somewhat-disappointing reception compelled him to collapse his ambitious plans into a more-succinct bridge (1).  Sincere talks of this sequel/prequel hybrid began that same year, when the trades announced that stars Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace were set to reprise their roles in a project tentatively titled ALIEN: PARADISE LOST (2).  In the five-year gap that transpired between the initial trade announcement and the 2017 release of the finished product — ultimately titled ALIEN: COVENANT — Scott and his team would oversee a steady stream of conceptual development.  When PROMETHEUS scribes Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof declined to return, the producers commissioned screenwriter Jack Paglen, fresh off his stint on the buzzy Johnny Depp vehicle, TRANSCENDENCE (which ultimately imploded with audiences and critics).  They then hired Michael Green to rewrite Paglen‘s initial 2013 draft, only to subsequently commission Dante Harper to revise Green’s work.  The project’s long gestation period finally coalesced into real momentum when British playwright John Logan was hired to inject the screenplay with the same sense of genre sophistication and elegant taste he’d previously brought to the two most recent James Bond films, SKYFALL (2012) and SPECTRE (2015) (3)(4).  While Logan’s rewrite was extensive, he evidently used enough of Harper’s material to earn the latter a co-writing credit in the finished product (Paglen and Green’s contributions, it seems, were no longer sufficient enough to qualify).  


With finished script in hand, Scott knew he had to strike immediately if the project had any chance of sustaining its momentum.  The timing meant that he had to choose between his new ALIEN picture, or the long-awaited BLADE RUNNER sequel he’d been simultaneously been developing.  He would ultimately choose the former, handing BLADE RUNNER’s directing duties off to the French Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve so that he could properly embark on ALIEN: COVENANT— his first true sequel to the 1979 original.  As such, the tone of the film returns to the series’ horror roots, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of mounting dread.  Set in the year 2104 — ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS and twenty before ALIEN — the story chronicles the plight of the crew of the UCSS Covenant, a massive generation ship transporting hundreds of would-be colonists and thousands of embryos to the distant Earthlike planet, Origae 6.  There, they will establish a new settlement and ensure mankind’s survival amidst the stars. Fittingly enough, the ship is crewed by several couples — a veritable Noah’s Ark stuffed with Adam & Eves — each of whom looks forward to a new beginning on a virgin planet.  The dream is suddenly cut short when a rogue neutrino burst cripples Covenant in the middle of deep space, mercilessly killing several people while they slumber in hypersleep— including the ship’s captain, played by James Franco in flashbacks, video recordings, still photos, and a few deleted scenes.  His widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), barely has time to grieve before the ship intercepts a strange, ghostly signal from a nearby planet they had somehow missed during their initial scan of the area. Upon closer inspection, they discover the planet is an even better fit for them than Origae 6, with the Covenant’s new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) making the fateful decision to scrap years of planning and journey over towards this promising mystery world.

If the “intercepted transmission” premise sounds a little too close to the beginning of the original ALIEN, then that’s by design;  Scott is signaling a return to the franchise’s core narrative elements while promising to upend our expectations in visceral, terrifying ways.  What the crew of the Covenant doesn’t know is that this mystery world was once home to PROMETHEUS’ Engineers, mankind’s cosmic forebears.  An initial excursion into the lush, mountainous landscape reveals not just a prime environment for settlement, but evidence the land has already been settled: stalks of wheat, clear signs of man-made deforestation (or maybe a crash landing impact).  They also find a nightmare beyond imagination when two of the crew come down with an inexplicable sickness (the result of their exposure to a sentient, floating virus cluster), which culminates in vicious, terrifying creatures bursting forth from inside their bodies.  They’re saved by the sudden appearance of a hooded man, who steals them away to safety amongst the ruins of an ancient Engineer city and reveals himself to be the android, David, (Michael Fassbender), last seen leaving LV-223 with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in PROMETHEUS.  As they attempt to re-establish conflict with the UCSS Covenant orbiting above the planet, Daniels and the rest of the crew come to discover that David is the real monster— responsible for a mass genocide that killed the Engineers as well as a series of horrific experiments carried out in his isolation that have resulted in the creation of the iconic xenomorph creature as the perfect killing machine.  

The cast of any ALIEN film primarily exists as fodder for the xenomorphs to consume, but the series also has a penchant for crafting compelling, idiosyncratic characters that are anything but dispensable.  ALIEN: COVENANT carries on the tradition with an eclectic & diverse mix of performers, anchored by Waterston as Daniels.  Her arc evokes the Ripley template, wherein she finds courage and strength under pressure. While her character may not find the same kind of iconic status that Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley enjoys, Waterston nevertheless thrives under Scott’s nuanced direction, which gives her ample leeway to become a fully-realized heroine in her own right, and not just a pale imitation of Ripley.  As the Covenant’s chief of terraforming, Daniels ranks third in the line of succession, but her husband’s death elevates her position to the second-in-command under Billy Crudup’s Oram. Crudup delivers an inspired performance, giving entirely new dimensions to the stock “captain” archetype by assuming a debilitating inferiority complex. He’s not a born leader, so he struggles to assert his newfound authority over a crew that isn’t quite ready to accept it.  Oram‘s Christian faith also plays an important part in Crudup’s performance, continuing a strain of thematic inquiry begun in PROMETHEUS that seeks to find the harmony in the inherent contradictions of a religious scientist.  

The remainder of the Covenant’s crew serve more of a functional purpose than Daniels and Oram’s comparatively complex trajectories, yet they too manage to bring a great deal of character beyond their occupational duties.  Better known for his performances as obtuse egomaniacs in various blue-collar comedies, Danny McBride is given the chance to show off his (somewhat) serious side as the chief pilot, Tennessee. A good-natured, down-home country boy complete with his signature hat, Tennessee also evidences a sober and measured resolve when the going gets tough.  The same can’t be said, however, of his wife, Faris (Amy Seimetz)— a lander pilot who can weather any storm when she’s airborne, but proves quickly overwhelmed when confronted with an earthbound crisis. Callie Hernandez, Carmen Ejogo, and Demian Bichir also provide standout performances: Hernandez as a salty communications officer, Ejogo as the ship’s resident biologist and Oram’s wife, and Bichir as the head of security.  Then there’s Guy Pearce, last seen in PROMETHEUS disguised under pounds of makeup as the decrepit centenarian trillionaire, Peter Weyland.  He appears here, albeit very briefly, during the film’s opening prologue as a middle-aged version of the same character.  Though his screen time is very scant, his presence nevertheless looms like an imposing shadow over ALIEN: COVENANT’s core themes, reinforced by the creator/creation dynamic he shares with Fassbender’s newly-awakened android, David.

As Scott builds upon the revitalized mythology he established in PROMETHEUS, Fassbender has quite easily asserted himself as the most compelling element of this prequel series.  His performance as David, the nefariously-curious android with a growing God complex, plays like HAL-9000 made flesh… or Dr. Hannibal Lecter made synthetic.  An entirely original, unnerving screen villain who frequently upstages the xenomorphs themselves, David grows increasingly indistinguishable from his human counterparts as his artificial intellect evolves.  In the years since PROMETHEUS, David has become something like a feral Dr. Frankenstein in his isolation, carrying out macabre genetic experiments on the planet’s various life forms as well as the desecrated corpse of Elizabeth Shaw.  His attempts to develop the “perfect organism” lead to one of ALIEN: COVENANT’s more-unexpected surprises: the revelation that Shaw is the xenomorphs’ genetic “mother”.  David’s chilling near-humanity also provides a stark contrast to Fassbender’s other performance within the film as Walter, the android assigned to the Covenant and an identical “descendant” of David’s model line.  Fassbender’s mastery of his craft allows for subtle physical distinctions to create vast gulfs in characterization, allowing the audience to easily discern between the two when they share the screen. Walter’s American-accented, utilitarian manner is a deliberate downgrade; an operating system tweak by the Weyland Corporation in response to the “uncanny valley” effect of David’s relative sophistication.  In an inspired twist, David takes to Walter with a leering affectation that culminates in a kiss; that he’s effectively kissing himself subverts the homoerotic nature of their relationship to reflect one of the key themes of Scott’s prequel series: the perils of ego as it pertains to scientific discovery. In this moment, the film sends a clear message that playing God is inherently a masturbatory act, servicing only one’s own ego.  David’s failing to heed this message completes his evolution — or perhaps, descent — towards humanity. If another sequel is made, this aspect of his character will undoubtedly be his downfall, but until then, David’s ability to unshackle himself from his programming gives him a tyrannical, omniscient power far superior to his human counterparts.

Whereas PROMETHEUS sought to blaze its own aesthetic trails, ALIEN: COVENANT seeks to bring its visual style more in-line with the original ALIEN by fostering a stark, claustrophobic atmosphere replete with shadows and confined spaces.  Scott collaborates once again with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the man who has facilitated the director’s transition into the digital space with an effortless ease.  ALIEN: COVENANT departs from the pairs’ usage of Red equipment in favor of a fleet of Arri Alexa cameras, which give the 2.39:1 image more of an organic, film-like veneer.  Initial plans to shoot in 3D were scrapped— likely a response to audiences’ waning interest in a format whose technological innovations and narrative possibilities were quickly overtaken by unimaginative deployment and craven gimmickry (1).  Indeed, ALIEN: COVENANT proves without a shadow of a doubt that Scott doesn’t need — has never needed — the artificial “storybook” dimensionality of 3D.  His sleek, atmospheric aesthetic already accomplishes this need, evidenced by ALIEN: COVENANT’s copious stacking of visual elements like smoke, fire, silhouettes, beams of concentrated light, lens flares, and rain.  Scott’s camerawork also works to immerse his audience within the primordial, mist-shrouded forests of this mysterious planet, combining elegant classical movements that convey a majestic scale with more-intimate techniques like handheld camerawork or “helmet-cam” POV shots (captured by GoPros mounted to the actors’ backpacks).  ALIEN: COVENANT also affords audiences an opportunity to see the world from the xenomorph’s point of view, rendering this unearthly first-person perspective through a thick coat of translucent biomechanical muck.    

For whatever reason, ALIEN: COVENANT finds Chris Seagers replacing Scott’s regular production designer, Arthur Max.  Max has been such an integral creative partner throughout the bulk of Scott’s late-career work that one might worry a change in collaborators would cause a significant disruption in the director’s visual continuity.  Thankfully, we hardly notice the change, as Seagers faithfully replicates the unique, organic-inspired design conceits established by Max for PROMETHEUS.  Filming took place in a remote mountainous region of Australia, requiring very little from Seagers and Scott in the way of location dressing (save for a few digital enhancements in post-production).  This would leave them free to concentrate their efforts on the interiors, which run the gamut of architectural styles. Peter Weyland’s sleek, minimalist suite opens the film with a sterile, museum-like quality that evokes Scott’s interest in art history while giving the audience just enough visual stimulation to remain interested while Weyland and David soberly introduce the film’s weighty philosophical themes.  The Covenant’s cramped, industrial utilitarianism recalls the “truckers in space” conceit of ALIEN’s Nostromo.  H.R. Giger’s biomechanical designs continue to influence the franchise’s design, both in deadly new life forms like the flesh-colored Neomorph as well as the extravagant ruins of the Engineer city (which David aptly deems “The Necropolis”).  The end result is an oppressively immersive world that can stand up to the best of any of Scott’s collaborations with Max, its distinct architectural grammar effortlessly transporting us back to the familiar iconography of the ALIEN franchise even as it asserts its own unique character.

The music of ALIEN: COVENANT further reinforces the film’s ties to its franchise lineage, designed as a bridge between Jerry Goldsmith’s beckoning theme for ALIEN and Marc Streitenfeld’s majestic compositions for PROMETHEUS.  Rising composer Jed Kurzel takes over the baton from Harry Gregson-Williams, who had been all set for another collaboration with Scott after their fruitful pairing on THE MARTIAN (2015) before he had to drop out.  The resulting score assumes a pulsing, brooding character with electronic accents that hint at the film’s various mysteries.  The inclusion of celestial bells is an inspired touch, pairing rather beautifully with balletic images of The Covenant drifting through space.  Kurzel walks a fine line between his own work and the necessary inclusion of themes written by his franchise forebears, ultimately pinpointing the optimal moments in which to echo the musical moments from films past.  Scott also organically integrates a few notable needledrops into the narrative, the primary cue being an excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold— specifically: “Entrance of The Gods Into Valhalla”. David becomes fascinated by this bombastic cue, the contained narrative of which echoes the film’s preoccupations with false gods and the fallacies of hubris.  We first hear the cue during the prologue as David performs a bare-bones rendition on the piano, but then Scott gives us the bravado of a full orchestra during the film’s close as David assumes sole command of the Covenant. In effect, the cue “grows” alongside David’s realization of his own autonomy, mimicking the trajectory of his character arc from a docile, subservient creation of mankind to an egomaniacal tyrant intent on becoming his own God.  Additionally, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” makes a ghostly appearance, sung by a hopeful Dr. Shaw in a decaying transmission that lures the Covenant down to the surface of Planet 4, thus setting the events of the film into motion.

Beyond its comprehensive meditations on signature artistic elements like immersive worlds and fierce heroines, ALIEN: COVENANT also shades out Scott’s fascination with various sub-themes like urbanity and artificial intelligence.  Scott is unmatched in his ability to render the weight and texture of dense urban environments at any point throughout history (or the future, for that matter). Be it BLADE RUNNER’s neon-seared projection of a dystopian Los Angeles, the crumbling chaos of bullet-riddled Mogadishu in BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), or even the squalid labyrinth of Hebrew slave tent cities in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014), the one constant thread between them is that one gets the sense that an entire city — institutions, cultural districts, social structures, landmarks — sprawls out from beyond the confines of the frame.  ALIEN: COVENANT serves as something of a twist on the formula, in that the Engineer city — the Necropolis — is a magnificently preserved ruin, devoid of a single living soul.  The only hint that anyone ever lived there is a horrific display of humanoid sculptures frozen in various states of agony. We learn that these are the Engineers themselves, their bodies preserved in stone in the wake of David’s mass genocide by black goo.  Scott uses his intimate familiarity with world history to give these images an unnerving resonance, the violently-contorted shapes evoking real-world mass-casualty events like the explosion of Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii, or the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima.  As such, Scott must rely solely on the city’s elegant stone architecture to convey the values and ideals of the Engineers, leaving us to wonder or speculate much like an archeologist would when beholding an artifact or ruin from some lost settlement.

As the lone being keeping watch over this wasteland, David fills some of that role for us, giving us just enough information about the Engineers to build on their introduction in PROMETHEUS while still leaving plenty of room for mystery.  His growth as a character — from a dutiful operating system made flesh to a feral mad scientist taken to barbaric “experiments” in isolation — further expounds upon the series’ interest in the pitfalls of artificial intelligence, a thematic conceit from the original ALIEN informed by Scott’s own interest in the subject.  Whereas the various non-Scott ALIEN franchise entries cast their respective android characters as either nefarious renegades or benign colleagues, Scott has taken the opportunity of a revitalized mythology to link the evolution of artificial intelligence to salient ideas about spirituality and creation.  David becomes much more of a compelling character than his robotic predecessors because his arc injects the ALIEN series with evocative biblical and literary allusions.  His psychological menace matches the lethal brutality of the xenomorphs’ carnal destruction; his very existence is a testament to the idea that Man is a false God, inherently unable to separate His ego from the act of creation.  Indeed, David’s nihilistic omniscience raises the chilling possibility that maybe there was never a God to begin with— maybe life as we know it is just an unintended side effect of cosmic creation; one continuous strain of biological aberrations masquerading under a delusion of “perfection”.  

While ALIEN: COVENANT arguably takes the series in a much more nihilistic direction than PROMETHEUS’ regal hopefulness, one can clearly see that there is enough heady mythology here to justify a return trip.  Scott himself evidently agreed, having cooked up ideas for a third film tentatively titled ALIEN: AWAKENING.  As of this writing, however, it remains unclear whether this particular story will continue— a disappointing $240 million box office return and Disney’s purchase of Twentieth Century Fox in 2018 has seemingly put the franchise on indefinite hold for now (1).  Despite its perceived failure, ALIEN: COVENANT actually scored fairly well with critics, who generally felt that it was a satisfying-enough entry, even if it didn’t really do anything new with the formula.  It also likely helped that there are far worse installments in the ALIEN franchise, forcing critics to grade ALIEN: COVENANT on a weighted curve.  For his part, Scott refuses to leave the series on this dour, dark note where the heroes don’t win; he’s gone on record saying he’s got enough energy to make as many as six more ALIEN films (5).  Given his age, it’s dubious that he’s even got that many films left to make in general, let alone in this particular series.  Rather, his enthusiasm arguably speaks to how the evocative mythology of these films has captured his artistic imagination.  He sees an entire universe of narrative possibility, just waiting to be explored.

At 81 years of age, Scott is not going to be around for the vast bulk of the 21st century (then again, the guy has so much energy that he just might). Like the immortality-obsessed Peter Weyland, the themes on display throughout PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT nevertheless allow Scott a seat at the table anyway.  They avail him of the opportunity to determine the bounds of discourse as we engineer a better future for ourselves, and to remind us that we must temper our hubris as we gain more dominion over creation— lest we unleash unimaginable demons of our own making.

ALIEN: COVENANT is currently available on 4K Ultra High-Definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.


Written by:

Produced by: Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, David Giler, Walter Hill

Director of Photography: Dariusz Wolski

Production Designer: Chris Seagers

Edited by: Pietro Scalia

Music by: Jed Kurzel


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