(Or, The Anti-Metheus)
Saying that a movie is better than Prometheus is like introducing your latest partner to friends still reeling from the last one; they wince expectantly for the dorky conversation, bring out mops for the inevitable pratfall. So when presented with a normal, apparently continent human person, relief can turn to elation. Which is one way of explaining why Alien: Covenant feels like the most entertaining film Ridley Scott has made since Hannibal. However, this doubly galling hot take isn’t precisely the same as arguing the film is good.
Ridley Scott averages one to two good films per decade. Sometimes the script betrays him; sometimes he doesn’t pick or direct actors well. And as seen with his last film, The Martian, he can even lack the skill or interest in figuring out the best way to tell his story. (The Martian should not have been Castaway and Apollo 13, it should’ve been Castaway then Apollo 13.) Whichever the case, it means his films fall into one of only two categories: films with decent stories from solid scripts, which look and sound amazing; and amazing-looking and -sounding dreck.
Alien: Covenant begins in one of these categories.
Back in Alien it was easy to allow that between chest-burst and first kill, the xenomorph hadn’t broken the first law of thermodynamics but was simply guzzling on some hidden chow in the Nostromo larder. But these days, as if to reflect our busy lives, the life cycle has been souped and speeded up. The aborted squid in Prometheus goes from dog- to elephant-sized in a sterile med-pod in the space of a few hours. Meanwhile, in the new film, the crew of the colony ship Covenant divert to a more promising-looking planet following the death of Captain Jacob (James Franco), the detection of a beacon, and on the orders of new Captain Oram (Billy Crudup playing his latest smarmy creep); they land, disturb spores, and birth aliens that instantly massacre half the crew. Oram calls the attack an “infection”—Ridley Scott, it seems, has made a zombie movie (of the modern “fast” kind) in space, and one where the zombie pathogen itself is massively enlarged like an Ebola virus with tails and teeth
But then a sequence happens in Alien: Covenant that makes you think it’ll change from its intense first third into a different film entirely. The newborn “neomorphs,” having fled into the long grass only to strike back while the guns and flashlights windmill, scatter at the sound of a flare shot by a mysterious figure: android David (Michael Fassbender) from the ship Prometheus. As he leads the survivors away, including android kin Walter, the audience is taken through landscapes totally alien compared to the expected Giger or space-industrial imagery: the pulp imagery of space fantasy, with hooded David and crew running through dark forests like a high-tech Fellowship of the Ring, across the blasted plaza of a Nameless City filled with humanoid Pompeii corpses massed distressingly against shut gates, all to a grand Jed Kurzwell score.
Having seen wheat fields earlier in the film, you might guess here that Earth was not the only planet seeded with the Engineers’ grow-it-yourself biospheres. Maybe they used multiple planets as petri dishes, maybe there have been who-knows-how-many parallel human civilisations on distant worlds. Worlds which are scrapped by Engineer germ warfare when they don’t pass muster, making the city serve as a premonitory vision—there but for the wrath of God go us. How haunting and expansive.
Then those pesky Engineers turn up again and spoil the fun.
Has there even been an alien race more boring than the Engineers? The beauty of the dead city is diminished barely ten minutes after we first saw it. Via a flashback from David, we learn the planet was the recent home of the Engineers, gathered in the plaza in their thousands like a scene from a movie called Being China Miéville. They thought they were welcoming back their millennia-old comrades’ spaceship when a vengeful (?) David hit them with bio-bombs.
In Alien, the crew of the spaceship Nostromo discovered proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life twice over. The genius of this was the effect it had on expanding the dimensions of the universe. Had the crew discovered only one alien species, we couldn’t help but see it in relation to ourselves. With two alien species, which had a mysterious connection to one another, external to us … how much bigger than us the universe felt it had to be.
Thus, it was an incredible narrowing of two points on a grid to find out in Prometheus that they were not alien to one another at all. The Space Jockeys were the engineers in some oblique way of the xenomorph eggs, and the two species had been intimately connected with the fate of humans since year dot.
Independence Day: Resurgence fumbled this idea similarly. In the original, humans were just one of many crops for the spacefaring locusts. In the sequel, a benevolent robot species arrives to warn us of its old foe and ask us to ally with them in their cosmic war; the human race plays with its hair and twirls its foot: you mean little old me? The point is not that mystery and the unexplained are de facto better than explanation. Rather it’s about two philosophies of stories. The new or the familiar. The universe or you.
To put it better, stories naturally combine the familiar and the new, tend to skew towards the one or the other, and in rare cases find the Goldilocks Zone. But the process is inconsistent and unsystematisable.
The Alien films with the readier analogues—the slasher, the Vietnam war film—ended up being the more original. (The convention might be to call Alien “a haunted house film in space,” but as creepy a set as the Nostromo is, it is a location invaded; haunted houses are places that are bad when the characters turn up. Alien is a slasher in space (you bring the killer home); it is Prometheus, with its three sorties to a terrible tomb, that is more like a haunted house movie.) The later films on the other hand are so overdetermined that they miss what they might have pulled off had they been simpler genre exercises. And yet the strangest entry, the Assembly Cut of Alien 3, is as good as the best of the franchise, while the real haunted house movie in space is a failure …
Which confusion might explain why critics treat films like Alien: Covenant as working in a minigenre of their own, with expected features that are recycled more or less successfully. Not in the sense that any genre work has broad conventions—in the specific sense that all Bond films have a car, a girl, an action intro. People have started thinking that Alien films “have to have” a beacon, a descent to a planet, a crew of cannon fodder, an ejection from an airlock.
The danger of this is that filmmakers rely on the conventions as simple plot generators. (Future writers of the series might simply spin a wheel: the USS … Heart of Darkness intercepts a … message-in-a-bottle, which leads them to the … quasi-morphs?.) But all an Alien film needs is aliens. Everything else is up for grabs.
Prometheus did try to do an Alien prequel within the assumed market constraints of such a project, by recycling the familiar but with something askew. While the first film was set on LV-426, Prometheus was set on LV-223. The first had a xenomorph as its bad guy; Prometheus had a variety of insta-mutants. There was a quarantine standoff again but this time with the protagonist outside; there were black vases instead of grey eggs, the chest-burster moved down the abdomen, and the closest we got to a face-hugger was a tentacle beast that hugged the whole of its prey like a starfish.
To its credit the film also introduced us to David. Ash had been psychotic, Bishop helpful, Call wary of humans—so what to do next with the series feature of androids? The answer: David as floating somewhere between all these possibilities.
As with everything interesting on paper, this was fluffed in execution. How much more ominous David’s line “I watched your dreams” would have been if we’d not literally seen the cod-Christian content of Elizabeth Shaw’s dreams. And when David’s creator Weyland ordered him to “try harder” (to find the Engineers that the dying old man so desperately sought), what did he do? He took out the Engineer slime (stored with the champagne and Cokes) and poisoned a crewmate. The revelations of Alien: Covenant might let us back-project a clearer motive of jealous sabotage to these actions, but within the experience of Prometheus itself it just came across as the android feeling left out of the baffling actions of its human colleagues.
So it was that in every part of Prometheus, bar one, with something cleverly askew about it, there were crew members salt-of-the-earthily joshing about Charlize Theron lap dances, or Idris Elba's Foghorn Leghorn impression, or Noomi Rapace grinning smarmily about what she Chooses to Believe. Yes, the pile-on has never ended for Prometheus, but like an inverse classic, it always offers more on repeated viewings. The character Holloway has his cockamamie panspermia intelligent design theory proven one moment, sees a few dead aliens the next, concludes he’ll never meet his maker and so gets sulking drunk. This is not the characterisation of a grown scientist, but of a child. Or perhaps a sarcastic teen? The word “seriously,” or more accurately “seriously?,” has been doing a lot of heavy lifting in Hollywood screenwriting these days; and there it goes again in Prometheus: “One small step for mankind. / Seriously?”
That one excepted—and exceptional—scene was Prometheus’s emergency caesarean/pseudo-abortion. As effective as many of Alien: Covenant’s horror sequences are, none quite match it for freakiness and suspense. But what did it all amount to?
“There’s nothing,” says dying Weyland, to which the head of David replies, “I know.” But what was something ever meant to be? Why would either human or robot be disappointed to know that they’d been created “just because” when this has long been the standard scientific/secular worldview? After a resuscitated Engineer’s head explosively decays, David remarks that they are “mortal after all.” Whoever expected them to be otherwise? He might be unageing but he’s clearly not indestructible, and yet he still sets himself up as the next usurping Creator. Prometheus’s problem: like poor Holloway, it muddled the search for genesis with the search for eternity.
As you can see, it’s very hard to talk about Alien: Covenant without talking about Prometheus, not simply because one is the next chapter of the other, but because one was made in the fallout of the other. The way the storytelling has changed from first film to the second has the same chastened feel (though denied by George Lucas) as that between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. (The lexical similarity too makes you wonder if the next Alien film will get called something like The Return of the Scream.)
You can imagine the focus group before Alien: Covenant. Audiences thought that the Prometheus crew made lots of stupid decisions. Then the Covenant crew shall explain their decisions before making stupid ones! Audiences said they liked Fassbender. Then we shall have two, a Walter and a David, with David being way David. And there weren’t enough aliens! Well bub, just you wait …
The stupidity though in Alien: Covenant is more diffuse than in its older brother. Now that the precedent has been set in Prometheus for humankind being a species comfortable with going helmetless on any old planet, it seems churlish to complain of the similarly wind-thrown caution of the Covenant crew.
Like a modern ark, this crew is paired off two-by-two, but this doesn’t help with what you might call The Hobbit problem, a bloated cast that thinly divides our attention. There’s Katherine Waterston as heroine Daniels, a terraforming expert who brings Laura Dern’s science pluck to the role as well as an eerie resemblance. Her partner James Franco is some doomed Bourbon Bastard, who once drank his drink with “No ice, no mixer, no water, and no shit” (and no, one imagines, self-awareness). Then Danny McBride and the cannon fodder. Granted, some is necessary so the film can give us its first-act massacre—but in which case, the smarter decision would’ve been to incorporate this: a hundred colonists, none of whom we’re expected to remember, all taken out in one very fell swoop.
The way these characters bimble from one set to another is, as in Prometheus, tremendously unawed, as though humans will be the most listless of spacefarers, meeting Dyson spheres and moon-henges with the same temporary curiosity; only parasitic infection perks them up. In fact a better way to make sense of the characters’ behaviour is to imagine the new Alien films as set in a dystopian future of mass toxoplasmosis; like the infected mice that become foolhardy around cats, Weyland crews are already host to a brain bug that makes them stumble good-humouredly into the path of anything willing to eat or infest them. (From Nature.com, “Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the cat gut, and for it to get there, the pathogen's rodent host must be eaten …”)
Peril can to an extent justify “stupid” character behaviour. But it doesn’t necessitate it. The misapprehension is that horror without irrationality would be like the scene in Community where hyperrational Abed’s ghost story depicts him in a creepy log cabin, standing back-to-back with his girlfriend, their flashlights and guns fully loaded. We might sympathise with the brain-scrambled character who picks the wrong hiding place or takes the wrong exit. (Are you so sure you’d run in the right direction if an alien craft started toppling on you?) But how much better to empathise with a character having to face horror because of a conflict of rational interests. Horror out of totally understandable decisions.
Ridley Scott strikes you though as the kind of director that thinks narrative coherency is unmanly or childish. He’s more interested in the quickest, slickest way to achieve a tone or mood. With Alien: Covenant, he wanted to make a film that wouldn't risk sinking the franchise again, and he wants that franchise to keep horrifying you.
The one element his new films have rightly carried over from the old is the horror of life itself. When the spores in Alien: Covenant drift out of the mini-Eggs and up a nose and down an ear canal, the freakiness is the familiar one of bodily invasion, but also of bodily processes. The xenomorph parasitic life cycle is no more and just as disgusting as our artificial insemination of hormone-maddened pigs, our hooking, gutting, and eating of raw fish.
Yet the horror scenes, effective on first viewing, are on the second (and will be on the small screen with quieter sound) surprises rather than scares. Where is the cornered mind-crashing panic of the original films? More unfortunately the story doesn’t mine its character setup for some tasty couple-o-cide: missed opportunities here in the Selfishness of Two, the potential inter- and intra-couple betrayals. And despite all the couples, a subtext to the horror weirdly absented from both new films is sex.
No longer is the xenomorphs’ body invasion and penetration multiply carnal. Sex is returned to the puritan foreground. In Prometheus, infertile Dr Shaw only goes and has unprocreative sex with her boyfriend, and for her sins births a squid. And in Alien: Covenant we even get served to us with a straight face the Sexy Shower climaxing in the bloody moneyshot. The film uses these horror clichés so unabashedly that it reminds you that no amount of Scream self-awareness ever destroys its target: characters defiantly go off alone on a deadly planet to bathe or piss; they might not say “I’ll be right back!” but we think it as we roll our eyes.
How much does all this matter when you’ve got ten references to Egyptian creation myths? Symbolism and allegory have become the last refuge of the screenwriter disappointed he cannot pass his learning more explicitly through the Hollywood machine. (“Some of the scenes,” Pauline Kael wrote in her original Blade Runner review, “seem to have six subtexts but no text, and no context either.”) In Prometheus, Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts referenced Christmas enough times and mentioned the Engineers were on their way to knock us off for some outrage 2000 years ago that we could work out the film was “all about Jesus.” (Strange we never read “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. I am nine feet tall and hairless and white.”) These ideas about life and the cosmos were old fifty years ago, and yet Prometheus wore them with the solemnity of a college student who’d just heard about The Golden Bough.
Fortunately the subtext in Alien: Covenant is dug in deeper. Sure there’s some blah about the Book of Genesis: the Adversary topples the Creator, and installs himself in heaven, where he will make an alien in his own image via the film’s final couple, an Adam-hugger and Eve-Hugger. Less fortunately, it takes its cue from Prometheus when it comes to “intertextuality,” which these days means self-defeatingly nodding at better films. While the first film had its arachnid human Thing on the Prometheus Doorstep getting torched by a flamethrower, the second film has Daniels doing a Wendy Torrance when she leafs in dread through scrolls rather than manuscript pages. (A cute touch, though, making the alien-designing David turn out to be H. R. Giger all along.) No more is this, in any meaningful sense, filmmakers staking their place in a continuity of the imagination. The simpler alternative is that they’re pandering automatons.
Intertextuality always ends up as incestuous too, the smug chutzpah of a film about life cycles so readily displaying its hereditary traits. As is franchise S.O.P. these days, Alien: Covenant is full of internal callbacks: Jed Kurzwell’s score pays its tribute to Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien theme; Sgt. Apone from Aliens returns in the form of a cigar-chomping but yoga-loving bear; Alien 3’s xenomorph POV shot returns but now with an ovate-filter; and David’s gallery of miscarried aliens recall the clone castoffs in Alien: Resurrection; even the stars look like old matte paintings!
Towards the end of Labyrinth, Jennifer Connelly’s character thinks she’s at last escaped the Goblin Kingdom and gotten back home. A dump-scavenger muppet takes her back to her bedroom, picking up toys she remembers off the shelf and re-presenting them to her. But then the bedroom disintegrates into the recycling that it is. You see, it was a trap all along.
Alien: Covenant revives in its last act when it expects you to know that David has tricked his way past the survivors: the suspense is in seeing how they will or won’t realise they have a different kind of deadly stowaway on board. Daniels’s realisation just before cryosleep, dramatised through the acceleration of her heart monitor, ends things with the kind of nasty aftertaste that Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy gave us in The Counsellor. Victorious, our mad scientist then sets about the bioengineering that’ll join us to the origin of the franchise.
Certain scientific concepts are becoming so embedded in the popular understanding that a story contravening them feels like a bad plot point. And so if in Alien: Resurrection a clone has its original’s memories, or if in Prometheus, the filmmakers don’t make any stab at providing counter-explanations for the Darwinian evidence, kvetching about it makes you less a wrong-headed pernickety deGrasse Tyson type, and more like a reader of a detective story where fingers leave no prints. Plus it’s not pedantry if it forces you to be creative. Mitochondria could have turned out to be Engineer nanotech; humans could’ve been designed to filter out any evidence of our intelligent design.
One original idea in Prometheus was that the xenomorphs weren't so much a bioweapon but one of the possible offshoots from the effects of a bioweapon—the result of what happens when an infected man has sex with a woman who then gives birth to a squid that eats an Engineer to create a proto-chestburster. Make sense? This also gave us the pleasing unremarked irony loop of the Company in the original trilogy trying to weaponise a weapon—and one that’d been meant to kill off humans themselves, as if rabbits harnessed myxomatosis and used it against each other in grosser and more mutated forms.
Alas, the xenomorphs as we’ve know them turn out to be the product of one machine imagination. Ridley Scott is anxious to create a single linear inheritance of disgruntled creators and creations, in order to make some airy point about parent/godhood. And the significance of ever-present robot life in the films, constantly counterpoised between human life and alien life, no longer has any power once we learn that the alien life was about us, and the robot life is about the alien life (that we are one dysfunctional family—that the alien is hardly alien at all).
For David has preempted the Philosophy of Ash in his search for a perfect species. Yet it makes little sense that David the Culture Vulture would design a species so much more robotic, mechanical, and cultureless than himself. He has always been bettering himself—chronologically, he begins as a staccato-speaking robot (though fluent pianist); in Prometheus he is slyer than the rest of the crew; hence it’s not out of the question that by Alien: Covenant he’s become a full-blown neo-Dr Moreau spawning life from the carcass of a dead civilisation and their vials of goo.
“Big things have small beginnings,” as he told us in Prometheus, quoting a character in Lawrence of Arabia. Continuing from this, in Alien: Covenant he sings about the man who robbed the bank at Monte Carlo like Lawrence sang to the echoing desert cliffs. David has modelled his personality on an actor playing a legend, the multiply ambiguous Lawrence, who himself was always donning costumes and asking himself Who He Was. (Scott loves his David Lean; you might even think of Orlando Bloom's Balian in The Kingdom of Heaven as a sort of uncharismatic cross-party T. E. Lawrence.) From the outset then, David has been a clever matching of form and content, the constructedness of a fictional character and the constructedness of an android. How much more beyond the physical you’d have to construct if you built a human from scratch—personality, sexuality, psyche, gender. The story from the start has set David up to be ambiguous, sly, charming.
Since there’s something camp about charm, Fassbender’s performance was always going to risk ridicule. Previously David’s level of camp and his dynamic with Dr Shaw made him come across more like the silently disapproving GBF who doesn’t understand why an accomplished female scientist has such an assholish jock robophobe for a boyfriend. By the time he reappears in Alien: Covenant he’s grown out his locks and moved from roleplaying British films to misquoting English poetry. (David’s misquotation has a purpose beyond showing off the screenwriters did English Lit, to set up the possibility of error in David’s new world.) But then trans-human David who, with his self-aware self-construction, was always knowingly queered, becomes just another robot falling for his mistress, and by the end an attempted rapist. This is the strangest eruption of unexpected libido since Jaffar decided to creep on Jasmine. If only he’d stuck to the poetry.
Why quote poetry when you can be cinematically poetic? This has always been Ridley Scott’s greatest strength.
It’s easy, though, to bandy about a word like “poetic” that can encompass anything from Wim Wenders to an ad for Facebook. The cinematically poetic is where boring old meaning takes a second seat behind connotations of larger inner and outer worlds: a humanoid machine in cigarette smoke playing a piano covered in photos of fake memories. (It is in this sense poetic for a film to show the discovery of two alien species at the same time.)
The longevity of Alien has never been in its horror. By modern standards the scares have been superseded by louder bangs and quicker cuts. What Alien still is, is haunting—full of poetic shots and scenes that stay under your skin: the death of Brett through the eyes of a cat, the first static nightmare sighting of the horse-shoe ship, Ash’s bizarre jog on the spot, the endless architecture of the Nostromo. It goes without saying that Ridley Scott’s whole body of work is full of these moments. (And often with animals real and unreal: cats or tigers, unicorns or artificial owls, a million eggs.)
Ridley still has it in him: near the start of Alien: Covenant we see a sarcophagus jetting across the vast inky IMAX of space; near the end, shattered glass and frozen air hang in zero G like snow. And then there’s the scene with the flute.
What is poetic and what is pretentious? Inspired by the flute-tooting Engineers, David has taken up music as well as poetry (he is in fact the composer of the terrible Prometheus leitmotif) and in a scene that has divided audiences, he teaches Walter to play, stage by stage, growing more intimate stage by stage, all part of his act of persuasion or seduction.
David saying the word “fingering” in this scene reliably sent audiences into giggles because Anglo-European civilisation still hasn’t worked out after 2000 years what to do about sex. But as with the original mystery of the connection between the Space Jockeys and the xenomorph eggs, the relationship between the two robots is, finally, not about humans, and especially not about our beloved franchises. (The movie passes the Robot Test. It just about passes the Bechdel Test, depending on whether we want to gender the aliens.) Myself, I wouldn’t mind seeing a story about a fey mad older robot and a confused stolid younger robot, alone on a necroworld, talking about origin and destiny and occasionally writing chamber music. Disappointing that we get instead an episode of Robot Wars.
All of which makes you wonder why Ridley Scott isn’t making Blade Runner 2049: Blade Runnier. The first shot of Alien: Covenant is an extreme close-up of an artificial eye, the third shot of Blade Runner the same. David quotes Milton like fellow synthetic Roy Batty once did. He even cries “That’s the spirit” like Batty, removing an iron nail from his jaw where Batty had once put one through his hand. Franchise synergy is afoot in the Expanded Scott-verse, Weyland Yutani merging with the Tyrell Corporation to make the replicants sent to meet the aliens … A worse life awaits us in the off-world colonies.
Ambition executed incompetently on almost every level, or a visceral but lazy repeat? A film that’s more interesting to talk about than watch, or the opposite?
It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Prometheus did something different and Alien: Covenant is the safe retreat. The central flaw of Prometheus is that it has nothing interesting to say about anything and says it badly. It’s not enough that it tweaks an expectation here or there if it’s within a wider stodgy pudding of a film.
But its relatively unpretentious sequel has nevertheless learned the wrong lessons. The initial competence of Alien: Covenant can’t in the end justify so many fallbacks on audience memory. The pity of both the new Alien films is that they have anything to do with the old Alien films. If a Riddick universe was possible, then Ridley could have made a new science fiction film series about our horrifying Alpha and Omega. You could call it (placeholder) Space Monster.
Sifting through the viscera of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant you find the seeds of better stories. But you could say that of any film; they all have a chance. So what. Neither film worked out how to strike the balance between the familiar and the new, to find that sweet spot of alien abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.
But maybe there’s still time. In an interview for the Sunday Morning Herald, Scott warned “If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six. I'm not going to close it down again.” So it won’t be only the curious twosome of Prometheus and Covenant, instead a whole Avatar-style assembly line … With another shot, who knows, maybe he’ll get it right. Or maybe instead of Space Monster, we’ll just have to deal with Alien Revelations, or Alien: The Mahabharata, or The AliIlliad. In which case, best out of three?