I think it might have been a mistake to revisit both Alien and Aliens in high-def 4K prior to catching the latest franchise instalment, Alien: Covenant, on the big screen this weekend. They both remain masterpieces of the form, the first one of the greatest horror and SF films ever made, the second arguably the greatest US action film committed to the screen, so how can anything possibly compare? Well, after the glaring failures of Prometheus and the initial trailers for Covenant I had adjusted my expectations accordingly, but we live in hope that Ridley Scott might have one great film left in him, and to all the naysayers that repeat the mantra that the originals can never be bettered I point to the Mad Max reboot which meekly disproves that position as one rare exception to the rule. For cinephiles of my vintage the first couple of films are akin to our first viewings of Star Wars, indelibly seared into our memory of what cinema, and rather more specifically genre cinema could achieve through atmosphere, themes and design. They are corrosively etched into our shared popular culture, a nodal point for all future endeavours to be benchmarked and compared against as long as storytellers look to the indescribable depths of the universe and ponder on what immortal terrors may be lurking between the distant stars. Have they equalled these peaks with this latest mission? No, of course they haven’t but this film isn’t without its merits, while also working as a wider metaphor for all the frustrations of franchise filmmaking in 2017.
The set-up seems gestated in an Alien franchise screenwriting nest, drawing DNA strands from previous instalments in a simmering SF stew. It is the year 2104, and the 15 soul crew of the colony ship Covenant is progressively hurtling toward a remote planet, Origae-6. Some two-thousand colonists are also slumbering in hyper-sleep, monitored by an upgraded android named Walter (Michael Fassbinder), the next generation of synthetic that we previously knew as David in Prometheus, the bio-technical pinnacle of the sinister Weyland Yutani corporation. After a solar flare damages the vessel the crew are thawed, and in the ensuing chaos receive an enticing transmission from a nearby system, revealing a potentially fertile world for their colonising ideology – the planet yields an oxygen atmosphere, acceptable gravity, and a promising array of vegetation and hydration. The missions terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterson) objects to the diversion, but is overruled by acting Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), so with a new course set an away team investigates the source of the message and naturally all hell breaks loose, in all the gruesome glutinous violence that we franchise fans have come to expect.
Let’s seed this review with some of the fertile positives before we reluctantly turn to some of the more problematic elements of Covenant. Firstly, it’s a Ridley Scott joint so naturally the aesthetics are just stunning – the gloomy production design, the tech, wardrobe and uniforms, the typography and cinematography are all state of the art, effortlessly building a believable and tactile future universe which is worthy of a big screen experience alone. I loved the desaturated, misty palette, and no-one shoots a klaxon shrieking, steam bathed strobe-lit bulkhead corridor better than Ridders. The first two-thirds are compelling and for much of the time I had a nagging belief in the back of my head that we might have another great Alien movie on our hands. It takes its time to build the story and assemble the narrative pieces on the chess board, but then like Prometheus the effective set-up and activation of plot nodes stumble into an increasingly fractured climax which – and this is difficult to articulate but bear with me – seemed to be assimilated into Covenant from an entirely different Alien franchise film. It is a very strange shift in pace, emphasis and events, where the supposed incessant demands for CGI set-pieces obliterate the previous control of structure and symbolism. The orignal Alien, and to a lesser extent Aliens orbit some very elemental human characteristics which pollenate across cultures and creeds while impregnating some unconscious essentials of human nature – the semen flushed fluids of the artificial androids, vague vaginal threat, inverse concepts of male rape and insemination. In opposition Covenant seems neutered, displaying a distinct lack of sexuality in terms of its emphasis or acuity, even the concept of the crew being populated by colonist couples working together as professionals regardless of their gender in some post misogynist landscape is largely supressed and discarded. Now, for the record this isn’t some SCW agitating, this is a concept that was present in the series from day one if you watch the various documentaries on the development of Alien, even before Ripley was transferred from a male to female antagonist through the script development process. Hell, even Alien III dropped a woman into a isolated culture of rapists and other criminal miscreants, where an ‘Alien’ outlier could at least be understood and tackled, querying where the real threat might be lurking.
With very little time the characters are hastily sketched, some twitter reviews I’ve scanned have praised Waterman although I can’t agree, she was something of a nonentity on-screen for me with just the bare bones of backstory. Billy Crudup’s captain makes some early intriguing references to his religious beliefs which is a thread that is promptly discarded, a casualty of an evolving script development one suspects. I’m not sure why they made Amy Seimetz , initially a competent, spacefaring professional pilot into a hysterical shivering mess so quickly, but it’s nice to see the Mumblecore and Shane Curruth alumni getting some higher profile roles. With the exception of the miscast Danny McBride – I just can’t take him seriously in a dramatic film – the rest of the crew are identikit red-shirts, so it is left to Fassbender to save the day. He plays the synthetic with the same intriguing gravity that he brought to Prometheus, an artificially created specimen with all the just slightly off delivery of speech and figure movement, internally questioning the integrity of his flawed creators*. I just wish the screenwriters didn’t resort to the cliché of crowbarring numerous literature references into his occasionally portentous dialogue beats – Shelley and Keats to name but two, and also a spot of Wagner – when a few allusions to the other Shelley and the Frankenstein myth would have sufficed. Rather more mischievously I admired the films bloodthirsty intentions, it is graphically violent with shredded puny meatbags being repeatedly ground into mince in a most amusing fashion, making me chuckle in glorious gorehound glee.
The major problems with the Alien franchise, now in its sixth (or eighth) gestation and near four decade hereditary are these – the entire direction of travel, the effort to create some franchise universe is unnecessary, and it is distracting. When they brought in the pathogens, those alabaster hued engineers and the swirling pixels of nanotechnological viruses it just obscured the pathological, elemental, primordial terror of the Xenomorph and its, well, it’s utterly alien nature. Why couldn’t they have just taken the series to earth, or take a petrifying sojourn to the beasts homeworld? Elemental myths and fears of the mystery of creation, of isolation and cognition, gender, evolution and birth swirl around these recent episodes of the series but they are simply not wielded to anything as potent as the sheer terror of the unknown, of lifeforms without remorse or pity subjecting us to their superiority and horrific, incubating lifecycle. To be fair the artificial life, synthetic philosophising is fascinating from a SF perspective and is contemporary with the growing unease and progression in IRL A.I. evolution, and this gets a lot of play in Covenant which might be this film’s singular saving grace – time, contemplation and a few re-watches are required. Some of the callbacks to early instalments are great fun – I really loved the revival of Jerry Goldsmith’s music cues from the original which is one of the most overlooked triumphs of the original film – but this now being 2017, and not 1979 or even 1986 there is this hideous necessity to incorporate some ‘thrilling’ action scenes which are also unnecessary and distracting, shattering the screen fidelity and immersion in the world, and dancing around spoilers one plot development late in the film is so spectacularly obvious it’s almost insulting when they detonate it. It’s funny, I initially was a lot more forgiving of Covenent when I exited the theatre, I mostly had a good time and enjoyed the experience, but gathering my thoughts here has exposed the glaring errors of what could have been. In summary then I’d rate this as on par with Alien III, flawed, irritating but still pulsing with some of that glutinous, gruesome fascination that the first two masterpieces incubated. With three more instalments already in the works I’ll keep a flickering flame lit amidst a melancholy musing over what course we might be on if they’d let Blomkamp have a crack at this still fertile, but frustratingly ferbile franchise;
* Maybe Fassbender could get together with Scarlett Johannson’s succubi in Under The Skin in some weird SF sidebar mythology. And fuck. This is how my genre crossover mind works. Professional help is being sought……