Alien: Covenant is a masterclass in balancing gory horror and high-minded science fiction
Beware: There are minor spoilers below…
It’s appropriate that Ridley Scott’s mutated Alien prequel/Prometheus sequel Alien: Covenant begins (and ends) with the mention and music of Richard Wagner. The wildly influential German composer’s life, writings and operas were an early and steady influence on Adolph Hitler and it’s thought that the future Fuhrer’s skewed, sociopathic philosophies on “racial purity” and his festering anti-semetism stemmed from this obsession.
“Wagner’s line of thought is intimately familiar to me,” the Nazi party leader once said.
“At every stage of my life I come back to him.”
It’s important to mention this, because Scott’s remarkable and high-minded blend of splatter show and cerebral science fiction is about these very themes, of ego, narcissism, spite and jealousy fueling a quest to alter the path of creation to suit a singular agenda. Fueled by these things, Hitler inexplicably rose to power and in his quest to dominate, also murdered millions of innocent men, women and children. All in the name of a psychotic desire to meddle with natural order, to “play God” for no other real reason than to appease his obsessions.
And so it goes with David, the “synthetic” played by Michael Fassbender who we first met in Prometheus and who we are re-introduced to here, in the prologue for Alien: Covenant. The film begins with David opening his eyes and meeting his “father” Weyland (Guy Pearce).
“Am I your son?” asks David.
“You are my creation,” responds the aging, weary inventor.
As David sits down at the provided piano, Weyland tells him to randomly pick one of the no-doubt thousands of pre-programmed pieces of music that have been hard-wired into his being by his makers. He picks something from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla,” and he plays the theme perfectly. And yet he is chastised for his performance by Weyland, who notes that without the full orchestra, the piece is weak, skeletal… unfinished. As David considers this and persists with questions about his “birth” and the origins of his creator and of man, we see the seeds planted for the horror that is to come. And it becomes clear that what Scott and company are doing with this movie is something both ambitious and elemental and far from the simple Alien sequel that 20th Century Fox is marketing the movie as.
Because ultimately what Alien: Covenant is, is an exploration of the myth first etched by Mary Shelley in her oft-adapted novel “Frankenstein.” The subtitle for that novel was “The Modern Prometheus,” after all. And so it goes…
I’m writing this response having just left the theater after seeing the opening night screening of Alien: Covenant. Many of the people in that screening were families, parents and teenage children, elderly men and their middle-aged sons. The Alien franchise is iconic and for many film fans, it’s a rite of passage. It’s an event to have a new Alien film scream into theaters. It has meaning. And yet I know that many of those people purchasing tickets and expecting to see a film that revels in chest-bursting and men in Xenomorph costumes crawling around Giger-esque sets, menacing gun-happy humans in deep space, will be disappointed. Some may be angry. Certainly, many “purists” indeed recoiled at Prometheus, a film I admired and loved because Scott knew he couldn’t go back and just repeat the formula he invented, and instead dialed the story back and explored new themes and ideas in a sort of sister Alien universe. That film is a bit of a marvel and I’m happy to see that many of the initial confused detractors of Prometheus are now slowly, surely becoming reluctant fans.
Alien: Covenant sees Scott trying to please both camps, once more using that sister universe to explore ideas and philosophy and probing psychology, while still providing the frissons and gory geek-show tropes that the hardcore Alien fans demand. It’s all here and things burst out of bodies and cause much mayhem. But for every exploding torso, Scott drags us into another world, introducing another element that takes us deeper into the mythology of the franchise and tunnels into completely new terrain.
Indeed, with both Alien: Covenant and Prometheus, we see an auteur filmmaker exploiting his most popular creation to mutate it and evolve it into an entirely new species.
Kind of what like David does. Life mirroring art mirroring life, repeated like a fun house mirror ad nauseum.
The plot of Alien: Covenant is familiar. A ship — the Covenant — jets through space looking for a planet to settle its 2000 strong, cryogenically preserved army of colonists, to find a new world to blaze new trails far from their own dying terrain. Among the various heroes (all essayed by a strong cast of players) is a “synthetic” named Walter (again, played by Fassbender) who has been programmed to do his duty and protect “his” humans and keep the mission on track. When they receive a phantom signal from an uncharted planet, they land and explore and of course encounter death and alien infection. But the real story begins when the humans are “rescued” by David, who has been stranded on this planet for a decade and has built a one-man (“man” being a questionable word) society where he has indulged his desire to create art….and other things.
Here, Walter and David begin having conversations which lead to new plot revelations and that’s the real power of the picture. These dialogues and the actions that spring from them that are dark, frightening and fascinating. Where science, faith, humanity and horror intersect in beautiful, challenging passages of imagination and intellect that are perverse, allegorical and cautionary. And, expertly, every time Scott gets too heady, he flips the switch and one of those gorgeous Xenomorphs jumps out and spits its teeth out, marauding across nightmarish sets that seem ripped from the recesses of the Freudian ID. And yes, sure, the monsters are now mostly CGI-tweaked creatures but set in the design of this modern film, it makes sense.
Ardent fans of Scott’s important filmography will also thrill to how concepts explored in his groundbreaking and influential 1982 Phillip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner are also woven into the film. But we won’t touch that any further. See it for yourself.
Ultimately, if you care about modern, blockbuster filmmaking that trades in ideas and prefers to break ground as opposed to just crassly regurgitating formulas, I urge you to be open to this majestic, horrifying study in mad science gone wild in the absence of God. Come for the face-huggers, stay for the cerebellum (some of which ends up splattered on the walls, but hey, that’s okay too).