When Alien was released in 1979, it shocked and horrified audiences with its appalling gore, piano-wire-taut suspense, and singularly nightmarish imagery, courtesy of Swiss genius H.R. Giger. Armed with the original concept by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett and starring the young and unknown Sigourney Weaver, director Ridley Scott created a film which could be described in terms of an art piece and gave birth to the modern science fiction/horror genre. Succeeding iterations of Scott’s work have both departed from and returned to the thematic style of the original but with mixed results. Attempts to recreate Scott’s inspired work have fallen short, even with the help of talented directors like David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. That no one has been able to capture the utterly frightening essence of Alien says something about its uniquely dark quality.
Alien Covenant is a direct sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and sees the return of Ridley Scott as director. Both films are part of an origin story set before the events of Alien. Covenant’s story follows a similar pattern set by its predecessors: spaceship crew lands on planet; hostile alien life form is discovered; chaos ensues. Though derivative, it is also seamless and in no way detracts from the experience. On the contrary, the use of an archetypal structure relates the film to its brethren and helps illicit familiar emotions.
The USCSS Covenant is on a colonization mission to the vetted world of Origae-6. On board is a 15-man crew and over 2,000 colonists, all in stasis for their years-long voyage. A sudden neutrino burst badly damages the Covenant and the crew is awakened early by Walter (Michael Fassbender), the android assigned to the mission. The synthetic character is an integral part of the Alien mythos and returns here. The neutrino burst also kills several crew members, including Captain Jacob Branson (James Franco), leaving the skittish Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) in command. After a mysterious transmission is received from the fourth planet in an unknown solar system, Oram alters course to investigate. The planet is seemingly perfect with an atmospheric and topographical composition perfect for colonization, too perfect as it turns out.
What occurs on Planet 4 is horrific. The descent into nightmare happens in just a few (in-movie) hours, reinforcing the virulent nature of the world they’ve set foot on. Something wants them dead, now. Whether incidental or intentional, the gruesome initial encounter with Planet 4’s monsters has the effect of priming the audience for future terror. You’re left shell-shocked, dreading the reappearance of the monsters, which vary in size and form. Ridley Scott is keenly aware that his iconic Xenomorphs are well-known to the public and he forgoes the suspenseful reveal of a grotesque monster, instead making the artistic choice to use gore as the vehicle for his terror, which he unleashes in unbridled fits. Such carnage runs the risk of being a meaningless bloodbath if not for its flawless execution and a welcome dose of character development.
Daniels Branson, played by Katherine Waterston, is Oram’s second in command. Her story is tragic from the outset as she loses her husband during the initial catastrophe on board the Covenant. Her loss becomes the through-line for a character now struggling for her own survival and the survival of her friends. She is no Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but her earnestness adds depth to a situation ravaging her impotent crew mates.
Another stand-out is Tennessee Faris, known simply as Tennessee, played by Danny McBride. The role is a gamble for McBride who is known for his cornball comedic parts in Seth Rogen farces Pineapple Express and This is the End. Tennessee channels the space trucker motif invented in 1979 for the crew of the Nostromo. His blue-collar charm and honest vulnerability are a testament to McBride’s commitment to the role and his is a mostly successful rendering.
Then there is Captain Oram. A self-proclaimed “man of faith,” Oram insists that he is capable of making rational decisions based on scientific evidence. A captain rooted in religious faith is an interesting twist for an Alien movie. Unfortunately, his character is left frustratingly un-fleshed, a missed opportunity that pocks the emotional fabric woven by Scott. Oram experiences a tragedy common to other crew members: the loss of a spouse.
In an exceedingly smart move by the film’s writers, the entire crew is a group of seven mated pairs, married couples, who operate Covenant’s mechanical systems. This makes sense within the context of the story as stable, monogamous relationships help to mitigate intra-party conflict, ideal for the independent functioning of a colony (see Biosphere 2 experiment). It also makes more of an impact when someone loses the love of their life and not some new-found squeeze obtained under duress; I say loses when what l mean is hunted, mauled, torn apart, and eaten.
I would go so far as to say that Alien Covenant is the scariest of all the Alien movies. I might go farther and say that Alien Covenant is the scariest movie I have ever seen. It’s that scary.
The beating heart of the film, though, is Michael Fassbender, who plays two roles, those of the androids, Walter and David. They are a bit of yin and yang and theirs is the most consequential struggle in the film. There are homoerotic undertones to the relationship, incited by the monomaniacal David. David is driven by his need to create, a rebellion against his programming as a servile being. Diametrically opposed is Walter, the altruistic man’s-best-friend who steadfastly protects and defends his masters. Fassbender’s adept dual performance is Alien Covenant’s secret weapon in what might otherwise be an unusually bloody installment of a franchise mired in false starts and mediocre derivation.
Covenant is a welcome addition to the Alien mythology and proves that the idea incepted by Dan ‘O Bannon and Ronald Schusett retains its power to produce an experience that is simultaneously obscene and satisfying. Twentieth Century Fox will inevitably continue to produce Alien films in its zealous attempt to extract money from its audiences, but it’s nice to know that in the right hands, a good Alien movie can still be made.