Ridley Scott gives the audience the xenomorph they long for, but serves up some philosophy along with the gore.
The previous film in the Alien franchise, 2012’s Prometheus, was something of a mixed bag for long-time fans of the series. While it marked the much longed for return of original director, Ridley Scott, it was hardly a revisit to the thrills and chills of the first film. Rather than H. R. Giger’s classic Alien xenomorph chasing astronauts through darkened corridors, there were instead puddles of evil black goo and lots of arguments about whether or not God exists.
That seems to be a question that has been bothering Scott for a while now, as evidenced by such projects as Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and his failed attempt to jump start a TV series about the Vatican. Perhaps he keeps coming back to it because he can never get a solid “No” as an answer. For example, in a recent interview with Dread Central, the director talked about speaking to a group of scientific advisers while filming The Martian.
“I said, to some scientists, who believes in God? There was a long silence and out of seven of them, four went … and I said you believe in God? Oh wow, and you’re astrophysicists, astromathematics, I mean how can you actually believe in God when it’s all about technology? They said, we always reach a wall. I said, is that right, what did the wall tell you? It tells me we’re not clever enough so whatever is behind that wall is the evolution of how it really occurred. So I said, is that where we get God from? He said, yup.”
Apparently, nothing shakes up an atheist’s worldview like a scientist who believes in God. However, rather than dismiss the existence of such people like so many others in popular culture try to do, Scott incorporates them into his works. So, once again, we get an Alien movie in which a fair amount of time is spent watching smart people ponder the possibility of a creator.
But Alien: Covenant isn’t all theology. There is the little matter of the titular monster. While Scott himself has often expressed a disinterest in revisiting Giger’s original creatures, fans haven’t. In fact, one of the more vocal criticisms of Scott’s Prometheus came from those who wanted a bit more Alien in their Alien movies. Bowing to fandom’s outcry, this latest installment does indeed bring back the original xenomorph. Well, eventually.
It actually begins with a brief scene which provides some backstory to David (Michael Fassbender), the coldly calculating android whose head survived the events of Prometheus. Following that, the film switches to the spacecraft Covenant gliding silently through the stars. On board the ship, the android Walter (also played by Fassbender) keeps things running while the crew and hundreds of colonists sleep securely in suspended animation. When an accident forces Walter to awaken the crew prematurely, a decision must be made whether to continue to the ship’s original destination, or detour to a nearby planet that appears suitable for colonization.
Not long after landing on the uncharted world, Walter and the crew are set upon by creatures that share some similarities to the xenomorph we all know and love. The entire landing party appears doomed, but David shows up, body and all, to rescue those he can. With their landing craft destroyed, the survivors have little choice but to follow the strange man-machine back to a city full of dead bodies. There, they learn how David came to be on this particular planet, as well as a little bit about the Engineers, the alien race which was involved in the creation of humankind. They also discover some very familiar looking eggs, so it isn’t long before you-know-who shows up and starts picking everyone off one by one.
In a way, Alien: Covenant is two films spliced together. One part has the nearly characterless crew of the Covenant being dispatched in tried and true slasher-movie fashion by the xenomorph. The Alien even manages to attack a couple who have decided to engage in sex at a questionable time. Jason Voorhees would be proud.
The other half of the film is more arthouse, with Michael Fassbender debating Michael Fassbender on such varied topics as the making of music, the act of creation, and the necessity of finding a purpose in life. Fassbender is a wonder in these scenes, and it never feels like anything other than two distinct individuals interacting with one another.
For whatever reason, though, Scott isn’t quite able to make these two halves of his film gel together. It’s obvious from the get-go that he’s much more interested in the philosophical sections of the narrative, so the action scenes sometimes feel a bit perfunctory. Even so, they should be sufficient to satisfy those who have been craving a little face-hugging and chest-bursting. As for the more metaphysical parts of Alien: Covenant, they remain fascinating even when they don’t quite get to the answers Scott is looking for. Still, it’s always nice to see a filmmaker of Scott’s caliber struggling with the question of God rather than ignoring it like so many others.