Ridley Scott capably bridges the gap between Prometheus (2012) and Alien (1979), blending the best elements of the franchise.
In the year 2104, a group of colonists peacefully sleep aboard the Covenant on a journey through space to, you guessed it, colonise a new world. Following a catastrophic neutrino shockwave, the crew is thus awakened from cryogenic sleep by synthetic Walter, and subsequently test the waters of a habitable planet seven years prior to their intention to reach their final destination on Origae-6.
Under the surface of the science-fiction horror franchise is, and it appears has always been, the theme of creation. When Ripley and the rest of the Nostromo crew first experience the Xenomorph as it punctures the chest of the late and great John Hurt, they cannot begin to fathom the origin of such a creature, nor do they have the time as the mining crew is stalked and pick off one by bloody one in a film that still stands the test of time as one of the great masterpieces of cinema.
Prometheus began to answer some of the questions audiences may have (or even not have) been asking since 1979, but Covenant delves deftly deeper, finalising the answers to our questions and perhaps at least making up for what some saw as a weaker first start to the origin story. The film begins and the film ends with notions of creation hanging in the air, which turn out to be more important than anything in coming full-circle to the conception of that first Xenomorph of the late seventies.
Performances aboard the Covenant are solid, especially in regards Michael Fassbender, who reprises his role both as Weyland’s first synthetic David, named after the Michelangelo’s statue but also fittingly the namesake of the young synthetic boy in Stanley Kubrick’s A.I., and the newer, less human model Walter. To say his acting is rather robotic is, in this case, a compliment to his acting ability, the Alien universe having not yet perfected androids such as Ash, played by Ian Holm in the original film, to be simultaneously as pragmatic as Walter and as human in appearance and mannerisms as David.
Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, is our substitute Ripley, similarly playing more of an important role later into the film once fellow crew members start being brutally slain in all manner of chest and back bursting ways and once the scene has slowly been set. Both her transition of grief into terror and finally to her strong survival abilities, and Fassbender’s cold pragmatism mixed with human emotion truly hold the film together, with many minor characters apart from cocky pilot Tenessee serving as Xenomorph and facehugger fodder in necessary and gory crowd pleasing moments.
In addition, these characters play the part of a colonial crew untrained for this level of combat, directly paralleling the nature of the unprepared mining crew of the Nostromo as the first on-screen iteration of the Xenomorph dispatches all but Ripley by the conclusion. These are no Colonial Marines, after all.
Spines burst forth to birth baby Neomorphs and mouths are ripped apart to do the same. Only later does the film bring in the familiar chest-bursting, acid-burning and inner-mouth puncturing icon of the franchise, the true finalised Xenomorph as initially conceived by H.R. Giger. Arguably, the absence of the iconic monster was the cause for much of the negative reception surrounding Scott’s Prometheus outing, but the big daddy is back, and all Prometheus needed was some time.
Incidentally, this technique that sees a sequel to a beloved film or franchise pertaining to a movie monster icon is not relative only to Scott’s saga. Jurassic World, too, employed the use of a new creature to the dismay of some fans, only to eventually have the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors appear almost heroically towards the end of the sequel to the joy of those who adore the original film. The intention is not there to override what we know and love, but to produce a fresh film that respectfully compliments and salutes the source. Prometheus just didn’t reach that point as soon as some would have wished.
Practically and technically speaking, the latest installment is in keeping with both audience expectations and that of the previous chapters in the Alien chronicles. Mirroring his own original source, Scott adeptly exploits the techniques and modes of visual storytelling found in his critically acclaimed science-fiction horror. Audiences observe long wide shots of drifting space crafts propelling through space, and a rendition of that same famously haunting Alien theme is evidenced throughout. Though some of the Neomorph segments and the baby Xenomorph scene are a little jarring, with the latter almost boarding on the comedy of Space Balls‘ parody of the creature, the CG within the film is kept to what is believable and ‘realistic’ in regards to science-fiction. Scott manages to merge the movie that started it all with his divisive prequel with a great amount of respect to audience expectations; there is enough of Covenant that feels cosily familiar in the cold embrace of the Xenomorph, and enough that’s crisp enough to set it apart from what has come before, and that is important when producing prequels and sequels.
What is now considered canonical in the Alien universe is an important matter. We have a variety of films, vast amounts of novels, a few video games and some cross-over comic books the likes of 2000AD’s Judge Dredd and DC’s Batman. While Neill Blomkamp’s cancelled sequel lies dead in the water of some unexplored new world, the only canonical items are Fox’s movies and the Sega video games Isolation and Colonial Marines. Everything as at this point exists as a fun examples of “what if?” scenarios. One could argue that the only thing that is canon in the Alien universe is the literal canon of Dwayne Hicks.
Covenant should please fans who sit on both sides of the fence as to the quality of Prometheus, answering some of the questions that had been yet unanswered, hanging in the void of space for some five years. While expectations were never set for the film to reach the same tier as the original Alien or James Cameron’s Aliens, expectations were bound to be extremely high nonetheless. The film marries some of the best aspects of the original two films and blends them up with the more modern, technically advanced and polished production value of Prometheus, taking this film to the third spot within the franchise. Starting with either Alien or Aliens (take your pick) and working its way down AVP2 or Resurrection, where Fox allowed filmmakers to jump the Xenomorph. And with Prometheus and Alien 3 sitting somewhere in the middle, the Alien franchise has clearly had its ups and downs. Prometheus, however, started to steer the ship home and Covenant lands it with relative ease, marking the course for a fan-pleasing continuation.
Though we are not guided on course to any new direction for the bulk of the film until the final sequence which sets the route for a sequel towards the long journey to Alien, our lingering questions regarding Promtheus are finally respectfully answered and some new ones are raised, making the return road to Alien all the more exciting.
The Film Fanatic