– Warning: this review contains several spoilers.
The sixth installment of the Alien franchise and Prometheus’ direct sequel, Alien: Covenant aims to revisit the concept behind the iconic monster by contextualizing it in the discussions sparked by its predecessor. Narratively, however, the film slips up in its structure, failing to develop its characters and build a proper climax.
This time, the story accompanies the crew of the spacecraft Covenant, who is traveling on a colonization mission. After an accident that kills the captain of the ship, the team receives a transmission from a nearby planet and, realizing that it was sent by a human, decides to ascertain its origin. When they arrive at the planet, however, some members are infected by a parasite, giving rise to terrible creatures. When they receive the aid of a mysterious android, the members of the ship begin to understand that that planet holds more secrets than they first imagined.
Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a woman who becomes the second in command when her husband is killed in the accident, is the movie’s main point of view. Daniels quickly established himself as the voice of reason, questioning the new captain, Orem (Billy Crudup), about the dangers of the investigation.
The beginning of the movie focuses on the interaction between the crew, indicating their main characteristics. Orem, for example, is a man of faith who is unsure of his authority over the rest of the crew. Faris (Amy Seimetz) shows uneasiness in the few moments she is put under pressure, which predicts her reckless actions when the first member becomes ill.
It is only during the second act, with android David (Michael Fassbender), that the main themes come to the surface and the narrative gains urgency. The environment in which the character lives impresses by its scope and details: while the exterior of his dwelling is a terrifying necropolis, which still holds mummified corpses of several Engineers, the interior of the place is decorated like a bio lab, indicating the android’s obsession with life and the anatomy of the Aliens.
The eventual revelation that David aims to create the famous creatures of the title is fundamental to the construction of the movie’s theme, because it establishes a sequence of creations that has its beginning in the Engineers and its end with the Aliens. Thanks to the numerous scenes that expose the monsters coming out of Engineers and humans, and remembering the beginning of Prometheus, which shows mankind emerging from the Engineers’ DNA, it is possible to see both movies establishing each point of this chain of creation as a representation of the nature of the one that came before – but, with a degradation.
Thus, from this sequence of conceptions, the script develops a process of “distillation” in order to reach an essence. In the first moment, there are the Engineers, who appear towering, austere and distant from the viewers. The bluish coloring of their skin gives them an ethereal air, establishing them as something more transcendental than their creation, the humans. Their motives are sometimes left unexplained, rendering them as mythic unattainable figures, and sometimes explained by logic and observation, as their plan to destroy humanity in Prometheus. Humans, on the other hand, appear more complex, making a balance between reason, faith and desire, elements that are put in different characters – Daniels, Omer and the copilot Upworth (Callie Hernandez), respectively –, signaling the diversity of our composition. David, however, is the ultimate representative of a human creation and in him there is an even greater denial of the superego by comparing it to its respective creator: David positions himself as a rebellious figure, who rejects authority, despises the capacity for self-control and rationalization, and even reveals to be moved by desire. It is no coincidence that one of its most developed characteristics in the movie is its sexuality: when descending the chain of these creations to reach their essence, it is this element that emerges, finally arriving at the Alien figure, which represents sex in its most monstrous form. If the first creator is ethereal, the ultimate creation is just violence and sex, a purely animalistic being, as David himself suggests in a particular scene, by explaining that he was trying to tame the creature.
The scenes in which the android interacts with his double, Walter – who accompanies the Covenant crew and is a more advanced model of David, and also played by Michael Fassbender – are loaded with eroticism. This sexual tension overflows in certain images (David inserts a phallic object into Walter’s mouth, for example) and dialogues (while saying “let me do the fingering“), being explained in another scene by the same phallic object, now erectly positioned over the android’s crotch. If the end of this scene is emblematic for showing David killing Walter in the same way that his future creations will – by penetration – it also points to the narcissism that dominates the personality of the character and to the fascination he feels for his own identity.
In recognizing his position as creation, David wants more than anything to overcome it, becoming the one he hates: a creator. The flashback with Wayland that opens the movie is important because it reminds the viewers that David himself was created for the same reason, with Wayland appearing equally frustrated, trying to be as superior as the creator he so much wants to find and understand. The difference between Wayland and David is that the human wants his creation to serve him, while the android lets them run free.
This parallel between the two, in fact, signals a cycle that may indicate the motivations of the Engineers themselves when creating humankind and which was constantly questioned in Prometheus: after all, someone created the Engineers and their actions can be the result of the same frustration, an attempt to overcome the same inferiority complex.
David is the most fascinating character in Alien: Covenant and, in a deeper analysis, makes much more sense to consider him the protagonist of the film than Daniels, although he is the villain and she, the heroine: David is the gravitational center of the movie and who has a narrative arc that complements the themes presented. Daniels, on the other hand, does not even have a narrative arc and is there only to serve as a point of identification for the viewer.
If the various characteristics of the human personality are scattered among the crew members, David carries them all inside himself, being individually complex. There is a strong contrast in the character: while his diction is monochord and his movements are unnatural, indicating his robotic origin, he is, in fact, dominated by emotion. The most important element of the scene in which he assassinates the Engineers, for example, is not the genocide itself, but the anger stamped on the character’s face. Although he lies throughout the film, it is not hard to believe that he does not do it when he exposes his feelings for Prometheus’s protagonist, Elizabeth. He may have killed her, using her as a guinea pig – and you can imagine her complaining, “Shit, David, again?” – but that would not stop him from believing that he loved her. While Walter defends his relationship with Daniels as a duty, rationalizing it, David categorically states that he “knows best,” repositioning the actions of his double in the field of emotion.
It is a shame, therefore, to attest that the surface of the movie is so problematic, failing to take advantage of its rich themes. The only suspense scene that really works is what marks the first turning point in the story: the infection of two Covenant crew members and the eventual apparition of the Aliens. Here, Scott works with dramatic irony, using the fact that the viewer knows what will come out of the infection to increase the tension, since he locks a character with the infected person, causing the viewer to immediately realize that she is in great danger. In addition, the despair of Faris, who is watching everything impotently, adds to the scene, as her actions begin to fail continuously precisely because of the pressure she feels, while the gore, represented by the final state of the infected’s body, shocks the viewer.
The other action scenes, however, do not show the same care in their composition. The second climax, for example, that ends with Daniels returning to the mother ship, uses a useless artifice to generate a later plot twist: to leave in doubt who survives in the confrontation between Walter and David, Scott cuts the scene in a key moment. However, this only makes it clear that it is David who survives, for unless the director has lost his mind, he would never kill the main character of the movie off camera without any preparation for it.
Now, the final clash with the Alien in the Covenant ship fails precisely because of lack of preparation. The environment in which it occurs is a random part of the ship that has had no importance until then, the strategy to kill the creature also comes up just in time, never having been mentioned before, and the sequence is neither visually interesting nor especially intelligent. Worse still is to attest that this last fight does not complement in any way the discussions raised until then, being devoid of dramatic force and, thus, ending the movie in an anticlimax.
The various executions that the Alien makes throughout the film are also problematic, being irrelevant, or juvenile in their composition. While the death of a woman at David’s necropolis causes no reaction at all because the viewer does not even remember the character’s name, the shower scene that even appears in the trailer, in which an Alien kills two people having sex, while reinforcing the sexual nature of the creature, is too exaggerated to work: the monster’s tail slowly rising beneath the man and moving towards the woman’s vagina can only cause laughter because of the artificiality of the situation.
The members of the Covenant ship are also poorly developed. While some have their main features hammered constantly (Orem uses the word faith at least three times during the movie’s first hour), others don’t even have a trait to call their own. The woman who is killed at the necropolis, for example, is simply devoid of anything, existing only to die. To make matters worse, those little fortunate enough to have some semblance of personality are not used well: Orem’s faith, for example, leads to absolutely nothing and he dies by acting as stupid as any other minor character.
Nonetheless, the actors do their best with their characters, though only Michael Fassbender actually has material to work on. Building on two characters that complement each other, Fassbender still shows concern to make the twist that David is pretending to be Walter work: his sigh when the Alien is defeated, for example, is necessarily ambiguous for it to be understood, at first, as a sigh of relief that Daniels has survived and, on a second visit, as a sigh of disappointment because the creature was easily matched by a human.
Finally, the script still shows a surprising lack of care with the consistency of the franchise, breaking, without decent justification, one of its oldest patterns: if the names of the androids in each movie followed alphabetical order (Ash, Bishop, Call and David), the one introduced here is called … Walter.
Alien: Covenant is not the worst chapter of the Alien franchise, but it is certainly the most irregular: it has a complex protagonist but a lot of flat characters, contains a rich theme but action sequences that have nothing to do with it, and even goes back to work with the sexual concept behind its monster but also unnecessarily undoes part of the franchise’s tradition.
December 04, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on May 29, 2017.
---> BUY IT ON AMAZON
Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan and Dante Harper.
Amy Seimetz, Billy Crudup, Callie Hernandez, Danny Mcbride, Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender.