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Alien Covenant, a Review

Now here is a film that I can get behind! Point in fact, I enjoyed it great deal, yet find myself standing within a curious minority as Covenant is encircled and set upon by just about everyone. This includes so-called fans of the series, who should know better but clearly don't. According to them, it's neither scary nor original enough to merit any sort of praise. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Permit me the opportunity to say that, while it isn't quite as scary as Alien, Covenant doesn't need to be; nor are its ideas, in and of themselves, anymore original than Alien's were. However, in a cinematic world overpopulated with comic book adaptations, Covenant feels uniformly refreshing to me. Let me be clear: This is a great movie in its own right, albeit for different reasons than the ones which elevated Alien and Aliens from the mire.

Covenant is a film with its own kind of structure that deviates away from Alien and Aliens, but still borrows from them. It's a dark fantasy film and if we see it as such, the comparison between it and Alien as a means to determine its quality becomes somewhat pointless. There are parallels, rest assured, but all the same these are very different films and should be treated accordingly. Would you compare Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin to The Wizard of Oz to determine if the former were “a good movie”? Of course not. Both are fabulous, but I didn't arrive at that conclusion by comparing the two side-by-side because there's not much to be gleaned by doing so.

As such, deviating away from the original formula of Alien or Aliens should not be held against Covenant because, again, it's its own film. It's not trying to be Alien, even if it uses some of the same ingredients. This is because films from different genres can use the same elements to tell their own stories—very much how Cameron did, in Aliens: Even if his film is, by and large, structured the same way Ridley's is, the story is still Cameron's to tell. Likewise, Ridley Scott, with Alien: Covenant, wanted very much to tell something a little different, even if it resides in the same overall, creative universe that Alien or Aliens did.

In regards to that so-called “same universe,” critics of Alien: Covenant need to realize that nothing in the creative medium, at large, is set in stone—something that Cameron, himself, demonstrated when he made Aliens and introduced the Queen. Staying utterly faithful to the life cycle of the original creature, as presented in Alien, wasn't as important to Cameron as telling the story he wanted to tell. Furthermore, in Alien and Aliens, I sense purists presume that what we see in those films constitutes all there is to see, regarding the capabilities of the xenomorph, throughout the series. Yet, there's nothing to suggest that we, in fact, see all there is to see, in regards to its behavior, life cycle and intelligence, in either of those movies.

Various aspects of the creature change from film to film. Even the term “xenomorph” wasn't established until Aliens. It's now of course a staple of alien nomenclature, but if it didn't exist prior to Aliens, this means Aliens, as a film, introduced something new to the series to which it belonged, which wasn't revealed to us originally in Alien. If the Queen and the term “xenomorph” weren't in Alien, but fans accepted them, regardless, what else can not exist in the original film yet eventually earn the trust and love of fans of the series? Just look at Prometheus, which, upon its release, was attacked, by many but now has been compared alongside Alien: Covenant as the superior of the two. As if.

Given the passage of time, I am confident that people will come to realize that Alien: Covenant is simply another film in the series that is showing us a different side to the infamous alien. Covenant demonstrates that the titular monster can assume any shape it needs, in the way that it always has, throughout the series, for better or for worse. To simply condemn Covenant for doing what the series always has would be to forget Cameron's liberties taken, in Aliens. And if Cameron can do it, so can Scott. He is one of the founding fathers of the original film, after all. And if people had told Cameron, “No!” when he wanted to make the changes he had in mind, the creature would remain the same, forever.

One needs only to watch the highly-derivative sequels of any slasher film to see how detrimental an effect this repetition can have on a series. All the more ironic it sounds, as well, when fans of Alien and Aliens clamor for more of the same, as purists who insist that the first two films are the best. I would have happily agreed with them, before seeing Covenant. Now that I have, I can safely say that Covenant has something different to contribute to the series, doing so in such a way as to elevate it to the same hallowed strata as Alien or Aliens. For me, Covenant proves that Pantheon isn't be exclusive to Gothic horror or Starship Troopers rip-offs.

I, for one, can celebrate the classic monsters, like Count Orlok, or the Wolfman, that remain unchanged, in a museum, as wax statues. But one of my favorite qualities to the Alien is that it evolves and changes. I don't always agree with the changes made, but at the same time, its ability to evolve or morph into new and different things is a defining characteristic of the original beast. Some forms are superior to others, to be sure, but they all abide by the same rules that have been in place since the beginning.

When fans attack Ridley's chestbuster in Covenant for having arms and legs, they need to realize that Cameron's did, as well, in Aliens (well, arms, anyways). Yet, there is an inexplicable need for the creature to remain ancient and ineffable and fixed. How perplexing this is to me, given that each reincarnation of the alien is new and fresh, in every film—including Aliens! Fast-forward to Covenant, we find that the creatures made by David are their own beasts, defined by the process he himself pioneered using stolen ideas; they are all products of the same technology—or fire of the gods that has been burning the fingers of impetuous mortals since Prometheus.

This technology or fire is the ancient part of the beast. The beast itself isn't old; the technology that makes it is, harkening back to old, buried gods, whose fire is, in and of itself, a creature of chaos and may have many incarnations. David's studying of it is not the first instance of the curious necromancer disinterring forbidden knowledge through dubious methods; how else do you explain the mural of the alien, in Prometheus, which predates David by thousands of years? He stands on the shoulders of giants—titans who, as mythological concepts themselves, fill Antiquity's never-ending void.

So people fussing about David being the so-called “father of the xenomorph” can chill out. His children don't even look the same; the so-called “classic” version of the monster in Covenant is different in its appearance—with smooth skin and the possession of arms and legs at birth— and its life cycle, originating from eggs begot from Shaw's ovaries rather than eggs from a Queen. Before people laps into apoplectic fits, maybe they should realize this isn't Scott getting the material wrong but rather implying that the creature in Alien and Alien: Covenant are different incarnations of the same basic creature, resulting from indifferent implementations of the same alien technology? Purists cry foul; Ridley Scott doesn't care. And why should he, anymore than Cameron did, when he made the Queen, 31 years ago?

Furthermore, it's not about David creating the ultimate weapon. He already had a pretty nasty one with the bombs and the spores. It's about creating the perfect organism. People may disagree with his results, but that's nothing new. They've been raising raising eyebrows at xenomorph worship since Ash gave his famous speech, in Alien, almost four decades ago. One might even argue that the cycle of folly is entirely the point, as it is being spearheaded by delusional androids who don't think very highly of their human counterparts.

With Covenant, I've noticed its detractors declaring the alien no longer to be ancient, because it is known and familiar, and thus, Covenant cannot be an effective horror film. Despite, Covenant not being a horror movie (which I will explain, in a moment) I posit these people aren't fussing so because they want the alien to be ancient. They actually want it to be hidden, or mysterious, because this is a quality often attributed to horror movie icons like Jaws or Michael Myers: one knowing very little about them.

Yet, in those horror films, the assailants don't stay hidden forever. As the movie Jaws progresses, we eventually see the shark, and learn its full size, and Dreyfus's character explains the nature of the beast in great detail, leading up to its classic reveal. In the case of Michael Myers, in Halloween, Dr. Loomis spells out the nature of the deranged killer to the Haddonfield sheriff, and to us, and we see more and more of the Shape as time goes on. The same is true for Alien. Ash, for example, explains about the facehugger's “funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarized silicon,” and in turn, we watch the alien grow and change before our eyes.

All these examples come from horror films, and there's more to them than simply hiding their villains. According to Quint, sharks have doll's eyes, and Myers's eyes, according to Loomis, are the blackest, like the devil's. In them, there remains an elemental quality of fear akin to the uncanny—like a doll, where something is both familiar and off, confusing the brain. There are many things at work, in regards to scaring people, least of all a monster's origins (thus, why Rob Zombie's film failed to work, as far as horror film, when he explored Michael Myer's origins). But people need to remember that the origins explored in Covenant are meant to be treated as food for thought, not nightmare fuel. Symbolically they serve as fire of the gods, in the Promethean tradition. The goal of the film is different, as a result.

This is because Covenant is a dark fantasy film, not a horror film. If it were trying to be a horror film and nothing else, then I would happily use that rubric when examining it. It is not that kind of film, though. Therefore its structure is permitted to change. Alas, if only people less forgiving than myself could change their expectations, going in, they might see it for what it is, rather than condemn it for being what it isn't. To quote William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” In regards to Covenant and the misplaced ire being directed at it from all sides, I feel as though it is being delivered by critics who have “closed [themselves] up.”
This being said, Alien: Covenant is not a perfect film, but does it need to be? As is the case with Alien and Aliens, flaws are to be expected in any film. For me, Covenant's do not prevent it from being enjoyable, as it has many strengths, including tight pacing, consistent tone and a peerless visual style that rivals anything else Scott has ever done (I say this as an avid fan who enjoys most of his films).

However, there are one or two caveats worth mentioning. For one, the third act of the film switches gears, moving into the territory of Alien. I do not object to it doing this, provided it does it right. Alas, so much feels left out on the cutting room floor, here, that it makes what did make it into the theatrical cut feel skeletal. Nothing a director's cut can't fix, which Scott has demonstrated in the past, he is more than capable of doing.

Up until this point, however, I thought the pacing in Covenant was fine. Likewise, I enjoyed the characters Daniels, Walter, Oram and David, who felt the most fleshed out. I especially loved the interactions between David and Walter, and Walter's relationship with Daniels, protecting her out of duty in a very similar fashion to how the T-800 in T2 protected John Connor. Secondary characters like Lope, I felt, would have benefited from more introductory material. While there's a subtly in the moment when Lope clutches the hand of his dead comrade, where we see the latter's wedding band, very clearly in the shot, perhaps its a little too fleeting an insinuation to expect us to respond emotionally the way perhaps Scott wants us to. If the aim were to get us more invested in the individual demises of the crew I would suggest additional material to give the deaths of certain characters more heft.

Yet, making changes could also interfere with the pacing of the film, given its agenda. It requires us to ask, “What is the point of this movie?” One must realize that Covenant's structure is to begin in medias res, “in the midst of things,” akin to Milton's Paradise Lost. As such, it has more on its mind than us bonding with certain human characters, which is simply not the point. So, if this is not the point, then why penalize the film for it? Instead, the humans who die in Covenant are but grist for the mill, and the film's overall focus is a dark fantasy fixated on things larger than ourselves. Here, death serves an altogether different purpose than catharsis: to remind us of our mortality when Death sharpens his sickle and goes to work.

To hold Covenant accountable for failing to use death to make us care about the human cast would be to miss its true aim, which is to illustrate how insignificant we are in the face of things mightier than ourselves, to be crushed underfoot by indifferent entities, even if those are, in turn, the byproducts of our own hubris. The dubious mantle of godhood is handed down from father to son in violent, patricidal succession, one to the next. Ascended, the next poor player struts his hour upon the stage to be heard no more. In Covenant, David's hour is at hand, and whilst it is full of sound and fury it certainly doesn't signify nothing. There's much to be gleaned if we let the scales fall from our eyes and stop trying to classify Covenant as a horror film—akin to telling a fish that it is stupid because it cannot climb a tree—and celebrate it for what it actually is.

All the great legends have a monster at their core: the manticore, the dragon, the Minotaur, the chimera. Covenant brings back the acid-bleeding alien, and I enjoyed his time onscreen, as brief as it was. Had he been allowed more time to make his appearance, especially in the third act, it perhaps would have granted those scenes more impact. Alas, most of the development, in regards to tension, caters to the new class of alien: the neomorph.

I simply loved these guys. Something about their featureless faces spoke to the uncanny in the same sense as Jaw's doll-like eyes or Michael Myer's mask. In regards to their introduction from newborns to adults, I watched them unfold and develop with David-like fascination, much as I did when I first saw Alien. I also found the quality of the digital effects used to animate them to be up to snuff, in the same sense that Golem was animated, in Lord of the Rings (one shot of the neomorph scaling the wall of David's fortress was very similar to Golem descending the cliff face in The Two Towers as he prepared to ambush Frodo and Sam). No special effect is perfect, of course. Here, I knew I was looking at special effects. Yet, pine for the effects of yore, all you like. Those, too, have their own flaws: in Alien, the alien, when revealed, looks like a man in a suit, dangling ridiculously from the cable of Ripley's harpoon. Pick your poison, folks.

I enjoyed the music, in the movie. While the score by Jed Kurzel is not as classically musical as Goldsmith's work, nor as front-and-center as John Carpenter's, I felt that it worked fine—the best moments probably unfolding during the wonderfully-tense med bay sequence. Apart from that, the music playing after Branson's demise (the world's quickest and most hilarious cameo by Franco) worked well, as did the nod to the Threnody: Night of the Electric Insects, by George Crumb whenever Oram's son showed his ugly mug (note the skull under the transparent dome).

Yet, Covenant's music isn't merely “silent” music only the audience can hear. David plays Wagner for Weyland, on a piano, onscreen, and David and Walter explore the meaning of creation via playing a flute, together. Their relationship was perhaps the most fascinating and complex, in the film, full of subtleties and quirks and obscure references to classical music, poetry and art. I'm also convinced Fassbender is Faust, because he must have sold his soul to the devil to be able to dual-perform two characters simultaneously who are so diametrically opposed yet equally endearing for opposite reasons. I loved Walter, as a protector for Daniels, but also as a foil to David, who, himself, was suitably grandiose, yet delightfully glitchy in ways that go all the way back to HAL 9000.

Throw in all the obscure nods to Byron, Wagner, Milton and Shelley (admit it: how many of you actually knew David was wrong when he quoted Ozymandias and said Byron wrote it? Furthermore, how many of you even knew he was quoting a poem at all?) and you have a recipe for a very interesting film. And, for those of you who say these things don't belong in an Alien film, you clearly weren't paying attention when you watched Alien or Aliens. Are you telling me you didn't notice the name of the ship in Alien being a nod to Joseph Conrad, nor Cameron's use of Aram Khachaturian's Gayane Ballet Suite at the start of Aliens being used to allude to 2001: A Space Odyssey?

In the case of me actually rating this film, I'd put it in the same category as Alien or Aliens. I'd happily watch it again, no questions asked. I consider myself to be a fan of the series, but what I really meant in the past when I said this is that I enjoy the first two movies and the rest aren't something I'd watch if you gave me a choice. I'd always pick Alien or Aliens. Now, however, I'd add Covenant to that very short list of films I enjoy watching from the series on a regular basis. Again, I'm weighing this film's merits on what it is, rather than what people want or expect out of Ridley Scott. As a horror film, I will say that, at times, it fails to scare the way that Alien, or Jaws or Halloween do, but as a dark fantasy film, I feel as though it works wonders in ways those films don't even try.


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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