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A Second Look: My Alien: Covenant Re-Review

After several months, following the theatrical release of Alien: Covenant, the film is now available on disc. I wanted to provide an updated review of the film, now that I've had some time to watch it and process what I've seen multiple times. Below is the written review, in it's entirety:


I was watching Alien: Covenant recently and noticed something curious—that is, the rigging arrangement for the ship, the Covenant, didn't feel particularly practical to me, given how the sail, arranged in the manner that it was, absorbed the full brunt of the oncoming solar emission.
Initially I wanted to place all the blame on the sail design, itself, given that its arrangement made the collision much more damaging that it would have been otherwise. However, the blame lies as much in the direction the solar storm was emanating from. Had it come from directly above or below the ship, I feel as though the sail, in and of itself, would have had little or no impact on the results of said collision. This isn't to say that the outcome would have been benign, but rather that the sail wouldn't have been a factor in it—at least not as much as it did, the way it was presented onscreen, which, as far as I'm concerned, was essentially a worst-case scenario.

Instead of having a sail like that of a traditional seafaring vessel found on Earth, with the mast protruding from the body of the ship, the Covenant is instead fashioned in an “arrow” configuration: the sail, itself, literally spearheads the craft as it pushes into the void. Given the direction from which the wind blew in, had the head of this arrow been spherical or conic, the arrow would have cut through or bypassed the force of the storm winds entirely rather than absorbing them in such a way as to wreak havoc on the body of the Covenant and everything inside.

Unfortunately this solution is only successful if the wind comes in from the front of the ship. On Earth, sailors would be able to predict with some certainty which direction the wind would come from—at the very least, not from above or below nor any other direction the wind typically is not known to blow from. In space, however, the Covenant would be surrounded by stars, thus susceptible to an encounter with bad “weather” from all directions—weather that is effectively impossible to detect until it is too late.

Solar wind, however, in actual science, isn't actually wind. Wind, on Earth, is composed of small, microscopic particles of actual, solid matter (think dust, but smaller): atmosphere. In space, there is no atmosphere. It's merely a vacuum, and solar wind isn't actually composed of atmospheric particles capable of physically interacting with an object like the Covenant. Rather, solar wind is composed primarily of subatomic particles that, unlike real wind, are impossible to detect without proper scientific equipment. They certainly wouldn't be able to interact with the ship's sails the way that wind would; instead, they would pass harmlessly through the sails. That isn't to say that solar wind isn't a threat, and safeguards would certainly need to be taken in order to protect sensitive electronic equipment or crew members from these particle bursts. However, the particles, themselves, simply wouldn't have enough mass to blow the ship around.

On the other hand, if the ship were to encounter a supernova, where in the outer layer of a red giant or super-giant star blows off, this could potentially have an altogether different effect, given the force of the rapidly expanding gas. But at the same time there would be a great deal of force, heat and radiation traveling with the expanding nebula, and in all likelihood the Covenant would be melted from the heat, pummeled with radiation, or smashed into utter oblivion during its interaction with these titanic cosmic forces.

The fact of the matter is, however, there is no wind. Space is largely empty. Therefore, the function of the wind in Alien: Covenant is serve as a storytelling device. It is symbolic in nature, and so is the ship, itself. Consider that all of the ships in Scott's universe slowly sail through space. Ofttimes, they even spiral or drift, coasting on uneven flight paths. Their structures defy conventional design ideas. In Alien, the Nostromo was basically a floating castle or haunted house.

In Alien: Covenant, the titular craft symbolizes a ship on the tempestuous interstellar ocean. It might not make sense, scientifically but in Scott's own words, “It's a movie” and movies contain metaphors and writing tropes. Earlier, I compared the Covenant, itself, to an arrow. How, then, like an archer, Scott knocks and looses his second shot:

In my school-days, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way with more advised watch,
To find the other forth...

Speaking of ships and arrows, this trend of odd spacecraft isn't uncommon in the series, at large. For instance, in Aliens, the Sulaco is a giant gun, sliding through outer space at a snail's pace. The Juggernaut, which is seen in many of the films, wields a shape so odd that it's easy to be confused about what it actually is. Could it anywhere, on earth or in space, even really fly?

The problem with the series is that it is often categorized as science fiction. However, very little, if anything about the series actually is scientific. Science, in Alien, is provided by Ash, he being effectively the salt and pepper “science” that is sprinkled on an otherwise Gothic horror steak. Science is not the focus of the film, illustrated by Ash, himself, deviating radically away from science and veering madly into worship of the mysterious beast he initially encounters and studies.

In Alien: Covenant, the focus of the film is storytelling through symbolic imagery complete with a similar coat of science fiction paint. Yet, virtually none of the complaints leveled at the film that I've heard actually address the curious design of the Covenant, itself, nor the impossible presence of the so-called wind in space. Instead, the film's detractors focus on the decisions of the human characters, often obsessing about scientific procedure in a series that by and large dispenses with such pleasantries in the face of repetitive grave catastrophes.

There's an odd paradox, here: the desire of critics to have scientists that follow protocol to the letter, while simultaneously ignoring those who don't. The obsessions of the audience blind them to the reality of what they're observing, which isn't scientific in the slightest, and never was. The Covenant sail's design “flaw” easily demonstrates this and yet no one mentions it. Nor do they perceive the symbolic quality to Scott's latest space adventure being the common ground shared with earlier films these aforementioned critics would have happily showered with accolades. Instead, they merely gravitate towards the human characters, onscreen, and their perplexing behavior as events unfold, failing to realize that it has always been perplexing (with only mild doses of intelligence amid all the stupidity).

I've noticed time and time again how a strong desire exists for these characters to behave in a manner that really isn't par for the course, in the series, as a whole. Covenant's detractors wish for these space persons to behave in an intelligent, scientific fashion, yet throughout the franchise, virtually no one is like this. In Alien, Kane barrels into the unknown, effectively going to his doom; so, too, do the marines, in Aliens, who ignore Ripley as completely as Dallas did, dropping like a corpse pushed into a grave—in this case the planet. Same planet, same tropes, yet both films are classics, and for reasons that have nothing to do with intelligent behavior or scientific accuracy. But this is the first thing I hear out of peoples' mouths in regards to Covenant not being a classic: the people are stupid.

Is Covenant perfect? No, it's not, but it largely consists of the same material that composed its forebears: symbolic imagery and theatrical activity with performers guided and molded by stock tropes, horror or otherwise. Separate from all this, classic status is a byproduct of audience interactivity with a film over time. It's not something that can be determined immediately after a film is initially released, solely by commenting on its similarity to or lack thereof with a fan-favorite entry in a particular franchise.

People's failure to acknowledge certain scientific flaws staring them in the face—while at the same time failing to recognize these as symbols paramount to the series, at large—make me question their ability to actually grasp what the Alien franchise is all about. It's not about scientific accuracy even though it asks questions about where science may be headed. It's not strictly about intelligent decisions, either. Yes, clever characters exist, but largely serve as foils to nothing more than a fat herd of dotards for the wolves to thin. In Aliens, you had supporting characters, like Bishop or Hicks. In Covenant, you have Walter or Tennessee. Yet, in both cases, these are people hopelessly outnumbered by morons.

Covenant isn't Alien, in the same sense that Aliens isn't. It contains many parallels with the former, but like Cameron's sequel, feels largely like its own thing. In Alien, Ash is in the periphery as he nurses a secret admiration for the monster he protects from the humans who dominate most of the film's screen time. In Covenant, the focus isn't really on the human characters at all. Red herrings crop up here and there, with Scott portraying a widow in grief or a newly-promoted captain with baggage. But the scenes fly by and suddenly the film's focus, and our attention, is on David, the real star of the show. We don't care about the human characters, because we're not supposed to, any more than we're supposed to care about Brett, or Frost, dying in their respective films.

In Covenant, we're presented with Oram or Daniels' emotions and their predicaments, but the scenes are short and quick, as Covenant races to establish the fodder before simultaneously brushing it aside. The only constant throughout the entire series is Ripley and even she, in the first film, was a complete unknown, demonstrating her own gripes that are established and ignored. With these prequels, Scott is establishing an interesting alter ego to the former classic heroine: David.

After all, in Prometheus, we, the jaded and cynical audience, were quick to recognize the heroic race being held between Shaw and Vickers. Yet, the deeds of each seemed almost vacuous or paltry in light of the android, David, a far more interesting character. It's classic sleight-of-hand, with Scott innocently presenting us with the same old tropes, and then capitalizing on their failure to manifest, subverting our expectations in favor of a far more interesting payoff, that of David's muted triumph, quietly deceiving Shaw, who may as well have been us, choosing to believe that David is good.
In Alien, the game being played was “Guess the Hero,” with characters being killed off one at a time until only Ripley remained. In Covenant, the gag persists, yet the last person standing isn't Daniels; she's lying on her back, effectively trapped in a coffin as David resides over her, grinning from ear to ear. Rather than muted, as it was in Prometheus, now his victory thunders, as loud and clear as Wagner's Das Reingold echoing throughout Covenant's empty halls. At this stage, we can no longer afford the luxury of ignorance.

Yet, to those having paid attention the entire time, what fails to actually be a surprise transforms into a celebration of the same old race having concluded with David its victor. The fact that he is the villain is a nod to what could have been what now is: the villain takes the heroes spot, much in the way Scott wanted it to in Alien, with the alien killing Ripley and using her voice. Now, we have David, quietly tucking Daniels away for later use, before using the voice of the slain, heroic Walter to dupe his former masters.

The films have a lot in common, and yet those chanting “Alien!” the loudest are unable to recognize the patterns, instead excoriating Covenant for its weak or disposable human cast, yet applauding Alien or Aliens for the same reasons. They could attack Covenant for not being paced nor edited in the same fashion as Alien, but does it need to be if Gothic horror isn't what Covenant wants to be, in the first place? Cameron had a clear idea about what kind of film he wanted Aliens to be and made it accordingly. Likewise, Covenant is a film interested in ideas largely unexplored in Alien: origins, and androids. These ideas are brought to life by Scott, in how he puts the film together using the same pieces all the Alien films do.

The ingredients are the same but the results vary and not for the worse. Again, merely being different from an established classic is not enough for me to condemn something outright. Despite parallels betwixt them, Covenant is not Alien, nor is Alien, Aliens. Each is its own film, and while some entries in the franchise suffer from a lack of solid writing or a competent eye behind the camera, I think Covenant is not one of them. Its merely has its own agenda, emulating styles and ideas previously unexplored, or telling the same story from a different perspective.

Some may reject these ideas and condemn them as anathema, in the Alien universe, but they'd be playing right into Scott's hands by doing so, adopting the role he expects out of us all. In Covenant, when asked by Oram what he believes in, David replies, “Creation.” In the process, some rejected or demonized his works; yet, as audience members we stare at these obscenities, oddly transfixed by their repellent beauty in an act of involuntary hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Scott, like his android counterpart, carries on, putting his own spin on the same old thing—a thing he, himself, helped establish four decades prior.  

Check out my two interview series: "Hell-blazers," and my Alien: Ore" Q & A Project.

My favorite blog posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?Mandy (2018): ReviewGothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.

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