Spoilers for Alien: Covenant ahead…
The Space Station Wagon Team went out to the movies last weekend to see Alien: Covenant, and it was far better than the early reviews would lead you to believe. I had thought about letting this one slide by…but then decided against it because A; I love Alien movies, and B; I love Danny McBride.
Many people who know and love me say that I not only resemble Mr. McBride physically (similar face, hair, and body type), but that I also share a lot of mannerisms and speech patterns with the man. My girlfriend tells me that watching Eastbound & Down (the HBO comedy TV series which McBride is best known for) is like watching a show about me, but turned up to 11 all the time.
Basic Synopsis: This film takes place several years after the events of the film Prometheus…sometime in the late 21st or early 22nd century. An immense starship named the Covenant is hauling thousands of human colonists in suspended animation to settle a distant world. After a disaster damages the ship and brings some of the command crew out of deep freeze to deal with the situation, they detect a mysterious transmission from out of deep space… (sound familiar?)
The signal is clearly human in origin (being John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” hilariously recognized by McBride’s character) and is coming from a planet that appears ideal for colonization, so the crew decides to change course to investigate and possibly settle there. Taking absolutely no bio-hazard precautions, they land on the surface and start getting sick (violent monster eruptions from the torso region). The landing party is rescued by the android David (Michael Fassbender), whom we last saw heading into deep space with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) at the end of Prometheus. The Covenant crew includes an android of the same series named Walter (also Fassbender, natch), who is physically identical to David, but is a later model with the creepiness and megalomania left out.
David lives in the ruins of a city near the expedition landing site, and seems to have some kind of affinity with the nightmare creatures stalking the landing party. The Covenant crew learns that David was responsible for the depopulation of the planet, all the people there violently died spawning Aliens after he released the viral goop from Prometheus on the city (the inhabitants were humanoid descendants of the Engineers/Space Jockeys). The handsome android has been experimenting with the results ever since, seeking to create a new, “perfect” form of life. Once he gets his hands on the right materials (the Covenant’s crew) he succeeds, and produces the classic Alien Alien by the film’s end.
Overall the movie is very enjoyable and manages to break new ground; the bucolic landscape of David’s World is a change from the starships and sealed colony environments of the original Alien movies or the cyclopean structures in Prometheus. The Covenant starship itself has an optimistic, clean interior and is built in a simple, linear shape, versus the jagged and utilitarian Nostromo and Sulaco. The effects, world designs and costumes are cool, and I love little details like the hat brim solar panels on the crew’s exploration gear. The fishbelly white “proto-aliens” are genuinely creepy, especially when one of them stands completely still and locks “eyes” with David, knowing that the android is “prey” but also somehow understanding that he’s not “alive.” Their humanlike proportions make for a very unsettling monster, and a cool take on the classic Alien design that we’ve all been desensitized to with years of full-body shots.
Morally bankrupt mega-conglomerate Weyland-Yutani is not the main “sentient” antagonist in the film, though they are mentioned having sponsored Covenant’s colonization mission. David is the main menace, and the ruins where he and his monsters dwell continue the At The Mountains of Madness vibe from the previous movie. He is also a huge poetry buff and spouts Shelley and Byron while comparing himself to Lucifer.
The movie is weakest at its end, where it relies on recalling the climaxes of the previous Alien films. To be fair, there is only so much you can do with a violent, acid-blooded Star Beast; whacking at it with robotic arms, luring it down corridors while sealing hatches behind it, and blowing it into space is the best case scenario. The characters are also all pretty forgettable aside from David, Walter, or Danny McBride’s folksy space explorer. The first three Alien movies all had great rosters of memorable characters, whether they were bleary-eyed space truckers, hard-bitten Colonial Marines, cultist prisoners, or creepy company men. I did love the David/Walter switcheroo at the end, though I spotted it immediately. Not showing the end of the Walter/David battle was a dead giveaway.
One complaint I heard from friends and early reviews of the movie was that it focuses too much on world building and answering questions no one asked. It does make one wonder…did we ever need an origin story for the Aliens?
One of the greatest things about the creatures in the Alien films was that we never got an origin story. The Nostromo crew finds them in a mysterious derelict starship; its pilot (dubbed “the Space Jockey” by members of the film’s production) has been dead so long he is fossilized in his chair. We know he wasn’t a complete asshole because he turned on a warning signal to keep other life forms away, this was what led Weyland-Yutani to divert the Nostromo off its course to investigate. The Alien novelization by Alan Dean Foster notes “they were a noble race, and I hope one day mankind meets them under better circumstances” (I’m paraphrasing here), so take that for what it’s worth (Foster also wrote the novelizations of Aliens, Alien3, and Star Wars).
Below left is a Topps Alien trading card (today I learned that Topps made Alien trading cards) depicting the Space Jockey corpse with its creator, H.R. Giger. On the right is Dark Horse Comics’ take on a living Space Jockey in their late 80s followup to Aliens…in which the individual we meet is not very nice at all:
Prior to Prometheus various theories were proposed about the Space Jockey and its relationship with the xenomorphs…was he just another hapless space traveler, transporting the deadly eggs for scientific purposes? Perhaps, as Ridley Scott espoused in the past, he was a soldier hauling the eggs on a bombing run, intending to drop them on an enemy world? Another mystery is the provenance of the xenomorphs…were they created by the Space Jockeys or a naturally occurring creature? I recall some of the Alien comics depicted a xenomorph homeworld where they evolved naturally, kept in check by other elements of the ecosystem. But their biomechanoid design echoes the look of the Jockey starship, and is a point in favor of the bugs being an engineered species.
Alien writer Dan O’Bannon had interesting concepts about the creatures, including the idea that the next phase of their life cycle after the murderous, animalistic stage we see in the movie is that of a sentient being. In his early drafts the crew of the diverted freighter found the eggs in a pyramidal structure, its interior covered with hieroglyphs depicting the aliens life cycle. O’Bannon envisioned that the beings had a complicated culture/religion built around their complex reproduction, in which the larval young would be birthed from lower life forms and then supervised by the older, sapient aliens. By the time the human travelers came along this species was long dead, but some of their eggs were left over and still viable…waiting for a warm body to come close and take a look. Everyone loved this idea but there just wasn’t the running time/budget for it, and so they went with The Derelict instead.
Dig some concept illustrations of the Alien egg pyramid by Ron Cobb (who also churned out a lot of amazing designs for Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian):
My main beef is not only do Prometheus and Alien: Covenant take a lot of the mystery out of the Alien species, but that they tie humanity’s origin in with them and the Space Jockeys (or Engineers, as they are referred to in these movies). I’ve always preferred the idea that both the Aliens and the Jockeys were completely from out of the black, with no relation to humankind. They are perhaps leftovers from an earlier, more horrible age of the universe, separated from the epoch of man’s existence by vast gulfs of time and space…and might have never been encountered by humans if not for sheer dumb luck. The idea that there are things in the cosmos that are dangerous to humans not out of malice, but because they are so different from and indifferent to us…that is true horror, and why Alien and its monster have always resonated with me.
That said, Covenant’s tale of David designing the perfect monster on his desert isle in space is entertaining, and it was so much better than Prometheus. I liked Prometheus a lot at first; I saw it at the Cinerama Dome in LA with my friends on a really fun vacation, plus it was balls out, spaceship & monsters science fiction in a time when there was a shortage of that on TV and in the movies. But a few years later I saw the film in bits and pieces over and over again; it played constantly on a movie channel my parents had while I was living at home with them for a bit. I realized it was kind of a dumb movie…it was talky, it was aware of its brilliance, and everything was explained at length and in such a “scifi” way, whereas the dialogue in Alien was so sparse and naturalistic (Rapace, Elba and Fassbender give excellent performances though) .
Prometheus didn’t seem like it knew what it wanted to do, but it was definitely different enough that it could have been its own self contained story. Maybe it would have been better that way? But they do offer up interesting ideas; and as my good friend opines, they seem like the movie equivalent of 90s Dark Horse Alien comics. Just fun space stories with your favorite space monsters, take ’em or leave ’em. Sometimes they fight Predators, Terminators, or even Batman!
I look at it like this; I can always have my classic “universe” of the original three Alien movies…Alien: Resurrection is very entertaining and features Ron Perlman, but it does not make the cut (and I’ve always hated the term “Quadrilogy”…ick-sauce). Then I can also enjoy one with slightly wider boundaries encompassing these newer films…and then yet another including Dark Horse’s Alien comics. I always held out hope for some kind of Star Wars/Aliens crossover, but the time for that was probably when Dark Horse held both comics licenses.
Alien: Covenant gets…uh…a solid “B” from Space Station Wagon. I haven’t come up with some kind of clever, spacey rating system yet-just be glad that this review didn’t take me until November…of the year 2122 (I still need to post my thoughts on The Force Awakens and Rogue One one of these days).
Stay safe from Star Beasts, Wagoners, and if you hear some John Denver in a transmission from an unknown star system…just stay on course.