A covenant is an agreement that can be made between a nation or people. In the context of the new film from Ridley Scott, it’s the name of the colony ship bound for a distant planet to repopulate and start a new life for humankind in the cosmos. The original Alien film was many things. Crucially, it was a narrative of feeble human choices resulting in the unveiling of a creature that acidly twisted the knife into the very notions of morality and compassion and replaced it with a savage survival instinct. This was demonstrated by way of a terrifying life cycle, that felt in equal parts- biologically credible and sexually transgressive. The aptly named Covenant continues this tradition of the horrific entangled web of events being spun by problematic judgements.
A reluctantly stern captain of faith impulsively responds to a human distress call and brashly thinks the sourced planet to be much more habitable for the two thousand colonists than a rigorously simulated and scientifically mapped out planet further out in space. The central antagonist of the picture arrogantly proclaims he loved a woman who showed him compassion and sees fit to still experiment on her for the sole purpose of curiosity. If Alien Covenant is about anything, then it is about the delusional egotism in leadership and creation.
For a film that bestows the central creature of the accoladed horror franchise to title status again, the Xenomorphs prove to be the most problematic aspect of the picture. Essentially, there is no dimension added to the creature’s life cycle or a new manner in which we could perceive them.
In Aliens, the sheer multiplicity of their race come from an Alien Queen, and they function as a nightmarish subversion of a truism parents tell their children, encapsulated when Newt says to Ripley- “My mummy always said there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are.” In Alien 3, the lone Xenomorph has an animalistic fury as it takes on the attributes of its non-human host resulting in the tense and frenetic point of views shots in the tail end of the picture. At the same time, the creature is seen as the embodiment of divine punishment by the prisoners of Fury 161 who create a nihilistic and cruel religion to deal with their crimes. In Alien Resurrection, there is a human/Xenomorph hybrid as Ripley’s DNA is replicated and modified. Even the woeful Alien Vs Predator movies had some sense of creativity in melding both creatures into an amusingly hissing new creation complete with dreadlocks and a new set of jaws.
In Covenant, the Xenomorph have lost their majestic sense of terror that came from their ability to be simultaneously horrifying and striking in their design. Additionally, the subtext of their attacks playing on fears of rape and male pregnancy become clumsy overt text as David (Michael Fassbender) lures the unsuspecting Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) to his lair. When asked what his creations need to be successful, the android retorts in a matter of fact manner- “A Mother.”
The best sequence involving the creature is when it attacks a couple during a heightened moment of passion in a running shower cubicle. Ridley Scott’s framing is impeccable as the Alien is seen through a mirror as it violently lunges at the male partner. The aftermath is the Xenomorph looking as though it was kissing Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and a darkly comic moment as blood gushes over the female crew member in what seems like an ironic twist of climaxing. As good as the sequence is, it does represent a sobering moment for the series; as it seemingly sinks into the slasher movie genre waters that it once transcended so masterfully.
From the ashes of the Xenomorph’s mediocrity, the android David arises to become the malevolent heart of the series. In Prometheus Fassbender’s performance subverted the Pinocchio portrait of an artificially intelligent being with a seemingly aloof and obedient nature that hid ominous intentions which occasionally manifested themselves in his wry sense of humour. In Covenant, Fassbender takes David to new heights of passion and all-consuming arrogance.
However, the most striking quality that the Irish actor adds to the character is a protracted sense of wistful sadness. In many of David’s exchanges with Walter (the newer android model again played by Fassbender), he expresses his love for Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and his misery of not having her around. Even though the sentiments can be read as a ruse because he experimented on Shaw for his creations; there is still a deep-seated sense of love that went unfulfilled. (A starker reading of David’s feelings of unrequited love could be read as physical and retain the sexual subtext that the series always has at its core)
The added quality presents David with a fascinating dichotomy. In the opening sequence, the character stands before Michelangelo’s David sculpture as he chooses his name in view of his creator- Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) Through the course of his conversation, David reflects on his creator’s mortality and concludes that he will outlive his human master. In many ways, David believes he is a supremely perfect being who has far exceeded humanity yet still revels in the sentiments of man as embodied in his feelings for Shaw. This conflict of egotism and emotion has particular resonance when thinking of it in the context of the beings that David has created. The creation of Xenomorphs could represent a purging of this conflict in lieu of a pure instinct of survival.
As David, Fassbender channels Vincent Price’s pomposity and cleverly echoes Rutger Hauer’s seductively impassioned portrait of Roy Batty. Whereas, Fassbender imbues Walter with a sense of innocence and discovery that is manifested in many of the interactions he has with David. A particular noteworthy scene has Walter acknowledging the parameters of his programming after learning to play the flute. At this moment, Fassbender’s subtle facial expressions of awe, wonder and reflection are endearing to watch.
Equally as compelling is Katherine Waterston’s performance as Daniels who repurposes a particular facet of Sigourney Weaver’s performance from Alien to interesting effect. In the 1979 picture, Weaver played Ripley with an economical stillness: her physical movements had a purpose, conviction and ultimately conveyed an assuredness about her duties aboard the Nostromo.
Waterston takes this stillness to a much more empathic place. While her physicality is efficient, there is something also undeniably warm and embracing about it too. In a scene towards the end, Waterson wonderfully encapsulates all these qualities as her solemn reflection on the terrible events of the film turn into a moment of an outward affection as she hugs Tennessee; (Danny McBride) and in so doing they share the losses they have both experienced.
For all its apparent deficiencies, Ridley Scott’s sense of scale and grandiosity has not lost its cinematic potency. From the wide angled shots of the Covenant’s long corridors to the Pompeii esque scene of mass genocide, you have a mainstream horror picture of utterly deprived beauty. The grislier imagery (which admirably retains a fidelity to the work of HR Giger) such as Shaw’s mangled form rival the repellent visual concoctions of Alien Resurrection; the only picture in the franchise that makes one feel as though they want to have a shower after watching.
In essence, Covenant represents a paradigm shift for the Alien series. The creature who travels through vents and hides in the darkest corner of the ship no longer scare us. Instead, the synthetic being and his freedom to experiment while we all sleep gets the heart beating just a little bit faster.