One of the angriest films to hit theatres in recent memory, Alien: Covenant—Ridley Scott’s prequel-sequel to his sci-fi horror masterpiece Alien—is a deeply troubling work of schlock philosophizing and nihilistic terror. That anger ostensibly stemming from the polarizing reception to Prometheus, Scott’s bold (if a little misguided) attempt at transforming a beloved genre classic into an outlet for his own pretentious musings on the act of creation, an area in which Scott posits that the personal, scientific, mythic and divine all coalesce. Looking back now, it’s easier to accept Prometheus as its own contained space story of human optimism being hilariously crushed by God’s random cruelty, but at the time, and even now, many were hugely disappointed it wasn’t an “Alien movie”. Whatever that means.
Insert Alien: Covenant, which is still a sequel to Prometheus, indicated by the central inclusion of David (Michael Fassbender, almost single-handedly carrying the film), the Prometheus’ on-board android whose own creation has spawned serious daddy issues and existentialism, but here the continuation of David’s journey to find the meaning of life has been stitched into the fabric of Scott’s original Alien in fascinating ways. Covenant wears the original Alien like a horrifying skin suit, adopting its structure (stop answering distress calls!) and its iconography (Xeno is back baby!), but eliminating any hint of humanity. A deliberate choice has been made here to up the despair and cruelty to near-parody. It kind of rules.Each Alien movie in its own way has been a descent into hell, but Covenant literalizes that descent in disturbing ways. The new planet has a muted eeriness to it; it’s similar to Earth but lifeless and inhuman. A brief flashback to how it got that way, the Xenomorph playing the role of Mount Vesuvius, is a highlight. Another highlight is David’s home on this planet, a mythic mad science lab that is easily among the best production design we’ll see in 2017. But it’s in these moments that Covenant resembles Prometheus, carefully ruminating actions and their results (in hopes of finding meaning) in careful, wide compositions, it’s where the film differs that things get even more interesting.
As of this point I have yet to mention a human character and that’s because there are none. Solid performers like Kathrine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride do their best but each and every one of them is a hollow archetype going through the motions of an “Alien movie” and being punished for it. He even makes them all couples just so he can kill their partners. Again, near-parody, it’s as if Scott is saying “here’s what you wanted.” As a result you’ll likely know every beat of this movie before they come, you’ve seen them before, Scott has seen them before, so he asks you instead to watch as characters repeat the same mistakes over and over, be violated and mutilated over and over. The confusion and carnage is doubled (the amount of gushing blood is genuinely absurd), Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s lens is tighter and crueler (an early death that’s meant to be tragic is instead hilarious, and a later one lingers and cuts back to the same horrific image not twice, but three times), but the only tragedy is in the repetition, the familiarity, the knowing.Scott knows this, you can almost feel the disdain for his own formula—even the Xenomorph feels tacked on. The only trace of empathy to be found here is for David’s yearning for purpose and meaning, and David’s creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, returning for a brief prologue). I imagine Scott feels a connection to a man who created a beautiful, perfect thing, and watched it take on a life of its own. At one point in Covenant David even reflects on the pointlessness of humanity, his evidence: the design flaws and failed missions we’ve seen in the Alien franchise thus far. Scott doesn’t even try to make a counter-argument. Humanity is over with. Alien ate man… Android has inherited the Earth. For better or worse, we’re headed down this road—Scott’s just asking us to buckle up.