It’s been fascinating watching the slow descent of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in the years since its 2012 release. It received a warm (if not entirely overwhelming) critical reaction, but has been beaten down for its plotting and character development despite a grand visual style and strong suspense set pieces. Most thought it unnecessary to delve into the origins of the xenomorph, a threat that benefits from the mystique that comes from it being so unexplained. It is the perfect killing machine. We don’t need to know why. And yes, that may be true in some sense, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in exploring it.
Make no mistake, Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus, as is evident by its opening scene, a discussion between android David (Michael Fassbender) and his inventor, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). They discuss creation and creators, setting the stage for another film to wade into the murk of what caused the origin of the xenomorphs that terrorized the screen since Scott helped bring them to life in 1979. As is so often the case with Alien films, this one too involves a crew of space-farers, here a combination of military personnel and colonists traveling to what hopes to be a new home. Led by new captain Oram (Billy Crudup), officer and Ripley-in-training Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and requisite android Walter (Fassbender, playing a dual role), their hopes prove short lived, as the fauna of this world is aggressive in its parasitic desire to use its fleshy new interlopers as hosts, but the would-be colonists are saved by a manic, shaggy-haired David. He invites them into the citadel he has converted into a stronghold, but all might not be as safe within its confines as one might hope.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to Alien: Covenant. Another exploitation of the rapidly expanding mythology of the franchise, Covenant seems to do little to assuage the decriers of Scott’s last return to the franchise that helped make his name. Sure, it’s got a Ripley figure like it always does (Waterston’s character takes a while to get going, but she does get going in a satisfying way eventually) and Danny McBride seems to relish getting into Harry Dean Stanton mode. And there’s more characters doing seemingly illogical things, touching all sorts of stuff they shouldn’t, their curiosity rewarded like so many cats before them. It is almost certainly more self-serious than Prometheus, but in a decidedly knowing way, gleefully jumping off the deep end when the crew of the Covenant discovers just what David has been doing for the decade since his ship crashed onto the surface of this curiously Earth-like planet. Fassbender is the key to all of it, embracing his dual role with relish as he plays off himself, his two characters born of the same DNA but arriving at far different destinations. He was the highlight of Prometheus and remains the highlight here, but for an entirely different reason as he trades in the preternatural T.E. Lawrence-inspired calm for a committed mania that makes him more of a threat than any one alien could ever become. He contrasts himself with aplomb, setting up Walter as an evolved version of David, his personality proving to be a detriment and stripped from his newer model. His evolution removes his humanity, but makes him more in control of himself. Of course, evolution can take many forms, and who is the more enlightened between David and Walter proves to be a constant struggle.
That struggle being a more idealistic one confirms Alien: Covenant’s continued shift away from the core expectations of the series. Alien films are so often cold and metallic; dead worlds and dead ships, barren wastelands and claustrophobic corridors, so it can’t help but feel a little exciting when the Covenant touches down on a lush world full of forests and marshlands. It’s a minor shift in ethos for the series, but one that points to Scott’s willingness to continue to innovate the Alien franchise. Some might (and certainly will) quibble at the continued movement away from the core mechanics of what makes an Alien movie an Alien movie (this is far more of a Prometheus film than an Alien film, though it more directly bridges the gap between the two), but the change in scenery seems fresh and exciting. And in keeping with its Prometheus leanings, this is once again a movie about creation and creators, about humans and androids that see themselves as gods writ large, as something beyond their peers. The aliens then become not just perfectly evolved killing machines, not just this terrifying ‘other,’ but as the physical manifestation of the folly of David and Peter Weyland and the Engineers and anyone else foolish enough to think they can bring evolution to heel.
Alien: Covenant had to be named how it was due to Prometheus’ negative reputation in the pop culture sphere, but it likely would have been better served doubling down on its roots, especially considering how much of a clear sequel it is to that film, both in plot and spirit. Many will point to another film full of illogical decision-making and barely-there characterization. And when it becomes a proper Alien movie, there’s an undeniable camp to the mayhem. Scott slyly plays with some horror tropes among the mayhem without conceding its suspenseful edge. Alien: Covenant has style for days, the slickness of Scott’s decades of steady directorial work. He’s clearly shooting for something different here, a grander story that, sure, is an origin story of the xenomorphs, but it’s not just an origin story of the xenomorphs, and both this film and Prometheus’ desire to go somewhere bigger within that scope makes them profoundly fascinating even if the execution isn’t always there. It’s likely both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant will be considered ugly stepchildren of the Alien franchise, but to do so would be to diminish their ambition. And it’s that ambition that makes Alien: Covenant so interesting, warts and all.