Once Ridley Scott again took over the reins of the Alien franchise, its humans got a whole lot dumber. Prometheus brought a crew to a foreboding planet only to have them immediately dispense of their safety helmets and fuck around with unknown, potentially harmful lifeforms, to say the least of it. But while Prometheus was a space horror rumination on man’s hubris, its many threads and evasions kept its ideas from congealing into a cohesive whole. It was about our ludicrousness while being fully ludicrous itself.
Alien: Covenant however sticks the thematic landing that its predecessor did not. Rest assured, these space colonists act just as stupidly – which will certainly frustrate many – but this film is more focused in its presentation of humanity not worth saving, a link in the evolutionary chain that’s met its end date.
The film’s crew awakens on the titular ship Covenant in a crash, carrying a few thousands colonists and suffering losses immediately. Comprised of several couples, they are also quickly of several minds over examining a nearby distress call on an uncharted planet. With android Walter (Michael Fassbender, an updated, less emotional model of Prometheus’s David), their curiosity is met with swift punishment. But they find an even more unpredictable force – David.
Covenant’s internal logic works better because it is mostly funneled through a more singular nihilist thread. This film proposes that we will always act against our own interests, even if it means saving another. But when its crew doesn’t risk their own hide, the still meet the same grim fate. Rational action hardly matters. If the film still isn’t bold enough to go full Hieronymus Bosch in its chaos, it sure is pointed.
Despite its thematic cruelty, there’s an almost reserved distance in Covenant’s particular brand of crazy. It’s divergences are more flirtations than plot threads, like the religiousness of its reluctant captain Oram (Billy Crudup), its use of marriage, and a lower register kinkiness. The film is more elusive in its battiness, a deliberate attempt to be more composed this time. That reserve is effective, but lacking a few highs.
The moroseness invades throughout in a mostly murky visual experience. It is without a doubt the least memorable Alien film to look at, Scott’s ambitions not bare on the screen for once. Similarly its impressive cast is lost in in sluggishly drawn characters, particularly its uninvolving heroine Daniels (played by the always emotionally present Katherine Waterston). That is, except for Michael Fassbender’s serpentine dual work.
David also serves as the films returning device on which to hang its themes, but the film provides a clearer sense of who David is. Walter is meant to be less human because of his lack of emotions, but David’s ability to manipulate him shows that there is more to humans than our ability to feel. Walter is to David as humans are to the gods. We are curious, we submit, we worship.
Covenant continues to try to build on franchise mythos, though it has somewhat more closure this time around. But while the series will continue to be defined by its more singular works, Covenant has enough to subvert the current summer movie season to make for a wild trip.