Much has already been said about Alien: Covenant. Fassbender kills it, nails it and knocks it out of the park all in one, McBride is excellent, the visuals are gorgeous, the aliens are back but feel jotted into the mix more to appease fans than because they belong in the story, the pacing is a little off, there is very little of the suspense that made Alien a classic, and so on. Personally, I love it to such a degree that I almost feel like talking about it would spoil all the fun. On the other hand, it’s hard to miss the opportunity to fangirl all over a new Alien movie!
I don’t love everything about Covenant, but I love that, in its dark, twisted little heart, it is, finally, a new Alien movie. That’s what I and every other fan of the franchise had hoped Prometheus to be. Though an engaging sci-fi film in its own right, Prometheus didn’t quite deliver on our hopes, hovering with frustrating indecision between big ideas about creation and marginal hints at the Alien franchise. Covenant is a much better focused film and manages to blend these two very different beasts into something that feels coherent, even if potentially disappointing for those of us who keep a soft spot in our hearts for the most badass alien creatures ever to grace our TV screens, big and small. Points of criticism aside, Covenant has enough of Alien in it to have many of us, myself included, sit back and just enjoy the ride. The thing is, Alien was never about who created us and about the quest for the meaning of life, although it surely made its characters appreciate life by posing the ultimate threat to it. Alien too was a layered story, but it only showed its deeper symbolism of sexual aggression and of the trauma of birth, without telling it in actual dialogue. Alien was primarily about survival and about prevailing in spite of fear. Covenant provides its characters with enough opportunity to face their fears for it to be satisfying.
What Covenant doesn’t have enough of is the suspense that made Alien a classic, but I don’t think it hurts the movie as much as some reviewers have suggested. Covenant has something else: it makes you feel traumatised while watching it, and that’s a pretty big achievement in itself. It even finds a new and terrifying way to birth a monster. Granted, it’s not as shocking as the iconic chestburster scene in Alien, but nothing will ever be. Still, the scene where the Neomorph bursts from poor Ledward’s back comes pretty close. What makes it effective is not just the violence and the gore. It’s the way it builds up, it’s the way the characters react and a big part of it is the music. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a score quite like the piece playing throughout this scene. The crescendo of that pulse-like beat gets your heart going even if you’re not easily scared and manages to draw you into the horror that the characters are experiencing and to make you feel it in your gut. It helps that the events the music is set to are equally punchy in their pacing. Things go from quiet to possibly alarming, to literal hell breaking loose so fast that neither the characters nor the audience has time to think. We only have time to react. I feel that this is when Covenant comes closest to Alien and it remains one of my favourite scenes in the movie. Just like Prometheus, Covenant features professional people making some really stupid choices, but what happens here is so real. Professional or not, no one would want to be stuck in a room with a vicious alien baby, and so Karine’s desperate plea to be let out of the Med Bay in spite of obvious quarantine procedures makes complete sense. So does Faris’s impossibility to comply with that request. Yet, that is the last reasonable thing that Faris does, and that also makes complete sense. Her husband, the charismatic Tennessee, tells her to calm down when she reports what’s happened. Her reaction is exactly the reaction any one of us would have in her place: “Don’t tell me to calm down! You haven’t seen what I’ve seen!” She then tries to kill the alien and blows up the lander in the process, but can we really blame her? It’s easy to say, oh, she’s a professional space pilot, she should keep her head even when faced with something more horrific than she could have ever imagined. She should be trained for that. Some things you just can’t train for, and some things are just too much to handle. Kudoz to Covenant for recognising that.
Speaking of the music of Covenant, Jed Kurzel’s soundtrack is brilliant in its mix of new tension-building sounds, grand harmonies and emotional undertones with the main theme of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien. The opening credits with the title of the film fading into view and the classic Alien music are true eye and ear candy for the fans. Surprisingly enough, though, the music of Covenant reminded me of Star Trek in the first part of the film when we see the ship travelling through space or approaching Paradise, and most of all while the power recharge sails are being repaired. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising considering the fact that Jerry Goldsmith also composed for Star Trek, but it gave this film an extra layer that we haven’t really seen in the franchise before. It brought in a slight whiff of wonder for space exploration and for the beauty that can lie there in a franchise that has so far given us a horrific image of space. That image is still very present in Alien: Covenant, but getting a glimpse of the other side of things, of why people venture out into space at all, beyond having to do their jobs, is nice and it adds to the tragedy that unfolds not much later in the film.
In terms of characters, Covenant does pretty well, and there are two in particular that I want to talk about. No, it’s not David and Walter – Michael Fassbender’s double role is generous material for an essay of its own.
One of those characters is Daniels. Useless comparisons to Ripley aside, I thought she was a smartly written character. Daniels begins as someone who has seemingly nothing left to lose after her husband, the ship’s captain, dies in the neutrino burst incident. With him dies her dream to start a new life on the new planet, as well as her hope that she has what it takes to do that. The conversation between her and Walter is essential in establishing her character. She mentions that it had been her husband’s dream to build a real wood cabin on a lake on the new world they are travelling to and that the ship’s hold contains all the wood and nails it would take to do that, things she has no idea what to do with. She wonders why even bother taking the journey now. Walter’s response is meant to encourage her: because she promised to build a cabin on the lake. But this is not the strongest incentive that Daniels gets. The real push back to life is facing her own destruction in the form of the alien creatures. This encounter with death personified makes Daniels remember very quickly why her life is worth living, and it’s one of the reasons why the Xenomorphs are such an effective presence. They represent that thin and twisted line where we only really appreciate life when faced with death.
Another character worth discussing is Captain Oram, played with impressive conviction by Billy Crudup, and sharing an interesting dynamic with Daniels. Oram is the exponent of a concept that occupied much of Prometheus’s script – faith. Oram is a man of faith and he feels that he has not been given a command because his beliefs make him appear unreliable to his superiors. Once he becomes captain due to circumstances, it is his faith that pushes him to abandon the initial plan and take a detour to the new planet in hope of making a home there instead of Origae-6, which is still 7 years away. But is it really faith? Could it not also be his wish to prove that he can be a good captain by following what he believes to be the path laid before him? Is he really doing this because he truly believes in this choice? Or is he doing it to satisfy his own idea of leadership, perhaps to fulfil his obvious wish of being a leader, a wish that had been denied to him all along? On the other hand, Daniels is wary of following the path as it unfolds and thinks they should stick to the initial plan of taking the long journey to Origae-6 because it is simply the safest choice, not just for the crew, but for the 2000 colonists in their care. It may appear upon first look that Daniels has lost her will to live and take risks because she has lost her husband, and her grief is making her close herself off to apparent hope. But is it just the bleak scepticism of the recently widowed? Can it not be that she is simply the more rational one of this duo and that she prefers to approach new alien planets with caution rather than faith? The greatest thing about this difference of opinion, however, is that it doesn’t evolve into either a shouting match, or into an overbaked debate over faith vs. scepticism. Later, when the planet that looks like it could be paradise turns out to be hell, Oram admits to Daniels that she had been right and that they should never have gone there. She doesn’t scream at him, nor does she give him an “I told you so” lecture. Because, really, what good would that do in the kind of monumental trouble that they are in? She recognises that this is truly the moment to follow the path as it unfolds before her because it is no longer a choice. Bill Paxton’s Hudson would have said “Game over, man! Gave over!” in Aliens. But is it game over? No, the game is really on now, the survival game, that is. This is a point where you have to play and you have to survive. That’s what Daniels recognises, to her credit, when she tells Oram that he’s a good captain and that they need his faith. Perhaps it is still faith that eventually leads Oram to his doom when he looks into the alien egg and gets face-hugged, but this moment between him and Daniels shows maturity on the part of both characters and presents faith as what it is for many – a supreme form of hope.
Since no Alien movie and no review of an Alien movie can be complete without mentioning the aliens, let’s talk a little bit about them. One of the main points of contention with Covenant is that by making David into the creator of the Xenomorphs, it takes away the mystery and threat that they pose. They are no longer a primordial unknown enemy. They are, in a way, our own creation, thus not so alien after all. While this is a valid point, it occurs to me that it’s actually pretty legitimate if we are to interpret the Xenomorph as a kind of psychological demon, a symbolic representation of the dark side of our minds, unruled by reason or by any moral constructs that our society is built around. This shadowy, violent creature can be an appropriate image for what Freud called the id, that place in our minds that is “unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”, to use Ash’s ode to the Xenomorph in the original Alien. Personally, I would have liked the Xenomorphs to be a little more than tools in David’s sandbox, but at least we got to see some glorious shots of them, and that’s always a good thing.
Ultimately, I love Covenant because it leaves me at a loss for the right words to say why I love it exactly. I tried to give valid reasons in this essay, but I have not even scratched the surface of why this film moves me on that deep level where emotions lie, things that are impossible to express, things that are simply there. When I started writing this essay, I feared that trying to explain why I love Covenant would kill its magic, but I stand corrected, and relieved. Alien magic is pretty hard to kill, after all, and this latest addition to the franchise has just brought it back from the dead.
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.