Alien: Covenant Mistakenly Moves the Franchise Away from the Aliens as Our Biggest Threat

Ridley Scott’s follow up to Prometheus continues the story he set out to tell but perhaps not where Alien fans might like it to go. Turns out, Alien: Covenant is not about scary aliens, it’s about scary AI.

[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for Alien: Covenant to follow.]

I’ve talked about how we’re getting more and more cautionary tales about artificial intelligence, and I love that, I just didn’t think Alien: Covenant was going to be one of them.

From the original Alien director Ridley Scott, the film was written by John Logan and Dante Harper, with a story by Michael Green and Jack Paglen (Prometheus was written by written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof). If you were one of the many people (myself included) confused by Prometheus, you shouldn’t have as much trouble here because the film goes to great lengths to explain every detail to you.

Alien: Covenant isn’t so much space horror as it is slasher horror. I never watched the crossover franchise films like Alien vs. Predator because it looked like the latter. Less thoughtful thriller, more gore. It’s something that appeals to many and something I appreciate from time to time, but not quite what I think of when I think “Alien.” The main franchise has a certain kind of formula. Evil corporation, someone in charge not listening to the voice of reason, and a “company man” to insure things go wrong no matter what choices our heroes make. Alien: Covenant broke free from that and it’s why it didn’t particularly work for me.

Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley was a revelation in 1979 and has been an inspiration for many “strong female characters” over the years, so of course Katherine Waterston’s Daniels would be compared to her. She falls incredibly short. But she’s not the only one. With a bloated crew of 15, no one got the development they deserved. Except for the character the film is actually about – Michael Fassbender’s David.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying they were annoyed by the characters making bad decisions. Understandably frustrating of course, but not new to film or this franchise. It may be that it’s driven home more here because we’re meant to understand David’s motivations for genocide (Wait, what? We’ll get to that.). Regardless, their crisis decisions didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that we didn’t get to see any of them be particularly smart before shit went south.

Daniels is an expert at terraforming. Do we see her use that knowledge at all? No. Anyone else’s specialties? Nope. Everyone just…was and that felt lazy to me. Billy Crudup’s Oram is a man of faith. Because he tells us he’s a man of faith. This particular aspect could have been much more interesting and vital to the story considering the never-ending debates about science and religion and David’s creator journey. Oram’s “I’ve met the Devil” is an impactful line but comes way too late in the game. I didn’t think the character development in Prometheus was great after my first watch either but compared to Alien: Covenant at least I got a sense of what those characters were about. I got to know Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers. I knew their motivations. I cared about their journey.

There was apparently more backstory and character development for our leads in previous drafts of the script but since David, and by extension his “brother” Walter, are the focus I suppose they felt it wasn’t necessary.

So let’s talk about David. Evil androids aren’t new to the franchise. In Alien, Ian Holm’s Ash has his own agenda which did not include keeping the crew alive. Bishop flipped the script in the next film by helping them survive. This is replayed in a way in Alien: Covenant by having a new and improved model come face to face with the disturbed David and realize how far gone he actually is. A lengthy scene between the two synthetics, which tells an important story, also happens to read as erotic Fassbender fan-fiction (as if there isn’t already enough out there). Writer Harper admits to its homoerotic tone even though it’s not about that. It’s certainly an interesting scene and a good look at David’s mind (albeit, a bit too in love with its camera work) but goes awry when David utters the line “I’ll do the fingering.” For a split second in the theater I thought I just had a dirty mind and didn’t let out the giggle that was instinctually coming. And then half my theater laughed out loud. Not a great sign. (My new band name is “The Fingering Fassbenders,” for the record. Look out for the t-shirt.)

And oof. That synthetic switch? Harper couldn’t have been more wrong about how audiences would view it:

I knew we were not going to have twin robots without a certain amount of switcheroo. One thing I’m proud of is — because that always comes up when there are twins — we thought, “How do you make them forget that’s probably going to happen?” I struggled with that as a screenwriter and then at the end, I felt like the film really did a good job. That’s a feat of editing as much as anything else, but you do believe the good Walter beat up David and got on that ship with them. It somehow feels like a surprise, although in retrospect, “Of course they were going to do that.”

I gave Prometheus more leeway in the scheme of the franchise because it was trying to do something very different. I thought the follow-up would be the same but considering Scott’s insistence on connecting Prometheus to 1979’s Alien much sooner than he previously told everyone I think a few things got lost along the way or at least awkwardly shoved in to make it work.

It also revealed a frequent prequel problem – do we want to know how the sausage was made? I remember walking out of Prometheus confused. I thought it was a beautiful film that had a lot of interesting stuff to chew on but it took an article online to explain what had actually happened. You probably remember the one – it was on LiveJournal of all places. My next viewing of the film was more enjoyable for it but that shouldn’t have been required. I did however appreciated it more on subsequent viewings.

Alien: Covenant, on the other hand, was like flipping through a book on the making of Alien. We’re treated to a veritable orgy of props showing us the gruesome experiments and evolution David has manufactured and if you can believe it, Harper says “there used to be a lot more technical information about what exactly happened.” It’s a lot to take in and, at least in my mind, second fiddle to the point which is David’s move from being devoted to his creator, hating him, gaining respect for another human, and then diving off a great cliff to comitting genocide on the Engineers and subjecting Shaw to more bodily manipulation in order to eventually kill off humans all together.

It’s dark. It’s really, really dark. (David has thousands of colonists plus embryos to tinker with now.) And oh yeah, let’s let some aliens do something I guess? That’s how the plot felt to me. Here’s some really interesting stuff to chew on and also this “neomorph” just decapitated your friend. It just didn’t gel for me. The special effects for all the aliens (minus the final xenomorph) looked terrible and none of them really got to show off their incredible skills. As I said, slasher horror, everyone was dead before suspense was able to really build up. And oddly enough, in a colonization mission filled with couples there wasn’t one mention of pregnancy. Because of course the other big thing Alien films have made sure to make metaphors of is body invasion.

I think there was a lot of potential in Alien: Covenant. There was an enjoyable concept in there, it was just muddled by a lot of baggage and lack of focus. David is interesting but I went to see a film called Alien: Covenant for the alien and didn’t get nearly enough of it. Somewhere along the way David is bound to be destroyed by his own creation so that the cycle can continue. Perhaps Alien: Covenant will be a turning point which will allow someone else the chance of extending the life of the franchise.

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  • The “man of faith” stuff did me in. He just had a lot of insecurities. He never did anything too Shepherd Bookish. He has that one cool line…and, honestly, if it had been followed by a couple gunshots and David’s head exploding, the whole movie would have been better and have made more sense.

  • VindicaSean

    I had the opposite experience– I feel like Covenant did more successfully what Prometheus was trying for and whiffed. The xenos themselves are only ever really meant to be a plot device or metaphor, and it’s made pretty explicit in Covenant with the whole sequence and callback to “Ozymandias”. David usurped not only his own creator but his creator’s ultimate creator, and gone one further by refining something hybridized from both into as natural a survivor as can be made. And the whole thing had themes of the Biblical and of humanity only being capable enough to destroy itself rather than improve. I also didn’t care for Prometheus the first few times I saw it, but I may have to re-evaluate, now, in context of a larger story. Still not sure my take on that one will change, though.

  • I am still ready for a story that reveals the origin of the Xenomorphs. I’ve thought for literally decades that they’re a manufactured lifeform, sold to the Company when they were contacted by their unseen manufacturers, and their delivery crashed in the first film.

    Telling that story changes the direction of the franchise, but after this long, I’m ready for something other than a bug hunt.

    • Well, that’s this movie. Kinda. P.S. David is the original queen and poops out the eggs.

      • I’m not sure I want to see that scene…

        • I was kidding.

          But also there are very, very few words in that description that aren’t literally accurate.