Hebe Hamilton reviews Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
In the second instalment of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ prequels, ‘Alien: Covenant’ addresses the age-old question of mankind, evolution, and the questionable influence of machines and artificial intelligence.
It is five years since the original Alien prequel, Prometheus, was released in 2012, and by the end of that film many questions remained unanswered. Where were the infamous facehuggers and chestbursters from the original 1979 film, and its subsequent sequels? How could the Alien species possibly multiply with only one adult produced by the end of Prometheus? And as the latest instalment approached, we wondered: could Alien: Covenant bring us closer to bridging the gap between Prometheus and Alien? It appears the answer is yes. Ridley Scott’s newest addition to the franchise, which has already earned a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing, gives us many more clues to the evolution and origins of the ‘Alien’ species and has been received to both fan and critical approval.
This time around, the year is 2104. It is ten years since the events of Prometheus, and we are introduced to the Covenant, a space shuttle on a colonisation mission from Earth. Headed by a crew of 15, the film features a very polished performance by Katherine Waterston in a leading role as the Covenant’s ‘terraforming expert’, Daniels. So far, the situation seems familiar.
However, this time it is not long before disaster strikes. Hit by a rogue neutrino shockwave, the ship is heavily damaged and quickly loses its captain (James Franco in a cameo role). Leaving command in the questionable hands of first mate Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), the crew decides, against the advice of Daniels, to investigate a transmission from a nearby planetoid, which coincidentally displays seemingly perfect conditions for human life. And in a fashion identical to Prometheus and Alien before it, this decision proves to be a fatal one…
Old Meets New
There are certainly a lot of new elements that Ridley Scott has brought to his latest film in the series. Apart from Michael Fassbender and Waterston, a familiar face from last year’s hit Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new cast boasts fewer blockbuster stars than its predecessor.
Meanwhile, the aliens of Alien: Covenant are prehistoric variants of their more infamous ‘xenomorph’ cousins, made notorious in the original Alien ‘quadrilogy’. Whilst the classic facehuggers and chestbursters still have a vital part to play, there is another species that poses the initial threat to Oram’s crew: the neomorph, or as I prefer to call them ‘backbursters’. Originating from spores made as biological weapons by the engineers we saw in Prometheus (so that’s what the cellular structures and black liquid were for), they infect their hosts via any available orifice, resulting in a particularly gruesome reveal by breaking through the host’s back. But how are the two species connected?
This brings us onto the role of the androids. This film re-introduces David (played by a menacing Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus, alongside the Covenant’s ‘upgraded’ model Walter (also Fassbender). ‘Upgraded’ in this case refers to the fact that Walter has fewer capacities, or desires, for human emotional connections. Most significantly, he does not act in his own self interest, unlike David. But while the two may be identical in appearance, their motives could not be further apart. Walter’s main aim is to support the crew, particularly Daniels, in their colonisation mission; David’s is the experimentation and creation of new alien hybrids.
Man vs Machine
David’s role in both prequels so far is pivotal to understanding the evolution of the alien species. It also addresses the age-old debate of mankind vs machines, and whether human beings and artificial intelligence can co-exist peacefully. After all, it was David who, in Prometheus, tainted a crew member’s drink with the dark liquid, which ultimately lead to the birth of the trilobite: a giant squid-like creature, similar to the parasitic facehuggers. This time, David’s actions have taken a far more sinister turn, having willingly killed a colony of engineers and his former comrade, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), all in the name of ‘experimentation’.
It’s easy to compare David’s actions with Ash’s behaviour in the original Alien film, another android whose ultimate mission is to preserve the alien creature at the expense of the crew. But David, unlike Ash (Ian Holm), has deemed himself a creator. The opening scene of Alien: Covenant gives us a glimpse at David’s relationship with his own creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), and it is easy for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to come to mind. At this point, the human is the one in control in the relationship. By the time David is re-introduced, the tables have turned. Although intrigued by human interaction, as revealed through his fascination with Shaw and later Daniels, David is adamant that human loss is necessary in the evolution of the species.
This is emphasised to dramatic effect by the music used in the film. Jerry Goldsmith’s motif from the original 1979 film makes a reappearance in Alien: Covenant, foreshadowing the terrifying events to come, although it is Scott’s choice of Wagner’s ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ from Das Rheingold (the first opera in Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle) that truly stands out. It forms a notable bookend at both ends of the film, particularly in the last scene when the original orchestral version is played as David’s link to the future timeline is fully revealed, whilst the rest of the colonists remain in stasis, unaware of the threat looming on board.
Although there are still plot holes that need filling, Alien: Covenant takes us in a necessary direction for understanding the turn of events that led to the crisis on the Nostromo in the original film. I’ll admit that prior to seeing Alien: Covenant I had my doubts as to where the plot could go after the events of Prometheus. The conclusion was such an anti-climax that it left little obvious plot direction.
It is hard to define the genre of the franchise, as it has elements of horror, sci-fi and suspense. However, Ridley Scott’s latest feature proves to be a gripping thriller that also manages to provide thought-provoking ideas about human nature, the ever-growing role of technology in our lives, and whether artificial intelligence could benefit humanity in the future, or become the source of our destruction.
Alien: Covenant is out in UK cinemas now. See the red-band teaser trailer below: