Update early 2019: The original Alien is such an incredible exercise in negative space and sonic absence, an unwelcoming dispatch from an all-too-fathomable future, a transmission from the dark side of the 1970s that pushes the haunted house film to its constitutive limits. Scott’s attempts to expand the mythology here misfire on all counts, only diffusing the purity with a kind of thematic dilettantism – a little Bible here, some Greek mythology there – as though the screenwriters were afraid that anything other than reconsidering the entire Western canon would be a failure of ambition. That original film remains a stark howl of cinematic minimalism, a fugitive, monstrous insurgent into the increasingly grand and self-important cinematic landscape of the late ’70s, but this new one just replicates the grand, Gothic tendentiousness of every other blockbuster film in the 2010s, all sound and fury signifying ego.
Alien3 was its gloomy adolescent faze. Alien: Resurrection was it mid-life crisis where it put on a clown costume and rode around on a fluorescent motorcycle to prove its hipness. The AVP films are the lost years. And Prometheus was a kind of rebirth, a newfound, new-agey euphoria where intelligence and pseudo-intelligence intermixed to the point of abject indecipherability. But what does that make Covenant for the Alien franchise?
A film that is usually unsure of itself, above all, one which tries to repeat and reconcile the entire franchise in the course of one film. One that struggles to decipher some point of solubility for many films and as many essentially irreconcilable viewpoints about cinema and the world. In this series of films whose entries have uniquely little tonally or atmospherically to say to one another, Covenant is also a return to the good old days, a regression, and a stasis of sorts, an attempt to retain and harden the philosophical musings of Prometheus while finding salvation through a return to the franchise’s younger days of cold-blooded, efficient brutality. To fossilize what intelligence the at-least self-consciously oblique Prometheus had for fear of it slipping away and to efface that intelligence by cutting through the fat with a lean, mean monster film, a marriage of pulp and phenomenology that just does not mix. As if afraid to acknowledge that less can be more, director Ridley Scott demands to be taken seriously as an auteur, which for him, means thematizing and seeking solace in headiness with a capital-H even when it is to the detriment of the overall production. As a down-and-dirty horror film, Covenant is retreading old ground, sure, but doing so with gusto and panache. As a rambling monologue (or dialogue, I suppose) about the nature of creation, creator, and created, it’s just another patch on the quilt proving that these pseudo-pretentious sci-fi action films have nothing new to say about their robot fetish.
And by say, I do mean say, because despite his strengths as a filmmaker (the voiceover-cut of Blade Runner proving this unanimously) being in a realm as far from dialogue as possible, Scott’s film besieges us with its own importance continuously, succumbing to the ice-cold death of murder-by-a-thousand-lines. Thankfully, the majority of the heavy cognitive lifting is conducted by Michael Fassbender, replaying a curdled, Colonel Kurtz-esque inflammation of his Prometheus android David, as well as Walter, the ten-years-later remodel of David accompanying the Covenant on a colonizing mission. When the crew of the Covenant makes a pit-stop on a seemingly uninhabited but hospitable planet, the disparities between Walter, having been reconditioned to lack David’s capacity for independent emotional thought, and David, marooned on this planet for a decade after the failure of the Prometheus years ago, become increasingly self-evident.
Paradoxically, the meditative and baroque conversations between David and Walter, Fassbinder conversing with multiple sides of himself, are both some of the strongest scenes of Covenant and essentially dead weight. They remain unfinished by film’s end, being pulled apart by the elsewhere-relentless gore-horror which really forms the backbone of the film. Extremely effective gore I might add, but the philosophy only stabs at something greater while also nullifying the taut B-movie pleasures that Scott is so capable of delivering when need be. The encroachments on the nature of religion and humanity feel entirely arbitrary as the film itinerantly ricochets between competing attitudes: a down-and-dirty, pugnacious slug of a thriller and a straight-jacketed, over-baked rumination on all of humankind’s foibles, a film that self-consciously casts itself as both out-of-the-way gutter and ostentatious obelisk. It’s not a compelling interplay of contradictions.
But the moments that do hit leave blood on the tracks. The introduction of the classic Xenomorph itself is brutally unflinching and spastically jittery horror cinema at its most demented, with a twitchy vibe courtesy of editor Pietro Scalia evoking the brutal muscle spasms of Xenomorph movement. There are missteps of equal weight: a colossally stupid set-piece on a flying vehicle, a climax that is a welterweight retread of the famous tracking sequence in the 37 year old original film redeemed only by Covenant’s fatalistic conclusion. The slips are expected though, and the horror filmmaking credentials are entirely capable for the production throughout. Darius Wolszki’s harshly austere cinematography and Chris Seager’s production design suggest, without demanding, a sense of colossal openness that feels tranquil, exhausting, and forlorn in equal measure. The screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper is specious, but Scalia’s editing is dynamic throughout, fleshing out scenes with lengthy, expansive shots and maniacal quick-cuts at other times.
But in pitting the mind against the body, neither win out. Covenant breaks down just outside of brutal effectiveness, despite outpourings of classical terror saving the day here and there. It’s the rare film that is at once very sloppy, playing out in disconnected fragments, and too precious and mannered to be more than incidentally intelligent rather than legitimately thoughtful. And there are concerns beyond the central split-personality disorder. After the initial introduction, the film throws out Xenomorphs like next-year model cars on a showroom floor, thus robbing them of their dread-and mysterious allure. And the aliens still feel like lesions on a decaying carcass of introspection, as though Covenant really wants to be Dostoevsky and is using the clout of the franchise to sell tickets. The aliens, endearing and frightening enough on their own, feel entirely decorative in a film that secretly hates them and wants to be somewhere else.
All of the human characters are also troublingly stripped of anything resembling a personality, reduced to pallid furniture, mere decorum in the film’s aesthetic diorama existing only to be bloodied. There’s always a balefully existential quality to the barren visuals, but Covenant isn’t aesthetically revolutionary enough to turn “the characters are boring and stupid” into an avant-garde commentary or part of the overall mood a la Suspiria. Judging by his last two Alien films, Scott is obviously keen on pushing his trademark franchise further in this spiritual direction, but Covenant’s staggers toward philosophical importance have little to do with the carefully-limned, primordial pleasures of Scott’s original film or the nervous, frayed, brazen thrust of the first sequel. And the nonsensically baroque pseudo-intelligence of the ‘10s model isn’t meaningful enough on its own to propose an equally viable new version of the franchise either. It’s a close call, but Covenant loses by filmic split decision.