Friday, July 14, 2017

"Alien: Covenant" (2017)

*This review discusses significant plot points of the film. You've been warned.*

At this point, there are certain things that the audience expects from an Alien film. A group of people, usually in an enclosed space, will confront the threat of the xenomorph, a slimy, double-mouthed monster that bursts forth from the host's body and quickly grows into a gigantic, acid-blooded creature that exists solely to kill. This plot mimics the slasher film (which itself was relatively new at the time of the original's 1979 release), as each member of this unfortunate crew gets picked off one by one until there's only one survivor - typically a woman, exemplified by Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the first four films of the franchise (Alien, 1986's Aliens, 1991's Alien 3, and 1997's Alien: Resurrection). Chests will burst, acid blood will spurt, and the survivor will live only to come face-to-face with the phallic-domed beastie in the next film.

Alien: Covenant - the sixth film in the franchise overall, but the sequel to the 2012 prequel Prometheus - covers all of these bases well. The crew of the Covenant - a massive spaceship carrying thousands of colonists (all couples) and embryos to a new planet far away from Earth - wake from their cyrogenic sleep after an energy blast damages their ship. While conducting the repairs, the crew picks up a mysterious signal, which leads them to a planet that's almost exactly like Earth - so much so, it seems like a paradise. The ship's captain, Orem (Billy Crudup), is convinced by the rest of the crew, led by Daniels (Katherine Waterston), to send a team down to investigate whether the planet is as habitable as it appears. The result, of course, is less paradise and more living hell.

More *SPOILERS* after the jump.

Covenant does not deviate from the basic story beats of the franchise: like every film since the claustrophobic original, it merely expands the world in which the creatures lurk and introduces a new cast of fresh meat for it to feast upon. Director Ridley Scott - who directed the original, as well as Prometheus - and writers John Logan and Dante Harper (working from a story by Michael Green and Jake Paglen) don't provide a lot of depth to most of the characters; the only ones who pop do so either because the actors imbue them with more than is demanded (Waterston and Crudup) or are remarkably eccentric in their one defining characteristic (Danny McBride's hick pilot Tennessee, strikingly out-of-place). But where Prometheus skimped on the blood and guts (save for that horrifying medical unit scene), Covenant sees Scott indulging in the grotesque carnage that fans of the franchise were itching for.

Covenant's successes, however, lay with the film's placement within the Alien franchise. Alien is a straightforward horror film, using the sci-fi setting of a spaceship to constrict the spatial parameters of the slasher film with a splash of surrealism thanks to H.R. Giger's production and creature design. With Aliens, James Cameron shifted the franchise into the realm of the action film, pitting space Marines against a horde of xenomorphs and Ripley against the xenomorph "queen." Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection (directed by David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, respectively) moved further down the path Cameron established, to diminishing results. At this point, the franchise had drifted quite a bit from its horror roots, keeping the slasher premise but leaning harder on action and quick scares than the simmering dread of the original film.

(The Alien vs. Predator films aren't generally considered part of the franchise, but merit a brief mention. Both Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2006) are more traditional horror films, bringing the eponymous creatures to Earth to slaughter their unsuspecting human victims. However, both films are more monster mashes than anything else, pitting the true stars of the two interstellar franchises against each other with the human characters merely serving as collateral damage.)

Scott's return to the franchise with the prequels Prometheus and Covenant implied that the films would return to their horror roots, yet that hasn't quite been the case. Rather than tightening the scale of the films back to a small crew trying to survive on a single spaceship against one creature, Scott massively expanded the franchises' spatial and thematic scope. The purpose of a prequel is to explain what came before: what caused the chain of events that led to the first film of the franchise? Scott blows this concept out to its extreme by making Prometheus and Covenant about the origins of life and relationship between a Creator and its creation. Prometheus tackled the former concern in ways that were fascinating for a summer blockbuster but frustrating for those expecting chestbursters and distended jaws.

On the one hand, the gratuitous gore in Covenant appears to be Scott rectifying that particular failing in Prometheus. On the other hand, Scott integrates it into the theme of creation and the horrors that come with it. This is where the film's true MVP shines: Michael Fassbender, reprising his Prometheus role as David while also playing a new android named Walter. Walter is a later model, programmed without the creativity and philosophical pondering of David. David, on the other hand, questions his creation in the film's first scene, a (imagined?) meeting with his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). David recognizes himself as a creation, but also sees the failings of his creators. As seen in Prometheus, David views himself as the next stage of human evolution, a creation who no longer needs his creator. In Covenant, he finds a new purpose: to create the perfect organism. That perfect organism, of course, is the xenomorph.

If this thematic concern sounds familiar, think Frankenstein (Scott certainly did: the Shelleys are name-checked twice in the film, particularly in regards to Percy Bysshe's poem "Ozymandias"). Both Prometheus and Covenant lean heavy into Gothic horror, interested more in mood and existential dread than in jump scares and dismemberment. Covenant attempts to meld Gothic and body horror, and though it's hardly seamless, it does work surprising well (besides, Frankenstein's monster wasn't seamless either). This blend of the ponderous and the visceral is what sets Covenant apart from both the films within the Alien franchise and the multiplex competition this summer. The terror of confronting a malevolent Creator intend on destroying through the creation of a better lifeform permeates every frame of the film. As the remarkably bleak ending asserts, there is no outrunning a vengeful god. Especially not one created by us.

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