Scott forgets female leads and the human species in a strange sequel.
Alien: Covenant is the second in a proposed trilogy of prequels to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), following Prometheus (2012), which was also directed by Scott and reviewed for TQF by myself, Howard Watts, and Jacob Edwards. The titles of the prequel trilogy have been selected by the spaceships whose stories they tell and the story of the Covenant is set ten years after the disappearance of the Prometheus. The Covenant is en route to Origae-6, a distant planet designated for human colonisation, and is carrying several thousand settlers and embryos and a small crew, all of whom are in stasis with the exception of the ship’s synthetic, Walter (Michael Fassbender). The ship is caught in a neutrino blast, which kills the captain and prematurely wakens the crew. The captain’s loss proves significant for two reasons: it introduces his widow, Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston), who will turn out to be the only human character to make full use of her agency, and it places the second in command, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), in charge. Oram is not cut out for his unplanned promotion and makes a series of disastrous decisions, beginning with a diversion to investigate a signal that appears to provide evidence of a human presence on a nearby planet. The signal, as anyone who has watched Prometheus will realise, is from Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the sole survivor of the doomed mission to find the origins of human life.
Oram makes another poor judgement call in taking Daniels, who – like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) before her – is a third officer turned deputy, with him in the expeditionary force. The first sign of alien trouble occurs about thirty minutes into the film, when one of the crew is infected by spores. These spores and the particular species of alien that will hatch from them are new, but viewers of the series know that something nasty is coming and will not be disappointed by the eye-watering, gut-wrenching gore that ensues. Up to this point, Alien: Covenant follows the pattern of Prometheus very closely: two spaceships with command problems, two over-confident expeditions to an unknown planet, the infection of two crew members in each expedition – all of which set the scene for an exciting complication, crisis, and climax. Shortly after the emergence of the first aliens from their human hosts, however, the film makes a radical departure from both the initial prequel and the series as a whole.
No sooner has the first alien gone on the rampage, than it is revealed that Shaw is dead and that the sole survivor of the Prometheus is David (also Michael Fassbender), the sinister, secretive synthetic with a Peter O’Toole fixation. Prometheus ended with Shaw and a badly-damaged David on their way to the planet of the Engineers, the mysterious creators of human life, which is where the crew of the Covenant meet David. Curiously, the characters, plot, and themes of the previous film are all handled with complete anti-climax: Shaw is dead, the Engineers have suffered an apocalypse, and no one cares about the origins of humanity anymore. The last of these is especially strange because Alien: Covenant begins with a short scene in which billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who funded the Prometheus mission, tries to convince David that humanity cannot be an accidental result of the process of evolution. The conceptual unity in the second prequel is provided by creation rather than origin and David has become obsessed with creating life himself.
The Alien quartet was dominated by Ripley, the calm, cool, and collected warrior queen who repeatedly saved humankind from the alien menace. Prometheus appeared to be setting up Shaw to take over as she proved herself every bit as tough and resourceful as her predecessor/successor. Alien: Covenant makes a half-hearted attempt to do the same with Daniels, but Waterston doesn’t have the presence of either Weaver or Rapace and – in fairness – receives much less screen time. Fassbender, playing both David and Walter, becomes the most familiar face and dominates the film with crucial roles in the first and last scenes as well as a great deal of what comes in between. In fact, it is not just a strong female lead that is missing in this instalment, but humankind itself and the human beings in Alien: Covenant are very far down the food chain. As a sequel to Prometheus, this is a non sequitur, but as a standalone film set in the Alien universe it provides all the thrills and chills one expects from the franchise.***