Forty years after his superb 1977 début with The Duelists, Ridley Scott has proven, more often than not, to be an engaging filmmaker. At nearly 80 years of age, he remains a provocative dinosaur from the school of ambitious science fiction, a genre he excels in, but has only worked in sporadically. Along with the late Stanley Kubrick, Scott does it better than anyone—arguably, even better than Kubrick. It’s often forgotten today, but upon its première, Alien (1979) was criticized by some as a jazzed-up variation of the gorilla in a haunted house. Those trappings were deceptive. If Alien were only that, it would hardly have come to be considered a science fiction/horror yardstick. The same could be said for 1982’s Blade Runner, which was initially a critical and box office flop, but became a cult phenomenon. When Scott belatedly returned to the Alien franchise, he produced the sublime and startling Prometheus. It proved to have too many unresolved mysteries, was too aesthetic, too peculiar, too cerebral, and too resourceful to be the fix that the formula craving audience desired. With Alien: Covenant, he delivers a hybrid: a sequel of sorts to Prometheus, and a vague segue into Alien. It’s a summer blockbuster that, coming from Scott, is something more. As can already be seen by its modest American opening and outraged reactions spewed by those who prefer their sci-fi unchallenging, Covenant is not going to please face-hugger followers. And unless it does well overseas, the likelihood of another Scott-helmed Alien seems a stretch. Although that is almost predictable, it’s also unfortunate.
Paradoxically, Covenant contains some of Scott’s most assured filmmaking along with his roughest. Beautifully filmed, filled to the brim with surprises, drawn out, disheveled in sections, and sporting what, on the surface, appear to be derivative fan-appeasing choices, it, along with the 1979 original and Prometheus, make up Scott’s standout Alien trilogy. These are far superior to any of the sequels made by others, including the action-oriented Alien-Rambo crowd-pleaser from James Cameron. Although Aliens is a memorably punchy film with etched-in-stone performances by Sigourney Weaver, the shiny beast (courtesy H.R. Geiger), and Bill Paxton, Cameron unwittingly gifted it to a fanbase who then pedestaled it. The eventual consequences of that dumbing-down was the trailer park science fiction franchise, Alien vs. Predator.
The consensus seems to be that Covenant is better than Prometheus but falls short of the original Alien. Undeniably, that spook house gorilla has its distinctive, addictive history, having been inspired by It, The Terror from Beyond Space, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, and John Carpenter’s Dark Star. As is well known, Scott upped the ante of anxiety by not allowing the cast to read the entire Alien script ahead of time. That tension spilled over, making a celluloid model so formidable that it merely inspired imitations.
With Prometheus, Scott escaped the doldrums of vapid ritual and crafted a film so original, so divisive, it became almost a standalone that no one would dare emulate. Although the rampaging rapist xenomorph was nowhere to be seen, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw still manages to be impregnated with something, making for a nail-biting race against birth. Behind it all is Michael Fassbender’s bewitchingly enigmatic David, the most compelling cinematic android since Rutger Hauer’s Roy in Blade Runner and Jude Law’s “Gigolo Joe” in A.I.. Finally, Alien was exciting and fresh again.
The absence of Rapace is keenly felt in Covenant, but Fassbender’s David returns—twofold—and it’s his relationship with himself that propels Covenant and cements Scott as a late-in-life virtuoso filmmaker. He’s that rarity of rarities: an artist that started strong and, far from becoming derivative, has revisited and reflected on his body of work and ongoing themes, managing to say something epic about his oeuvre and himself. Comparatively, late in their careers, filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Chaplin, Disney, and even Picasso were producing what amounted to rudimentary, even fatigued sketches of previous wonders. The Scott of Covenant is like John Coltrane at Newport in the Sixties, expansively recomposing “My Favorite Things” into something so epic that it eradicates its former incarnations into faint skeletons. A small minority have accused Scott of compromise here, but that’s as deceptive as the criticisms thirty-eight years prior.
Covenant takes place a decade after Prometheus. Briefly, we are introduced to David’s awakening when he chooses his name, after being prompted by creator Peter Weyland ( Guy Pearce). He settles on David, inspired by Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of the mythological Hebrew shepherd. Later, David plays Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” from “Rheingold.” Dullards have slapped these vignettes with “highbrow” labels; unfortunately, it says something when we consider such cultural prerequisites to be elitist. Scott is hardly doing Star Trek here; name dropping “classical” art. Rather, the references serve a thematic purpose, as much as David’s continuing obsession with Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence. Shortly afterwards, we meet Walter, a later, loyal, and ultimately more edifyingly patristic variation of David. Walter mans the spaceship Covenant, taking 2,000 colonists, in cryogenic states, to a distant new home. An exploding star awakens the base crew and unfortunately fries its captain (James Franco), leaving behind traumatized widow, Daniels ( Katherine Waterston) and incompetent second-in command Oram ( Billy Crudup). Many of the crew are married couples, foreshadowing much in the way of self-fulfilling Freudian fears and tragedy. Crewman Tennessee (Danny McBride) picks up a cryptic broadcast of a woman singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” from a nearby planet. Deciding that the inviting beacon may be coming from a closer planet more hospitable to colonize, the Covenant changes course. A flight enthusiast, the late Denver might have appreciated his song floating through space, but he was also a troubled soul whose recklessness resulted in a fatal crash. Eden this ain’t.
Daniels protests Oram’s decision to investigate the planet. Being a religious fanatic, and feeling she compares him unfavorably to her late husband, Oram plays the victim card and proceeds anyway. A skeleton crew remains on the Covenant while on the planet the remaining party discover Shaw’s crashed ship. Soon,spores infect two crew members, wrecking havoc. After several deaths, the crew discovers David, looking a bit like a long-haired, nomadic T.E. Lawrence, who has now taken it upon himself to fulfill the apocalypse of the Engineers. Brutally, Scott has no qualms about producing widows and widowers and dispatches both in one memorably unsettling shower scene. David leads survivors to the stony, desolate city of the Engineers, who are all now dead, along with Shaw. Oram is among those easily manipulated, and Scott revisits themes of divine punishment and shattered sanctuaries (Prometheus, the underrated The Counselor, the failed Exodus, and the acclaimed The Martian). He plays biblical camp with David’s homoerotic, narcissistic, sublime seduction of Walter. David mantles contradictory roles of God, King, Engineer, Dr. Frankenstein, and a Devil who, like Frankenstein’s monster, asks for a little sympathy—and gets it—on his way to creating the xenomorphs, who will rid him of his own fragile creators.
The editing (Pietro Scalia) is unquestionably idiosyncratic, but mostly works until the final vignette, which falters, but not to the point of substantial damage. Scott revels in sci-fi pulp mythology, and crafts it here in a different vein than he did Prometheus. Like all good myths, he intertwines parable, folklore, fantasy, and a sliver of historicity with such relished grandeur that Alien: Covenant is a film demanding to be revisited.