Alien: Covenant: Safe Spaces, by Scott Nye
Alien: Covenant was not screened for critics in 3D (though it will be released that way), and for that I am grateful. Whereas Prometheus – one of the great modern 3D films – patiently explored space and depth in carefully-controlled shots meant to let the viewer consider the divine, Covenant is a much more intimate affair. The mix of camerawork style and resolution shows Ridley Scott in more unusual digital territory, giving up tight control in favor of chaos. If only the film had been so bold. Its intimacy is limited to the body and what surrounds it. It nearly shuts out all the pretentious tussles with man’s search for purpose that so frustrated many in Prometheus. Those moviegoers will be delighted to hear that Covenant is more focused, more sensible, and contains a whole lot more action. However, I have rarely found “focused and sensible”, while admirable in a person, to be as compelling in art, least of all a horror movie.
Covenant picks up some ten years after Prometheus, with a whole other mission and a whole other Michael Fassbender. Now he’s Walter, another robot caretaker of a ship (the Covenant), this one bound for a distant planet that a band of humans hope to call their new home. The crew is suddenly awakened by a solar flare or some other space disruption, and their captain (James Franco) dies in a sleep-chamber malfunction. What a way to go. That leaves First Mate Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge of a crew whose decreasing morale (and disinterest in returning to their potentially-deadly pods) leads them to unanimously decide to instead inhabit a whole other planet they hadn’t even seen before, but sure seems to be broadcasting a signal all’s a sudden.
Well, near-unanimously. The one holdout is terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the late captain’s wife, who raises the worthy point “well we studied the hell out of our intended destination and don’t know anything about this one so…maybe not?” Crudup perfectly plays the tension between his new authority and a natural condescension towards women. “In space, no one can hear you whine”, he seems to say. Dani’s fears are justified when, shortly after landing, two crew members become sick and subsequently explode, birthing very-familiar-looking Aliens as they go. The little buggers start scattering and we’re off to the races.
This rush begins too quickly to really get to know the characters, unfortunately. Maybe you felt put off by Noomi Rapace’s backstory in Prometheus, but the result was that by the time she got in that C-section pod, I was completely terrified for her. Covenant boasts a great cast (including Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, and Amy Seimetz), but offers only blockbuster lip service to define them. The actors sell their terror, certainly. Seimetz and Ejogo completely losing it as the first Alien comes to life is the highlight set piece. There’s just nothing lasting to it. Terror is undercut by more terror, the action smothering any sense of trauma.
Character-building is entirely reserved for Fassbender, who once again turns in a magnificent performance, and is owed nearly the entirety of the credit for the film’s two finest scenes. Robots grappling with their inhumanity is sort of a stock theme for sci-fi at this point, but he and returning director Ridley Scott (along with incoming screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper) build on the themes they explored in the prior film, using the sequel not as a chance to reiterate David’s concerns, but to ask what Walter’s new ones might be. Walter was built with the knowledge of what David had done; how might that have hindered him? And to what extent can Walter’s de-humanization be a metaphor for our own attempts to reign in all that is wild and free within ourselves?
To take that a step further, Walter’s “updates” correlate to the film’s. Covenant reigns in much of what was so wild and free in Prometheus. Where that film built preposterous plot turn upon senseless character motivation to create a horror show of human desire and curiosity, Covenant is extremely conventional and disinterested in our unpredictable impulses. It’s timid. As unmannered as it may have seemed, the terror of looking God in the eye was embedded into Prometheus’s framework. Covenant has its own share of logic gaps and silly contrivances (a mid-coital Alien attack is especially stupid), but only for the sake of expeditious violence. It continuously retreats to safe spaces – the Alien designs we know and love, ridiculously-plausible bloodletting, and the pleasure of a well-timed mechanical arm.
It’s like Elton John said – “I’ve seen that movie, too.” I don’t need each new Alien film to force a reluctant woman to wield her heroic side at just the right time (a battle atop a hovercraft is a particularly interesting leap for a terraforming expert to take). I don’t need to see the facehuggers and the chestbursters and the Alien I know and love. Subsequent entries in a franchise should spend as little time as possible rehashing these conflicts and more time building on them. Repetition only invites comparison, and what, you’re going to go toe-to-toe with Alien and Aliens? It doesn’t help that the cheap, weightless CGI creations they’re passing off as the menace feel more surprising, but less threatening. Nothing that moves this fast is that scary. We accept the possibility of sudden calamity; we fear its impending arrival. Covenant gives us no time to fear the Alien, and even when it finally offers a more concrete villain, it’s too scattershot in how it goes about deploying the threat. Gotta swing poor Katherine Waterston all up and down the ship first.
People like to point to that scene in Prometheus where a scientist, unprovoked, reaches out to touch a clearly-dangerous alien as an example of the deplorable logic holes with which the movie is littered. I’ve no doubt “the plausibles” (as Hitchcock called them) will find much to love in how Covenant merely dips its toes in those waters. But gimme something that reaches all the way in and risks getting bit. That’s where the humanity lives.