In a weird way Alien: Covenant feels a bit like a bait and switch. Over the last few months, it felt like the talking points surrounding Alien: Covenant were something like, “Well, we know you didn’t love Prometheus, so we are going back to basics and are just going to make a scary Alien movie.” And for the first act of Alien: Covenant, this is true.
When the second act starts, it’s such a dramatic shift in tone that it wouldn’t feel out of place for Ridley Scott to introduce it by saying, “Hey, everyone, thanks for coming. Look, I know I promised you an Alien movie, but the truth is I still have a lot left to say about Prometheus, so I hope you enjoyed the Alien-type opening, now sit back, relax, and get ready for Prometheus 2.”
Put it this way: If you ask me, “Do I need to see any of the prior Alien movies before I see Alien: Covenant?,” the answer is, yes, you need to see Prometheus. The film is set ten years after the events of Prometheus, and I had just kind of assumed that Alien: Covenant would be peppered here and there with references to Prometheus. I could not have been more wrong. Instead, they went all in.
The film is set in 2104 initially aboard the Covenant, a colonization spaceship with 2,000 sleeping civilians on board headed to a distant planet. The only conscious crew member is Walter (Michael Fassbander), an android just like David from Prometheus, only he speaks with an American accent. After a solar burst hits the ship, the crew is awakened to assess the damage. Not everyone’s sleeping pod opens successfully and the captain of the crew, also the husband of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), is burned alive, leaving Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge.
(It’s hard to tell who plays the doomed captain when he’s in the pod, but when Daniels is watching old videos of him, we learn it’s James Franco. This is an odd casting choice because a James Franco cameo in a movie usually brings a lot of laughter. And this was no different, as the audience I was in laughed and laughed while poor Daniels is tearing up remembering her dead husband.)
The Covenant is still seven years away from its destination, but while awake, the crew receives a rogue transmission from a nearby planet that appears like it can sustain life. So they decide to investigate and possibly colonize this planet.
Guess what?: There are aliens on this planet. Or, at least, there are some spores that, when they get inside a human, aliens start popping out. This sequence is terrifying, gross and a lot of fun – in the spirit of the original Alien.
And then David shows up…
And this is when Prometheus 2 starts.
My biggest problem with Prometheus is I never understood David’s motivation to poison Holloway with the “black goo” they find on the planet. Remember that? For no real reason, David puts the goo in Holloway’s drink just to see what would happen. Back when Prometheus came out, I reached out to writer Damon Lindelof to ask about this. He’s got a pretty long answer (which you can read here) but the gist of it is Lindelof wrote a scene explaining all of this and Ridley Scott decided not to shoot it.
Well, in Alien: Covenant David is still performing science experiments to see what kind of alien creatures he can make, just because. David gives an explanation to the crew of the Covenant about what happened to Shaw and himself after the events of Prometheus, but he’s not a trustworthy narrator and we learn more as the film goes on. But it’s now weird to go back to the original Alien – a masterpiece of horror and science fiction – to now know the alien that’s terrorizing everyone exists because a robot was bored.
(Speaking of robots, there are long sequences of David and Walter, both played by Fassbender, hanging out together, calling each other “brother.” David teaches Walter how to play the flute, in a scene long enough that you will start to internally question, “Wait, what is happening? What is this? Why am I watching this?” Then David and Walter kiss.)
The Alien movies have a lot in common with the Terminator movies. What started out as a simple, “let’s run away from this scary thing,” are now so bogged down in their own mythology of why these scary things exist, it’s almost unrecognizable.
And there was a chance Alien: Covenant was going to get back to basics, but Ridley Scott had a lot more to say about David and to show us why these aliens exist. Look, Scott obviously still has a lot he wants to say about the mythology of Alien – wrapped up in a creator complex story featuring a bored robot – and that’s what he’s going to do. The title of the movie has been changed back to Alien, but this is very much a Prometheus movie. And if you didn’t like Prometheus, there’s a good chance you won’t like Alien: Covenant either. (In turn, if you did like Prometheus, boy, do I have some good news for you.)
What’s frustrating is this could have been a pretty stellar Alien movie. Waterston, Crudup, Danny McBride (playing a character named Tennessee!), and Demián Bichir are all really great. And Fassbender is terrific as Walter. A new crew! Fun! But then David shows up and forces us to watch Prometheus again. David is such a killjoy.
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