Alien: Covenant is directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, The Martian), and marks the sixth instalment in this film franchise, not including the two Alien verses Predator films, because they take place in the Predator universe, and this film will spoil much of the previous films, so if you haven’t already watched at least Alien, Aliens and Alien 3, as well as Prometheus, then stop what you’re doing, go watch them, and then come back. Or, if you don’t care, by all means, proceed.
In 1979, Ridley Scott was a young, budding director who’d just come off his directorial debut, and was obviously enamoured with the phenomenon that swept the globe two years prior: Star Wars: A New Hope. Amongst Star Wars’ many ground-breaking elements, was the visual aesthetic of a dirty, lived-in, science fiction universe. Prior to Star Wars, much of the cinematic representation of science fiction was either pristine, crisp lines, or deathly, dismal dystopian worlds. Star Wars was a world you could see yourself living in, people existed in this universe, people not too different to us. At its core, that’s part of what makes Ridley Scott’s first Alien film such a success. Alien is a group of people: miners, doctors, engineers, pilots, who have a small mission and end up with this nightmarish creature from the imagination of H. R. Giger on board the ship, picking them off one by one: The Xenomorph. The Alien in Alien.
Alien is essentially, at it’s core, a basic haunted house horror movie. It’s people you sympathise with, stuck in a location with something horrific that you, the audience, know is there, slowly picking them off. It’s The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, it’s The Haunted House on the Hill. Alien’s beauty is in it’s simplicity, it’s design. Scott did, after all, come from a background in design, which is telling when you look at how gorgeous the designs are on all his films. But what makes Alien for me, really (and huge spoilers here guys, really, look away now…) is when you find out Ash is a synthetic. Yep, that slightly off-kilter, scientist guy, who is a bit too curious about the Alien when compared to other members of the crew. Ian Holm’s performance is so subtle, so intriguing, it really makes the film upon a second viewing. This was a twist I totally did not see coming, the first time I watched Alien.
James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, The Terminator) then did an incredible feat, and took the Alien franchise in a completely different direction, which was a horror film, became the basis for one of the biggest and most iconic action films of its time, with Aliens. Personally, I think Aliens hasn’t dated quite as well as its predecessor, but is still a fantastic film, followed up with the much more divisive, Alien 3. Coming from David Fincher (Se7en, Fightclub, Gone Girl), but plagued with studio interference, so much so that Fincher himself disowns the film, Alien 3 is actually a pretty damn good flick in my book. Not perfect, but it does bring an exceptional end to Ripley, as well as the original Alien trilogy. The third film from a trio of directors that have gone on to create some of modern cinema’s best work, is more a character study than anything else. It’s Ripley coming to terms with the Alien, and ending herself, her nemesis, her film and her franchise her way.
Now, let’s ignore Alien: Resurrection, as it’s probably best if everyone did so, but before we plunge into the extremely complex and divisive film that is Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, I want to make some quick points about science fiction from the perspective of genre theorists, specifically, a semantic/syntactic approach to the genre of science fiction. The canvas of works that one would consider science fiction are vast, but in our approach to this categorisation, Rick Altman broke it down into two distinct categories, which I’ll attempt to briefly explain here: Semantic approaches to science fiction is likened seeing science fiction in the visual and audible aesthetic. It’s things like space ships, and aliens, and lazer beams and crazy, whacky worlds. It’s where one would look to find Star Wars, The Terminator, or perhaps the beloved Guardians of the Galaxy. Then there’s a syntactic approach to the categorisation of science fiction, whereby science fiction is defined by a set of themes, like exploration, or questioning the human experience, and it’s something that’s definitely present in things like Star Trek, Black Mirror, or one of the best recent science fiction films, 2016’s Arrival. This isn’t to say there isn’t overlap, Star Trek and Arrival both have aliens, but they also ask a bunch of deeper question, that aren’t quite as present in Star Wars. In fact, many would argue Star Wars isn’t in fact science fiction, but more of a space opera. Which brings me to 2012 and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.
So I’ve come late to the party of Prometheus and am well aware of the mixed audience, fan and critic response to the film, with the general consensus being it raises more questions than it answers. Which, I don’t particularly think is a bad thing, so I essentially go in with an open mind not expecting any answers, but whole heartedly looking forward to Ridley Scott asking some questions, and I really enjoyed this movie. Firstly, Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Bastards, X-Men, Steve Jobs) is phenomenal, as per usual, and plays into my favourite part of the Alien franchise: the synthetic robots you’re never quite sure who’s side they’re on, what they’re thinking what their end game is. In a movie about meeting your maker, and asking them why they created you, a human tells an android “we made you because we could.” Fassbender then proposes the most poignant question of the film with “could you imagine how disappointing it would be for you, to hear the same thing from your creator?” Yes, Ridley Scott is out here playing with ideas of space-Jesus, and what we’d ask him if we could. This isn’t small potatoes, and we are not in Kansas anymore, toto.
Not everyone is a fan of Prometheus, and I totally get that. For an Alien movie, there isn’t a whole lot of, well, Alien. Not the nightmarish Geiger design, anyway. But what Prometheus does do, is take a fairly semantic approach to science fiction, in the Alien franchise, and pull a syntactically science fiction like film out of it. To varying degrees of success, depending on how much that floats your boat. Bringing us to the now, the Alien-heavy marketing campaign and the latest film in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant.
Alien: Covenant is ambitious, to say the least. Not everyone was a fan of Prometheus, and there was a clear mandate to put some more Aliens back into, well Alien. Even the opening titles are a very much Alien, and the Xenomorph we’re all too familiar with at this point is front and centre take precedent in the marketing campaign. Katherine Waterston is very much our Ripley allegory, and indeed, much of this film takes us back to the franchise’s horror roots. But it does something else. Alien: Covenant inserts the best parts of Prometheus (Fassbender and some more Fassbender) into what could otherwise have been an almost-reboot of the series. It’s no small feat, but Ridley Scott is attempting to build a semantic and syntactic bridge with the Alien prequel/Prometheus sequel: Alien: Covenant.
The film isn’t perfect, in fact near the end it tries to pull a bit of a switcheroo that any audience member is going to see coming a mile off, but otherwise, this film is close to perfect. Visually, it’s stunning, and whilst we’ve come to expect nothing less of Scott, there’s a particularly horrific scene which leaves you just trembling with dread. The imagery and emotive response you’ll have is chilling. The score is beautiful, tipping the hat to Prometheus at the right moments, and Fassbender. Fassbender is sublime in this film. He is the crux of this film, the heart of this film, and really, a close third to the best character in this franchise after Ripley and well, the Alien.
Overall, I would most definitely advise seeing Alien: Covenant in theatres, brush up on your Alien and Prometheus law, if need be, and strap yourself in for a ride. It’s part Alien, part Aliens, part Prometheus, and all worth your money. It’s a worthy chapter in the Alien franchise, and I’m really looking forward to the next two movies Ridley Scott has planned. Do go see!