Alien: Covenant is a horror film waiting to burst into a space opera

Despite mediocre reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which I confess I regularly check, I decided to watch the latest film in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant. What drew me to the movie was filmmaker Ridley Scott. Scott directed the first Alien (1979) and took a long hiatus before directing the prequel Prometheus (2012) and now this installment. He’s directed some of my favorite films, such as the groundbreaking Blade Runner (1983), and also some of my least favorite films, such as Black Hawk Down (2001), which depicted Somalis as bloodthirsty savages. Then there was 2015’s The Martian, which was fine. Fine, I say. Fine.

Here are my brief takeaways of Alien: Covenant (the points below contain SPOILERS):

What the heck is going on and why do the aliens all seem to look different? This is probably the only major spoiler in this article, but the fact that I need to write it suggests that the answer is not at all obvious. (I’m not going to do a plot summary, which plenty of brave reviewers have already done.) If you’ve seen Prometheus and the first three Alien films, you’ll have noticed that the aliens are not at all the same. Specifically, there is the alien that we know and love and a bunch of weird ones that are sort of similar. The aliens don’t look different in Prometheus and Covenant because the sculptors and animators forgot what the alien looked like, but because they are different. Each of the different aliens has been created from a pathogen that mingled with another life form. That’s why some aliens look like flatworms, others like trilobites, and others like humans. What they have in common is that the mutants created by the pathogen grow and propagate quickly and seem to have a limitless capacity for eating and exploding out of human flesh. The way this pathogen infects biological specimens is really the crux of the entire franchise now, even if it wasn’t important when Alien came out in theaters nearly 40 years ago. The pathogen is also called Agent A0-3959X.91 and appears to have been created as a biological weapon for some nefarious purpose, created by the giant humanoid Engineers we met in Prometheus. You can rabbit hole down the Alien wiki to learn more. (Fun fact – the first Alien was played by a 7 foot tall Nigerian man, Bolaji Badejo.)

Ridley Scott is a master of layering. The film features enough mysteries, clues, and palimpsests to hold your attention. Giant stalks of wheat? A mysterious space wreck? As Scott has explained, his background in shooting advertising commercials allows him to pack lots of information onto the screen and tell a story quickly. This includes creating a defining color palette. His sets have a convincingly archaeological feel – when something in the film is meant to look ancient, it feels ancient — unlike some films which look like a set designer scrubbed some dirt on the wall to look old. Longshots and landscapes are richly detailed, and awe inspiring. Spaceships are relatively constrained by physics, and are scarred up enough to feel like they’ve actually been used. As long as Ridley Scott is involved, I’ll probably keep watching the Alien movies.

Swiss artist HR Giger

H.R. Giger’s spirit infuses the film. The late Swiss artist’s biomechanical art created the dark, brooding mood in the first Alien, which disappeared later in the franchise with Aliens 3, Resurrection, and the Alien vs. Predator series. Scott was wise to return to the dark aesthetic developed by the artist, which you see in the android David’s graphite sketches and sprinkled throughout the picture. Giger was a true genius, whose life is depicted in the excellent documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.

Alien: Covenant does not have to be a horror series. How about turning it into space opera instead? There are several moments in the plot where the film could have tilted towards a happy ending, or at least some kind of justice. But the writers seemed hell-bent on preventing that. I’m torn about this decision. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of the rampaging violence of the xenomorphs and neomorphs and whatever other freak show is created by the “black goo” pathogen, but very intrigued by the other civilizations that the humans encounter. How about giving the aliens a rest for a while (surely, they’ve eaten enough humans to deserve an interstellar snooze), and exploring some of the broader questions the series has posed?

Space opera is a genre that can be loosely defined as featuring space travel, long story arcs, and struggles for power between cultures or species. Star Wars is the most famous example, but there are darker varieties, such as The Expanse and Dune. In the Alien franchise, there is plenty to work with. The Engineers are a fascinating culture (they built us humans, right?), and if they had enemies, why? What’s it like back on Earth? What happened to the Weyland-Yutani corporation? Alien fan culture and wikis suggest to me that there is a rich trove of ideas to work from to create a viable space opera. Author William Gibson even wrote an unproduced script for Alien 3 — there are countless other creative artists willing to take on the challenge.

Alien: Covenant is a study in the dissolution of the human body. After watching Prometheus, I recall thinking that I would have liked the movie more if there wasn’t so much gore. That gore is amped up to 11 in Covenant, but I now recognize it’s part of the attraction of the series. Scott seems determined to think of how many ways to make a human body come apart, whether through aliens exploding out of people’s backs, mouths, or wriggling around in their mucosa. It’s disgusting, but also fascinating. The contrast between the advanced technological marvel of space travel and our utter mortality can be disturbing and intriguing at the same time. I still don’t think it’s an appropriate film for a 7 year-old to watch, and I bristled at the parents sitting behind me who seemed amused as their daughter complained that she was scared. I was scared too. For her upbringing.

Maybe stop relying on robots as a crutch. Robots and artificial intelligence are becoming devices for filmmakers and writers to avoid having to imagine more interesting characters. Granted, androids have appeared in the Alien series since the first installment, so Scott has every right to depict them, but given their successful exploration in other recent films and television series (Ex Machina, Westworld), I think the Alien series relies upon them a bit too much to drive forward the narrative. Michael Fassbender is such an accomplished actor that Alien: Covenant is still watchable, but maybe something else should burst from the creative chests of the writers.   

The things that suck in Alien: Covenant suck in any horror film. Going into dark rooms by yourself, looking into jars with weird things in them, traveling down to a planet without sending a probe, slipping on ejecta and spraining your ankle, trusting people who should not be trusted, and splitting up when you should stick together — these are tropes that have xenomorphed into clichés. Come on folks, we can do better.

Katherine Waterston in Alien Covenant.

Diversity can make it on big screen sci-fi. While the leading actors are all white, I was pleased to see interracial couples and a relatively diverse cast, which even featured an assured performance from a comedian in Danny McBride (surely a species unto themselves.) I liked that Katherine Waterston doesn’t have the amazon-like features of Sigourney Weaver, but still made for a convincing heroine.



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