It’s helpful to know going in that Alien: Covenant is more of a Prometheus sequel than it is an Alien film. Despite an ad campaign that emphasizes the infamous xenomorph alien and a return to the franchise’s roots, director Ridley Scott is far more interested in the questions he raised in 2012’s controversial Alien prequel. This should come as no surprise for anybody who’s been keeping up with Ridley, who declared the original alien creature “done. Cooked” in 2014. He’s been envisioning a sequel to Prometheus for some time, and didn’t come around to re-introducing the xenomorph until fairly recently.
Given Scott’s hesitancy to fall back on the iconic beast, Alien: Covenant is noteworthy for how well it bridges the gap between Prometheus and Alien. The film takes some bold creative risks in merging the two stories, but ultimately does so in a way that the xenomorph is not only compatible, but integral to the story being told. It’s the last line in an increasingly long line of creations and creators, all with complex relationships to those that made them and those that they will create.
I liked Alien Covenant a lot, in large part because it is so genuinely interested in its central theme, and conscious to weave it into every single plot thread. The film follows a crew on a colonization mission, creators in and of themselves, looking for a planet on which to procreate and further spread mankind. It is heavily focused on Michael Fassbender’s androids and their simultaneous aspiration toward creation and distaste for their own creators. Even the way that creatures in the film reproduce plays into this theme, with a more primitive form metamorphosing into something more complex through means of a host. It’s all a natural extension of Prometheus’s story, which focused on a search for our own creators.
But unlike Prometheus, which feels like a film without a third act, Alien: Covenant is structurally solid and dramatically compelling. The core of the film shifts a bit throughout its runtime, but there’s a clear sense of narrative progression. Certain arcs set up in the previous film come to fruition here, and characters make major decisions that have enormous ramifications. It’s the rare film that begs to be engaged with intellectually while still not shirking its responsibility to entertain.
Michael Fassbender is a large part of the reason why it all works. While I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling the story, Fassbender is given a lot to do here, and his performance is key to communicating certain thematic ideas which are never spelled out in the dialogue. In fact, there are times where his performance is almost TOO good, tipping its hand toward twists which have not yet been revealed.
Covenant is not a bad horror film, either. While it would be disingenuous to say that it’s as effective as the original Alien, Ridley Scott is no slouch when it comes to tension and surprise. This in no way feels like a factory-produced horror movie, popping in with uninspired jump-scares every few minutes to keep its audience paying attention. It takes its time building to its danger, and when things start to go downhill, they go downhill quick. Like in Prometheus, the film’s intensity comes from its decision to layer multiple crises on top of each other after prolonged periods of quiet and build-up.
Still, how much you enjoy Alien: Covenant is going to rely largely on your expectations. Even when it’s functioning as a classic Alien film, Ridley Scott’s heart is elsewhere. But if you’re interested in high-concept science fiction, Covenant fits the bill. It approaches Prometheus’s central conceits with far more depth, and is a significantly better told story.
The big, bold reveal of Alien: Covenant is that the xenomorph species in the original Alien series was the creation of David, the android played by Michael Fassbender in Prometheus. To be quite honest, this reveal doesn’t really change anything about the other alien movies (well, outside of the Alien vs Predator films, which it completely invalidates). The xenomorph was never a movie monster in need of an origin story; it’s simply a killing machine, something for Ripley to overcome.
But in a story centered around David, they are an integral and fascinating element. Covenant doesn’t devote too much time or effort toward explaining David’s motives, but they are quite clear if one looks back to Prometheus. That film was all about a crew looking for their creators, yet David could never truly relate. He’s lived among his creators from the very moment he gained consciousness, and yet, when he asks a Prometheus crew member why he was created, he’s told “because we could.” “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” he says.
With Weyland dead and David’s primary purpose eradicated, he is free to pursue whatever he decides is his priority. Like many people with dad-issues, this manifests in his own desire to be a better father, and a better creator. The obsessive biological tinkerer we meet midway through Alien: Covenant is a machine who has devoted his life to creating a “perfect” lifeform. In his eyes, this is a creature that can most efficiency destroy the careless lifeforms that created him. His hatred toward his creators extends even further upward in the film’s other big twist: that David wiped out the Engineer race that gave humanity life.
The ultimate conflict in Alien: Covenant is between a species (humanity) driven by their own continued existence and expansion and a synthetic person who attains pride and meaning through creating an organism meant to destroy. Whatever you think about how Covenant fits into the overarching Alien franchise, this is a film that is obsessively committed to theme, created by a man with a lot on his mind. That alone makes it more interesting than most popular entertainment.