Alien Covenant

May 19, 2017
Katherine Waterston meets the Alien
Katherine Waterston meets the Alien

Damien Hirst must feel pissed off that the release of Alien Covenant occurred after he’d already completed his massive Venice Biennale exhibition, Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Amid bronze and marble effigies of every conceivable mythological creature, every pop culture icon from Mickey Mouse to Yo-Landi of Die Antwoord, the only character missing from the party was Ridley Scott’s Alien.

It would have been a perfect inclusion, not simply because the Alien has become a figure of cult-like adoration (where do I buy the action figure?) but because Scott is to the cinema what Hirst is to the visual arts, and vice-versa. Both men have a passion for spectacle and are willing to think on a grand scale. Both have well-developed commercial instincts that take precedence over any artistic or intellectual ambitions.

Scott reveals his inner pragmatist in Alien Covenant, which abandons the philosophical musings of its predecessor, Prometheus (2012), in favour of more action, more violence, more cheap thrills. Personally, I rather liked Prometheus, but the fans gave it the thumbs down. Scott has listened to those fans and reverted back to the model of an inter-planetary horror movie we saw in the very first Alien film in 1979.

I was a teenager when I watched the Alien burst out of John Hurt’s chest, and I thought it was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen on screen (NB. this was long before Love Actually was made). Exploding torsos and crushed skulls are now standard fare in horror movies, and Alien Covenant gives us the full repertoire.

Before sitting down to watch such a film you know that everyone – or almost everyone – is going to die. The major point of interest is the way they are dispatched, and here Scott shows considerable ingenuity.

The story begins with a brief exchange between the android, David (Michael Fassbender) and his maker Weyland (Guy Pearce), whom we met in Prometheus. Following this prologue we switch to a space ship carrying human embryos to a new planet. The crew are asleep in Hollywood’s standard-issue cryogenic cells, with the ship being controlled by another android called Walter, who is identical in appearance to David; and a disembodied main frame computer named “Mother”, a benign descendent of 2001’s Hal.

There is a crisis, crew members are lost, and the plan of pushing on for seven years towards the original destination is put aside. Nobody wants to get back into the cells, and they have just picked up a radio transmission of John Denver’s Country Roads, emanating from a nearby planet. Although this would be enough to send most of us off in the other direction, it exerts a weird attraction on the crew. “Big mistake!” as Donald Trump might tweet.

Upon landing on the planet, which has a breathable atmosphere and earth-like vegetation, it seems eerily quiet. No animals, no birds, only a scattering of small pods that emit miniscule Alien parasites when trodden on. Mayhem soon breaks out, but the exploration party are rescued by David the android, who has been living on this planet as the sole survivor of the Prometheus expedition.

The problem is that David has become the ‘mad scientist’ beloved of B-grade science fiction films, who puts himself above fallible humanity and enjoys playing the role of God. Although he may have rescued the travellers this doesn’t mean he wishes them long life and good health.

From this point things get really, really nasty, with Katherine Waterston playing the Sigourney Weaver girl-action-hero role. Unfortunately for the movie the plot grows so clichéd and predictable that our only pleasures, if one can use that word about a gore fest, are visual and visceral.

The lazy plotting is a disappointment because Alien Covenant is a masterpiece of special effects, from the ship unfurling a solar sail in deep space, to the grisly new permutations of the Alien, who is less like a robot this time, and more an indefinable blend of human, plant and animal that thinks only of killing and propagating.

We see the Alien as a collective mind distributed over a potentially unlimited number of organisms. The fully grown version is a slavering predator that slaughters its victims with maximum speed and efficiency. He has all the necessary attributes for a successful career as a senior executive.

When it comes to putting viewers on the edge of their seats, Scott is a master. Unlike the more brainless breed of action film director – hello Roland Emmerich, Len Wiseman – he is alert to the power of ideas that add another layer to the obligatory massacres and explosions. Alien Covenant flirts with a range of possible scenarios and sub-plots, particularly in the interaction between the two androids, David and Walter, but ultimately skips over anything that threatens to momentarily staunch the flow of blood. As the door is left ajar for yet another sequel we’ll be able to monitor this fight to the death between action and intellect when the story resumes a few hundred years from now.

Alien Covenant
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by John Logan & Dante Harper, after a story by Jack Paglen & Michael Green
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bechir, Jussie Smollett, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Fernandez
UK/Australia/New Zealand/USA, rated MA 15+, 122 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 May, 2017