Alien Covenant: Hit and Myth in Outer Space


Alien Covenant, Ridley Scott, posterDespite the qualified reviews we went to see Alien Covenant this weekend. My big question going in was whether this sequel would be better than the obscure and infuriating Prometheus. The answer to that is yes.

My second question is whether the crew of the Covenant would have better security protocols and use improved scientific methods than their predecessors. The answer to that is a disappointing no.

Alien Covenant goes deeper into the mythos of how and where the ferocious predators with crystal teeth and dripping jaws came from. And that’s not always a good thing.

The Alien Origin Story

First, let me say that never has an origin story been murkier, both visually and thematically. Although Alien Covenant is shot in color, its palette is so muted that one could watch it in black and white and never miss a thing.

Second, although Ridley Scott has a character answer The Big Question (eventually) I left the theater trying to string together a chain of events that I found confusing because it seemed to loop back on itself. I couldn’t tell where one character did something and then another one picked up. (I know this is obscure. Bear with me.)

I can’t tell you much about that without giving away plot points. Suffice it to say that Michael Fassbender explains the xenomorph origin quite specifically but in a way that conflicts with what I saw in Prometheus. And I watched that one twice just to try and make sense of it.

Because what we saw in Prometheus, which takes place 11 years before this one, is not what Mr. Scott shows us in Alien Covenant. We expect developments to follow in sequence. But no.

Xenomorph Biology

Full admission: I have never understood the different phases of xenomorph biology and whether one creature is a chrysalis that’s necessary to give birth to a bigger, badder version.  Christopher Orr says in The Atlantic, “I am not certain of the precise taxonomical distinctions between Neomorphs, Xenomorphs, Protomorphs, and facehuggers.” Yup, that.

Alien Covenant, Ridley Scott

But then I have never understood what the really big ones eat since we never see any of the xenomorphs consume anything. Fueling a body that large would take a lot of food. Despite those huge jaws, enormous teeth, and slavering double mouths, however, the aliens seem to have a single-minded focus on procreation.

I once dated a few guys like that.

A Hit or a Mythos?

Perhaps I’m over thinking things. But I can’t help wanting a straight story instead of complex mythos that makes my head hurt. When I walk out of the theater thinking, “Wait it minute. He said … But that doesn’t jibe with … And when did … And WTF…” there’s a problem.

I have plenty of room for mythos, mind you. I love wondering about the kinds of things Ancient Aliens puts on the screen. But sometimes it just gets in the way. An over-complicated mythos killed “The X Files” and an impossible one left fans of “Lost” angry and unsatisfied. There has to be some kind of rational structure where F follows E and equations balance.

For a funny exposition of the problems, watch this video.
But do it only after you have seen the film because it’s full of spoilers.

The Prometheus Prequel

While the two Alien prequels do have a logic, it’s just not really obvious. In Prometheus it seems to go like this:

  1. In the beginning a race of Titans called the Engineers seeded life on earth.
  2. Then, for reasons we don’t know (and that have not been explained) they changed their minds and sent a ship back to eradicate their creation.
  3. The Engineers created a weapon of mass destruction (guess who) that escaped and caused their ship to crash.
  4. Humans follow star charts to the planet where the ship has crashed and encounter the alien infection.
  5. One human and one synthetic creature escape from the biological WMD on that planet and make their way back to the Engineers’ home world.

Alien Covenant, Michael Fassbender, crew, syntheticAlien Covenant begins 11 years later in a foreshadowing of the 1979 original with a ship detecting a mysterious signal and following it to its source. What could go wrong?

A lot, as we well know. As we also know, this crew has never seen Alien and so doesn’t understand that sticking your face in a giant, leathery, glutinous egg isn’t a really good idea. Even when the audience is screaming, “Don’t do it!” I sure hope our astronauts have more common sense when they finally encounter an unknown life form.

Alien Covenant and Creation

There is a more important message in Alien Covenant, however and it’s all about creation. What happens when we create creatures that can think and learn and grow but have no emotions, no compassion, no sympathy and no empathy. Like a Terminator or a Cylon,

In the Alien franchise the creations are called synthetics and we have met a few of them—Ash, Bishop, David—for better or worse. Here and now we call these fabrications artificial intelligence but we haven’t yet made them in our image.

The message for us all is: Be careful what you create. It might come back to bite you in the ass. Or worse. Much, much worse.

Reviews and Box Office

Alien Covenant opened to respectable Rotten Tomatoes scores of 71% Fresh and 61% Liked. Box office did not follow, however, and it has grossed only $57,372,000 on a production budge of $97M. Even in space you can be under water.

Alien Covenant, Ridley Scott, hiking on planetWhether you choose to see Alien Covenant is up to you. After all, no one is going to go to this movie who hasn’t seen at least one of the original franchise or Prometheus. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great, either. If you’re into the Alien mythos, you’ll want to see Alien Covenant just to keep up with the story and prepare for the next one.

If you want horror and gore, you’ll get lots of it. If you like “working in space” stories as I do, you’ll enjoy the beginning. If you enjoy solving  a mystery, well, there’s quite a bit of that, too. I’m not sorry we saw it.

Just don’t look in the egg.