Ridley Scott has directed three films in the Alien franchise. That in and of itself isn’t a great achievement. The greatness can be found in the unique ways he told the films’ respective stories. 1979’s Alien was, on a purely conceptual level, a B monster movie, and yet Scott wisely avoided a campy approach; he took the material seriously, putting real effort into art direction, casting, set design, and pacing. The result is what many, myself included, consider one of the scariest movies ever made. With 2012’s Prometheus, a prequel, Scott went one step further, imbuing his thrills and chills with philosophical, spiritual subtexts. It begged age old questions of who we are and where we come from. It was, in its own way, about the search for God.
Now Scott has made Alien: Covenant, a direct sequel to Prometheus that once again combines pure terror with existential quandaries. If Prometheus was about the search for God, then Covenant is a cautionary tale about playing God, of perverting science as a way to feed into one’s delusions of grandeur. This puts it on the same shelf as Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, two of literature’s more well-known titles. This also makes it genuinely frightening as well as intelligent and thought-provoking. Amidst the visceral thrills these movies are known for, such as alien creatures violently bursting out of human bodies, we have psychological thrills – behavioral insights that are, to say the very least, disturbing.
One of the major catalysts of the events of Prometheus was David, an android created to serve the unscrupulous decrepit billionaire CEO Peter Weyland; Covenant opens with a flashback sequence in which a newly-activated David (Michael Fassbender) and a much younger Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) have a philosophical discussion, part of which involves Weyland telling David that his intended purpose, among other things, is to seek out the creator of men. Within David, who tellingly names himself after Michelangelo’s statue of the famous biblical giant slayer, the figurative wheels begin turning with the literal ones. And as we saw in Prometheus, he calculates very well.
We now flash forward to ten years after Prometheus, at which point the starship Covenant carries a crew, 2,000 passengers, and 1,000 embryos towards a distant planet for colonization. One of the crewmembers is an android named Walter (also Fassbender), who, despite sharing David’s physical features, has improved mechanics, reworked interpersonal skills, and an American accent. A mysterious shockwave disrupts the ship’s voyage, forcing the crew to awaken from stasis. The captain (an uncredited James Franco) unfortunately burns to death in his cryotube, leaving his first mate, a nervous and obviously unprepared man of faith named Oram (Billy Crudup), in command.
In searching for the source of that shockwave, the crew discovers a previously undetected planet. Oram decides to alter the plan and colonize there, in part because it’s just as capable of sustaining life, in part because it’s far closer than the planet they were originally heading towards. This doesn’t sit well with terraforming officer Branson (Katherine Waterston), the grieving widow of the dead captain. How is it possible that a planet so perfectly suited for colonization was missed by all other space expeditions? Why would they suddenly find it at this particular time under the Covenant’s particular circumstances? Something isn’t right. It smells fishy. Oram agrees to officially note Branson’s objection in the log, but insists on going forward with his plan.
I dare not describe the remainder the film. Yes, the alien creatures we’ve come to know and fear work their way into the story, but I don’t want to reveal how or why. It’s not just because I’d be spoiling the movie for you. It’s also because you should see just how skillfully Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper weave their tale, how cleverly and shockingly the moral is given. As was the case with the original Alien, and even with Prometheus, you should also revel in the way they want to frighten you; there are plenty of monster movie moments of violence and gore in Alien: Covenant, but there are also subtler aspects that are truly unnerving, aspects that run deep and seek out our most basic fears.