Apparently one of Ridley Scott’s earliest and most ambitious plans for the Alien saga was to retell the Gospels through the Alien mythology, and to present the figure of Christ as bound up with the Alien in some way. That extraordinary conceptual leap underlies Alien: Covenant, the most radical revision of the franchise since the original film, and almost an alternative version of the original film, as Scott comes full circle to reimagine and revise some of his most iconic images and tableaux four decades later. As with Alien, the first act takes place on board a spaceship, the second act takes place on the Planetoid LV-426 (now simply termed Planet No. 4), and the third act takes place on a spaceship once again, this time with the Alien (or an iteration of the Alien) on board. However, this structural similarity just serves to contour the departures from the original film, which start in the second act, and result in a third act that is more terrifying, conceptually, than anything since Scott’s foundational vision, even or especially as Alien: Covenant is probably the first film in the franchise that consciously reaches for something beyond the appearance and habits of the Alien itself as the motor engine of its horror.
For fans of the franchise, then, the first act is the most recognisable, employing the same soundtrack and many of the same kinds of establishing shots that are found in Alien, as Scott makes it clear that he is still more adept than virtually every other major director at crafting classical cinematic suspense. Yet for all its deliberate quotation of Alien, this opening sequence never devolves into nostalgic pastiche, partly because of the way in which Scott incorporates new technology – both behind and in front of the camera – but also because of a couple of major differences and developments this time around. The first of these relate to the ship itself, since whereas the Nostromo was a commercial vehicle, the Covenant is a settlement vehicle, carrying a host of colonists and embryos to Origae-6, a planet several hundred light years from Earth that has been found suitable for terraforming and human habitation. From the outset, this is framed as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage, akin to the early Puritan settlements of the United States, with one of the crew members continually expressing their longing for a cabin beside a lake, and the sensation of open space, fresh air and untamed wilderness. In fact, the architecture of the ship itself seems to prophecy and pre-empt this world, with the clunky commercial hulk of the Nostromo giving way to a lithe, graceful, acrobatic structure, replete with sustainable solar energy sails – a ship that looks more like a maritime ship than any space vessel I’ve seen on the big screen.
With that anticipation of a New World animating the Covenant and its mission, it’s only natural that the vessel should be helmed by a religious visionary – Christopher Oram, a “man of faith” played by Billy Crudup, who becomes the spokesman for this paradisal future after the original captain, played by James Franco in a brief cameo, is killed during the meteorite shower that wakes the crew from their hypersleep before they arrive at their destination. As it turns out, Franco’s character was beloved by everyone on board – especially his partner “Danny,” played by Katherine Waterston – and wasn’t particularly religious himself, meaning that Christopher has to find a way to accommodate his faith to a crew who are, at best, indifferent to it, and in many cases openly suspicious of it. His first great battle as a leader, then, is his insistence on landing on the nearby “Planet No. 4,” after hearing a distress signal, since further examination reveals that this planet, which has somehow eluded surveying from Earth, seems to contain all the requirements for human survival, rendering the next hundred years of hypersleep to Origae-6 unnecessary. In effect, landing on Planet No. 4, instead of Origae-6, becomes Christopher’s prophetic mission and, despite all the objections of the crew – that the planet has never been surveyed, that the distress signal is suspicious, that the atmospheric conditions are unstable – he instructs the Covenant’s satellite vessel to touch down and see whether this New World might be amenable to being remade in his own image.
Throughout this opening act, there is a further departure from Alien, in the form of the robot Walter, played by Michael Fassbender. Whereas the presence of Ian Holm’s robotic undercarriage turned out to be a major twist in the original film, in Alien: Covenant it is Walker’s mechanical aptitude that controls the ship, and Walter who diligently wakes up the remaining members of the crew who have continued in hypersleep following the initial meteorite collision. In these early scenes, it is unclear how Walter relates to David, the robot of Prometheus, also played by Fassbender, except that he appears to come from a different, later line of robots, despite being visually identical. That confusion is only enhanced by a brief prologue that details a discussion between David and Peter Weyland, the Engineer of Prometheus, played once again by Guy Pearce. Since this conversation takes place in an entirely synthetic environment – a bright white room containing only a grand piano, a few pieces of furniture, and a digitally composited Edenic landscape – it’s hard to locate it with respect to the rest of the film, even by the time we reach the conclusion, and feels more like a notional or hypothetical state than a physical or concrete human space.
Against that backdrop, David and Peter conduct a conversation about the nature of creation, the possibility of perfection and the existence of a higher power. In a haunting exchange between creator and son, Peter confides in David that his sole motivation for engineering – and perfecting – human life has been to convince himself of the possibility of a higher power, encouraging David to continue his legacy by envisioning himself as a creator in turn, in order to conceive and produce an even more perfect specimen than himself. On the one hand, David – named after Michelangelo’s statue – has a considerably easier job on his hands than David, reminding him that “You see your creator – I am looking at mine. You will die – I will not.” While Peter’s creator remains elusive and Peter himself remains fallible, David’s creator is standing before him, while David himself is more perfect than anything his own creator could ever hope to experience. Therein lies the rub, however, since David’s own perfection suggests that any further state of perfect he might envisage is likely to lie outside the realm of what mere humans can conceptualise. In an elliptical way, then, David – and David’s capacity for creation – is framed as an emanation of the divine, as if the paradisal luminosity of this prologue were part and parcel of the New World that the settlers of the Covenant are all longing to experience.
As the Covenant lands on Planet No. 4 for the beginning of the second act, it’s therefore clear that the film’s religious overtones are somehow bound up with the relationship between Christopher, Walter and David, who we still haven’t seen outside of this brief prologue. Nor have we seen the Alien, and yet Alien: Covenant would already be a tour de force of science fiction before this point, with Scott demonstrating a veteran director’s taste for all the little details and touches that made the original film so memorable, and that were often lacking from Prometheus. When the crew finally step out of the satellite vessel, that blooms out into a luxuriously and gorgeously atmospheric sense of place, as they pass through a spectacular array of landscapes on their way to the distress signal. Whether because of local weather patterns, or because of some catastrophic meteorological event in the thirty years that elapse before the arrival of the Nostromo, the planet is much lusher and more verdant this time around, dripping with moisture, fog and condensation, as every surface runs riot with greenery and moss. For all their differences, the Alien films share a common commitment to stylising claustrophobia, rendering these broad vistas and expansive panoramas as radical a revision of the franchise as anything I have seen to date.
At the same time, this panoramic fecundity enhances the odd silence of Planet No. 4, since for all the greenery there are no insects, birds or animal life of any kind, despite fleeting evidence of a humanoid civilization, along with evidence that another space vessel has crashed here some time in the recent past. On the one hand, that sombient stillness intensifies the Edenic overtones, and continues the contemplative atmosphere of the opening act, as the planet appears to be poised just before the moment of animal evolution but aeons after the decay of some great society as well. Yet it’s hard not to find this quieteness a little unsettling as well, especially given our knowledge of the events of Prometheus, as Christopher’s Edenic visions start to take on a more sinister and threatening edge. It feels right, then, that the Alien doesn’t emerge from the crashed ship or the pods of the original film, but from a series of botanical growths scattered throughout the landscape, which send out a minute burst of particles under the slightest pressure. Two members of the crew are unfortunate enough to inhale these particles – the first closer to the Covenant’s satellite vessel, the second right on the brink of the crashed ship – and within minutes they’re experiencing severe symptoms, as the Alien gestates far more rapidly than in any of the previous films.
At this point, it’s not exactly clear how and why the Alien has come to exist in the first place, nor how it has managed to insert itself so deftly into the ecosystem of the planet as a whole. Similarly, its accelerated life cycle seems to mark a departure from the franchise, along with its process of gestation, since when it does emerge, it’s slightly different from the Alien we have seen before, breaking out of the back of its hosts, rather than the stomach, and exhibiting a slightly different facial structure and body movement, along with a more loping, ambling gait. In some ways, that disorientation makes this sequence all the more terrifying, since for the first time since Alien the audience is as clueless as the crew, half of whom are travelling back frantically to the satellite vessel, and the other half of whom are trying to contain the Alien that has already emerged within the vessel, which finally explodes as the other half of the crew arrive on the scene and find a second Alien bursting out of the back of their patient. Across these scenes, the Alien has a new speed and dexterity that cuts sharply across the slow burn of the opening acts, in a exponentially escalating tour de force of terror that rivals anything in the original film. At the same time, however, the Alien is itself less visually terrifying than in the original, partly because it is clearly digitally generated, and partly because its features are simply less refined, mechanical and merciless than H.R. Giger’s brutal vision. In a way, it’s a bit like watching a draft for the Alien, especially since this is also the first time we have ever seen it in open space, with its presence not quite ramifying in the same way when divorced from the corridors and channels of a spaceship, even if that very dislocation also renders it more eerily alien and unusual at the same time.
In other words, it’s the idea of the Alien – and how rapidly it departs from what we and the crew have seen before – that renders it so terrifying, setting up Alien: Covenant for the most astonishing reconceptualisation of the franchise to date. This starts with the sudden arrival of David, the robot from the original film, who appears to banish the Alien and then encourages the crew to accompany him to a space that is also unlike any other in the franchise to date. Whereas Scott and his successors shared an aversion to any interior that might resemble Earth, here we suddenly find ourselves amidst the ruins of the original inhabitants of the planet, which David has refashioned as his own dwelling quarters in the wake of the destruction of the Prometheus. While there are still some residues of the original occupants and their technologies, these dimly lit rooms, which are cut straight from the rock, feel more like a series of tableaux from early Christian history, a space where the faithful might shelter from infidels and practice their religion in safety and solitude. Accordingly, in the years since Prometheus, David has adopted the hermetic, contemplative demeanor of a monk, decorating his quarters with devotional images and turning every free space into a shrine of some sort, although it’s not initially clear what his particular theology entails.
As the crew spend more and more time with David, it feels as if Alien: Covenant is gradually morphing into a historical drama, with their robot host finally taking them out to gaze upon the destroyed amphitheatre of the original civilization, which is clearly modelled after Ancient Rome, and designed to evoke the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In a startling revelation, David confides that this civilization was destroyed by the Aliens, leading to a flashback that would feel more at home in a sword-and-sandal epic than in Scott’s franchise, in which the Aliens rain down on the planet like a thirteenth plague of Egypt. Whether framed in terms of the destruction of Egypt or the destruction of Rome, however, it’s clear that the Aliens represent a new dispensation analogous to the New Testament – at least for David – and that their arrival is somehow enmeshed with the promise he made to his creator to embody the mystery of creation himself. That in itself would be a radical conceptual revision, but Scott takes things one step further, with David disclosing that the Alien isn’t a naturally occurring species, but his own creation and his own personal testament to the possibility of a creator. Faced with his own perfection, and the conundrum of how to further perfect it, David devised the Alien, now presented as a deity in itself, or at least as an image of everything sublime, inhuman and unknowable about the prospect of the divine.
In other words, the great twist of Alien: Covenant is that the Alien was conceived and engineered by a robot playing the role of creator, explaining the mechanical sleekness that has always suffused even its most “natural” motions and gestures. In one of the most powerful cinematic myths of origin I have ever seen, David takes the crew through the long process of composition – which started with experimenting on Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw after the end of Prometheus – and then shows them all the incomplete versions of the Alien he has devised to date, in a horrific sequence that recalls – and exceeds – the manifold versions of Ripley that we saw at the beginning of Alien: Resurrection. In the process, Alien: Covenant captures something inextricably other about the concept of the divine itself, just as Christopher’s determination to land on the planet does finally bring him to a kind of theodical reckoning, as David uses him to experiment with the latest incarnation of the Alien, and the first to emerge from the iconic pods. In the most terrifying scene of the film, Christopher gazes up at David in the moments before the Alien breaks out his chest, as if, finally, coming to terms with the full otherness of his creator, in as powerful a theodical moment as any I’ve seen on the big screen. At the same time, this scene also marks the first time at which David has perfected his creation as well, gazing on rapturously at the Alien bursting out of Christopher’s chest in the same way that Steven gazed upon him in the opening prologue, as the sculptural perfection of the Alien finally manifests itself for the first time, light years beyond anything Michelangelo could ever conceive, let alone produce.
If this scene addresses the otherness of the divine, then it’s equally concerned with the prospect of how that otherness might take human form – a preoccupation of so many religions, but Christianity in particular – since the paradox of David’s creation is that it still needs a proper host to achieve perfection. While the Alien may be inhuman, it can only become so by gestating inside a human, as David turns to his new collective of captives as an opportunity to further cement his creative vision. In another incredible revision of Alien, then, it turns out that humans aren’t merely an occasional or incidental host for the Alien, but are actually necessary for the Alien to become alien in the first place, in what is increasingly framed by Alien: Covenant as an act of immaculate conception. More incredibly, still, it seems that what the Alien finally requires to achieve perfection is not merely a human host, but a human of faith, with its classic incarnation seeming to emerge from Christopher’s belief system as much as his stomach, and from Christopher’s perception of David as much as David’s own invention and ingenuity. Whereas Aliens, Alien 3 and Alien 3 all sought to reinvent the central spectacle of the Alien – making it bigger, faster, more realistic – here Scott recapitulates the horror of the original by simply forcing us to shift our perception of it. After all, if the Alien was terrifying as an organism, then it is even more terrifying as a conscious instrument of torture and fear. Put another way, the point of Alien: Covenant isn’t to make the Alien itself scarier, but to collapse it into everything alien about Christian imagery and iconography, as if Scott were reckoning with his own religious heritage in his older age.
That astonishing reconceptualisation of the franchise paves the way for the third act, in which a struggling handful of the crew manage to escape with Walter’s assistance, though not without the final version of the Alien – the Alien that emerged from Christopher’s stomach – making its way on board too, as if in a kind of surrogate for his guiding spiritual vision. At this point, the action becomes more recognisable again, with the Alien stalking people up and down corridors, and through tight, claustrophobic spaces, although its presence is infinitely more terrifying now that we are aware of the sublime agency responsible for its creation. During these sequences, the digital surveillance on board the ship means that the whereabouts of the Alien are never really an issue in the same way as in the original film, just as there’s a tacit acknowledgment that, even now, nothing can really rival the visual impact of the original Alien, with Scott once again opting for kinetics over detailed examinations of its facial physiology. As in the original film, the crew manage to blast the Alien into outer space for a momentary reprieve and false sense of comfort, although, this time around, the Alien doesn’t return for a final confrontation or reckoning.
Instead, as the last members of the crew are tucked back into their hypersleep pods, we discover that it is David, rather than Walter, who has returned to the Covenant, and that he has brought a specimen of Alien embryos with him, which he stores alongside the human embryos before strolling back over his domain as Wagner’s “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” plays over the closing credits, making me wonder whether the next instalment in the franchise might focus on the Alien as an agent of ethnic cleansing as much as spiritual rapture. In any case, as the Covenant resets its course for Origae-6, the prospect of David presiding over a New World run by his creations is, finally, something new in the franchise that rivals the terror of the original Alien. As David frames himself as the messianic answer to Christopher’s prophecies, and the mission of the Covenant as a whole, I can’t help but feel that this is a theodicy that is as uncompromising and brilliant, in its own way, as The Passion of Joan of Arc or Diary of a Country Priest or Solaris. While Scott may not rival the aestheticist perfectionism of Dreyer, Bresson or Tarkovsky, the film itself arguably gestures towards a form of perfection beyond what it can visualise and actualise – a form of perfection that only the spectacle of the Alien itself can start to fully approximate. In its own way, then, Alien: Covenant is a film driven by aporias, gaps of conceptualisation and representation, elevating David to an isolation and distance more terrifying and remote than than any other figure in the franchise to date, Alien included: “No one understands the lonely perfection of my dream. I’ve found perfection here, I’ve created it…a perfect organism.”