Tuesday 30 May 2017

Alien: Covenant - Ridley Scott

Alien: Covenant - Ridley Scott

That gory, bloody, chest-bursting birth scene from Alien remains the series' most iconic scene some 38 years after it was released. So, considering Alien: Covenant is an origin story, it makes sense that it would revolve around the idea of birth. It's just this horror franchise is leaning too heavily on the philosophies of existentialism and creationism to truly scare. Can a film really be a philosophical think piece and a monster movie all in one?

Briefly, the plot follows the crew of the Covenant ship on a colonisation mission - a rebirth of sorts for mankind. It's a mix of Passengers and Mass Effect - the crew awake from stasis in a freak accident before following a distress signal to a remote planet potentially capable of sustaining life. It's here they meet David (Michael Fassbender) the android from Prometheus, as well as the titular face-huggers. Things do not go well.

The film has a number of flaws, but the biggest is that it's essentially two films spliced together. As a bridge between the ambiguous philosophising of Prometheus and the tense horror of the original film, Alien: Covenant is the apparently missing puzzle piece forced into the great Alien jigsaw in an attempt to create an origin story that nobody really wanted. It's a film that over-indulges in explanation, developing a theological creationist myth for some scary looking aliens. It's deep and meaningful and unnecessary.

The result is a film that's trying to do too much and it's the pacing that suffers. After a slow start, the second half sees the tension ramping up with a string of Alien tropes that are both tiresomely repetitive and comfortingly familiar: gruesome deaths, bursting chests, and scientists with dodgy haircuts making silly decisions. Yet they're interspersed with Fassbender's android act whose intellectual chit chat breaks up the momentum. Ridley Scott is trying to make us think as much as scare us, but here those emotions feel diametrically opposed. A second casualty of this is the distinct lack of development for the good guys: they're little more than predictable fodder for the aliens, all we can do is guess the order they're picked off. Don't go expecting a hero like Ripley here.

Yet this is a Ridley Scott film after all, so it comes with all the beautiful visuals, creepy sound design and brilliant acting that you'd expect. The latest muse is Fassbender, who plays two androids: David from the Prometheus ship and Walter from Covenant. The film may explore the origins of the aliens, but really it's a film about androids and their relationship with humankind, the relationship between creator and created. As Walter, Fassbender is calculating and robotic, but as David he is a deliciously erudite, slightly campy and elegant presence on-screen. One outstanding scene sees him conversing with himself in an affecting speech about creativity, although how he kept a straight-face during the "fingering" line is beyond me.

With David we have a sort of Frankenstein parallel in which the enlightened monster becomes the creator himself, his godlike lust for power matched by an eccentric love of Wagner and Romantic art. It's a fitting comparison to the film itself: a clumsy amalgam of two very different genres, its horrifying exterior juxtaposed with a mind of philosophical debate.


Watch: Alien: Covenant is out now.