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Student Film Review

Alien: Covenant - one door closes, another opens

Brighton Film School Filmmaking HNC student, Arran Armitage, reviews the new Ridley Scott Alien film:

I want to begin by saying that I really enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but I did have some problems with it, and I expected to feel this way before walking into the cinema. This newest edition to the Alien franchise is without a doubt better than its predecessor, Prometheus, though still does have some flaws. However, instead of talking about the pros and cons of Alien: Covenant alone, I’ll be discussing the overall story that Ridley Scott has set up with these new additions to the franchise and why it has left me both excited and underwhelmed.

Before I continue, a disclaimer must be made that major plot points of Alien: Covenant are going to be discussed so there are spoilers ahead. Alien: Covenant follows the crew on board the colony ship ‘Covenant’, on their way to a remote planet with over 2,000 colonists in cryogenic preservation and around 1,400 embryos. Seven years before their expected landing, the crew are woken up in their cryogenic pods by an unexpected solar flare, damaging their ship. During their new mission to rebuild the ship they stumble upon a nearby moon capable of sustaining human life. Human instinct makes the worst of them as they decide to explore the moon hoping for a shorter journey, despite no preparation. Unfortunately, they are unaware of the history that has taken place: the events that we have seen in Prometheus.

There, they find David, an identical yet less advanced model of the crew’s synthetic android, Walter, and the sole survivor of the Prometheus events. After some crew members become infected by the moon’s natural habitat, multiple Xenomorphs are born from their hosts and begin killing the rest of the crew one by one. At this point, it becomes clear to us that the Xenomorphs aren’t the only threat. Before terminating and posing as Walter, David reveals that following Prometheus he and Shaw (the only human to survive the first film) travelled to the engineer’s planet where he not only wiped out the entire species, but killed Shaw. A decade has passed as he has been alone on the planet, experimenting with Xenomorph DNA and the remains of Shaw’s deceased body to perfect the creature. Once the surviving crew members make it back onto the Covenant ship with David, who they still think is Walter, he puts them back in their cryogenic pods for the remaining journey. He then places two facehugger embryos with the rest of the thousands of human embryos, drastically changing the fate of the future colony.

Undoubtedly, the most interesting part of this story is David; however, this is also the beginning of what makes it problematic. It’s clear that Ridley Scott and the rest of the creative team are moving on from the literal ‘alien’ aspects of the story and instead focusing on human creation; who or what created us and what we have created as a result. We see these themes explored straight away in the brilliantly filmed and acted opening scene where David is first activated by his creator. His first order is to name himself and, after taking inspiration from Michelangelo's statue of the same name, he chooses David. He then is given the simple task of pouring a glass of water and immediately questions his objective to serve humans. Already, the history of humanity and the meaning of its creation is discussed through the perspective of artificial intelligence, introducing the underlying motive of this sequel.

There is no surprise that Scott and the writing team have abandoned alien exploration as a means of scaring us and instead are showing us the horror of technological advances. The ever-increasing development of technology is a growing concern and, as with every cultural phenomenon, this can be seen through film and TV. With the release of films like Ex Machina and programmes like Black Mirror over the past few years, it’s clear what scares us, and now what does not. The first Alien film was released at a time where most films depicted aliens as some form of greater life. They have intelligence that is far beyond us and mostly have intentions of mass destruction upon Earth. H.R. Giger’s disturbing imagination of alien life brought a fresh and unexplored type of horror to cinema. Though since then, film has explored alien life endlessly and similarly to most horror genres, it has been rehashed to death.

So, this new addition to the franchise is undoubtedly going to be reinvented. For example, in the scene where Oram comes face to face (literally) with the facehugger, audiences were expecting it to burst out of the egg. It was the addition of David calmly watching Oram being attacked that added fear to the scene. They scare us with our technological creations instead of the alien itself as this is what we now find scary, which is completely justified. My problem however isn’t that the franchise is being reinvented, but how they have decided to reinvent it. While I think this new story explores very interesting subjects, it is also a bold move to challenge our understanding of what Alien has been about since 1979. What did terrify me about the alien was its mere existence; the idea that something as monstrous and flat out disturbing as the creature could be a part of our universe. Any hopeful and optimistic answer that has been given to the meaning of life is removed, as we have seen this kind of life that’s sole ambition is to brutally kill whatever is in its path. Not for food, nor satisfaction, just to kill. That thought is terrifying, to me at least.

Prometheus and its follow-up Alien: Covenant have replaced these themes of mystery and existentialism with answers, answers which put humans in the centre of the story. Yes, comparing ourselves to the engineers does make us seem smaller in the universe and learning that our creators were wiped out by a human creation is very interesting. However, the engineers fit the archetype of alien life that I mentioned before; higher intelligent life with intentions of destroying Earth (as seen at the end of Prometheus). This is much less frightening to me as it’s been seen before, it doesn’t shock us the same way the Xenomorph did. As well as this, now that we know a human creation helped perfect the Xenomorph into what we know and love from the first film, the fear is lost as it is no longer an alien, but more an experiment put in the wrong hands at the cause of humans. Humanity is now in the centre of why this horrific alien came to be. I can see the intention behind this choice; by making us the root of the problem, the cause of so much death and destruction previously seen in the franchise, we are the ones to fear. However, to me, this sucks out all ideas of disconnected and unimaginable forms of life that could be lurking in the rest of space. It removes everything that made the alien alien.

Now, this does contradict what I mentioned before; I am aware that societal concerns have changed since 1979 and themes of technological disadvantages are present in modern thrillers, I don’t expect that to change for this film. This is why I am in no way criticising the makers of this film for focusing less on the alien to make sure we are actually scared. What they have crafted is a very interesting and well thought out way of tying together of the story. I just wish it was done in a way that didn’t diminish what scared us from the beginning. After struggling to think of something that I would have preferred, I am left wondering if it needed tying together at all as it’s the mystery of the alien that feared a whole generation. I always appreciate new ideas to an existing story; however, I am sad to see one of my favourite, and undoubtedly one of the most influential horror films in cinema history, rewritten in a way that takes away what made it so great.

Despite all of this, I am keeping an open mind for where Scott will take this story. From seeing this film, I have a better understanding of what Prometheus was trying to do, and now have more respect for it as a film. It’s clear that each film is revealing the bigger picture: who or what created us and what we have created as a result. Prometheus left us thinking it was the engineers that brought us the classic alien, however David plays a vital role in this film. Who truly perfects the Xenomorph into what we saw in 1979? As for us and the engineers, like Scott said, “If Engineers are the forerunners of us, and therefore were creators of life forms in places that were possible for biology to function, who created that? Where's the big boy?” I am excited to see who or what we will find out in the final instalment.