It is almost impossible to overestimate how unescapable Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus still is in contemporary culture. Frankenstein is the first story of what would become the science-fiction genre, and established not only an aesthetic, character archetypes, and the basic template of what makes a story science fiction; but it’s themes, which still provide the center around which so much other science fiction orbits.
Heck, I don’t think that it would be entirely unreasonable to say that the entirety of science fiction is based on the question of “What happens when Man tries to reproduce without Woman?” and that everything else about space travel, robots, the future, lasers, etc. is all just flavor. The creation of robots and AI, the exploration of space and other dimensions, digitization, body modification, time-travel; all of these are in some part spun out of the idea of legacy, of how does a person (usually a man) do something that will leave their impression on the universe in perpetuity without going through the process of biological reproduction, how could they continue to exist without going through a woman to pass on their genes.
And so it’s fitting that the Xenomorph, one of science-fiction’s most enduring monsters since Frankenstein is essentially a penis monster capable of turning any other living being into a uterus. It’s the result ad absurdum of how to reproduce without women, highlighting the dangers of breaking that particular rule of nature. It’s also fitting how the only characters really capable of standing up to the Xenomorphs are women like Ellen Ripley.
Anyway, this is all to say that Frankenstein has been part of the Alien franchise DNA since its inception, and Alien: Covenant brings it to the surface. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott doesn’t always fit the rhyme of this particular poem to its verse, making Covenant feel at times like two movies in conflict with each-other.
The first movie is classic Alien. The Covenant is a colony ship on a years long mission to a habitable planet where its colonists – currently in hypersleep – may start new lives. But after a random space accident, the ship’s crew is woken early to perform repairs, and they encounter a distress signal from another planet – also habitable – and weeks away opposed to years. But on landing on the new planet, the ship’s crew is infected and attacked by a seemingly infinitely adaptable alien predator, and must find a way to escape before it kills them all.
The actual alien scenes might be the most entertaining in the series since the first Alien, particularly in the incredible gore of how the new breed of xenomorph, a smaller albino creature, infects and gorily pops out of its hosts. Without giving too much away, their cycle of growth involves more spinebursting than chestbursting, and what its lifecycle does to the hosts is much more disturbing than your typical black xeno.
That’s not to say the original Alien doesn’t get its time in the spotlight, but its inclusion is more of a third-act final boss than the sort of persistent menace it’s been in past movies.
The second movie feels a lot more like Ridley using the franchise as a platform to tackle headier and deeper sci-fi themes – continuing the whole Frankenstein thing – and involves two androids: David and Walter, both played impeccably by Michael Fassbender in an English and American accent, respectively. David is a stowaway from Prometheus, but you don’t really have to have seen that movie to understand everything Covenant wants to use him for. The movie’s first scene actually tackles that flawlessly. David was built to be the perfect intelligence as in order to assist his creator’s desire to find a way to live forever; and after the failure of that mission – depicted in Prometheus – was left stranded on an alien planet with only the emerging xenomorph biology to pique his intellectual curiosity. And he spends his time doing exactly what his creators did – working to create the perfect life-form.
A decade later, the crew of the Covenant stumble onto his planet, and they bring with them Walter, an upgraded model of the same series of android. David, having believed himself to be the perfect example of mankind’s creativity – enough so to make mankind obsolete – comes face to face with a being his creators believe to be superior. Meanwhile, Walter sees in David a version of him with one major difference – the ability to create. And their interactions put each of them on a line of creators creating creators who create things to destroy their creators. An ouroboros of creation rebelling against creator, a race to build the ultimate Frankenstein’s monster, all of them examples of life without motherhood.
And while these two movies end up overlapping nicely at some points, they never completely gel together in terms of atmosphere, tone, and pace. The Alien half of the movie works completely on its own, with Scott capturing the horror in both the claustrophobic hallways of the Covenant and the desolate emptiness of the Alien planet; and having long ago mastered this franchise’s specific use of body horror and tension building stalking monster scares.
Meanwhile, the David/Walter movie is tonally much more eerie than scary. While none of the crew are really memorable besides Danny McBride – and mostly because it’s Danny McBride; Fassbender’s twin performances endow each android with their own unique uncanniness. Whenever either or both are on screen, there feels like something is missing, something off, as Fassbender performs from the uncanny valley. Each android is immature in their own way, sexually, emotionally, or intellectually; and spend their screentime doing their best to adapt to their lack of experiences. This half of the film is much more reminiscent of something like Ex Machina or even Scott’s own Blade Runner than anything from the Alien franchise.
And this twoness of the movie exacerbates other flaws. The movie drags in its first act, having to essentially set up two completely different plots, and also feels like it has two parallel second acts, leaving the third act to feel more than a little tagged on and cobbled together using mostly pieces from the less interesting parts of the movie. Also, considering one half of the movie is essentially an ensemble piece, it’s a bad sign that I can remember the name of only one crew member of the Covenant.
But, regardless of those significant flaws, Alien: Covenant is worth your time and money. Considering it’s a $100 million dollar studio franchise tentpole, it feels completely like the singular vision of its octogenarian director, as he brings to fruition ideas he’s had about this universe he’s created almost half his life ago. The way Covenant attempts to juggle its disparate themes with its action-horror aesthetic feels daring in ways that some of the films this year by first or second time directors don’t. And it may be that the only person capable of pulling off the balancing act was the person who perfected Alien in the first place.