Thursday, 18 May 2017
On paper, it's easy to read Alien: Covenant as Ridley Scott's bristling response to the criticism that greeted his gorgeous but deliberately flippant Prometheus. For a start the marbled, swaggering Engineers are completely dispensed with, shunted off stage into a delirious, Biblical oblivion that underlines their complete irrelevance to what will unfold here. Rather than pick at an idea of explanation, using rejected Alien concepts to build the nursery, Covenant is woven around a more forthright telling of where the original creature has sprung from. The facts that unfurl here might not align perfectly with everything we've seen before but their emotional, thematic truth work beautifully.
Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper approach their sequel with the tried and trusted methods of James Cameron. They take their predecessor's leftovers, boil them down to their constituent parts then explode them on a mythic, sweeping canvas predicated on an easily understandable psychological state. The inherited character is precious, existing on a level entirely above any of the newcomers. Dramatic urgency will spring from, and function around, their objectives and desires. So while Cameron's Aliens transformed habitual survivor Ripley into a superheroic mother capable of physically confronting her nightmares, Logan and Harper raise Michael Fassbender's broken, glitching David up to the level of a towering, Satanic evil.
Covenant abandons Prometheus' questions about humanity's makers to instead ponder our race's future on a galactic scale, asking what legacy we might hope to leave behind. The film's answer is iterative and generational, concluding that mankind is essentially immaterial to what is to follow. We're catalysts, meat grist to power the pupal stage of our offspring. Just as our creators have been swept away, so too will we. It's a big, science fiction idea - the tools we've created to help us chart the stars have actually rendered us bovine, bordering on irrelevant. In this detail Covenant operates as a complementary piece to both Blade Runner and the moment in which Alien's Ash praises the perfection of Kane's son.
Covenant's synthetics are a rolling, real-time explanation why Roy Batty and pals were saddled with such a definitive expiration date. If mankind is able to create a lifeform that betters them in every way, why then should that being take orders? Covenant reorganises David as something of an anomaly, an old man's hubristic attempt to create a flawless but servile companion, two behavioural aspects that can't help but clash instantly. Walter, a deliberately less capable revision of David, occupies a social standing one down from Prometheus' duplicitous butler. Many of the human spacefarers that interact with Walter treat him like a self-sufficient gadget that just happens to be shaped like a man. In Covenant, synthetics are treated as emotionally invisible automatons, they're an underclass expected to bow and scrape. No wonder the greatest amongst them chose to divert, to seize on his father's works and imagine the next evolutionary leap.