The act of creation is generally seen as a wholly positive thing, the beginning of new life, with the myriad possibilities that entails.
But in Alien: Covenant, which more than successfully bridges the lacklustre Prometheus, and the later Alien films, it’s an altogether darker affair, one that strips creation bare of its Disney-esque overtones, laying it open as a seditious act that is the final product of an unhinged, sociopathic mind.
If that all sounds like it is in keeping with Ridley Scott’s grand vision for this venerable franchise, then you would be right; but while it ticks all the usual boxes you would expect of an Alien movie, right down to the rank stupidity of otherwise bright people who skip merrily into an environment when cautious walking (or no walking at all) is called for, it goes much, much further, providing us with a salutary lesson of what can happen when people, or synthetics, play god.
For in this instalment of Scott’s benighted tale of humanity way out of its cosmic depth, you are left wondering which is the greater threat – the xenomorphs who use all living things as incubators or food sources for the sole, driven purpose of perpetuating their genetically-engineered kind, or those instrumental in their creation?
Yes, friends, synthetics and hopeful colonists, the horrific beasts that have filled our collective spacefaring consciousness since 1979 are not just random, evolutionary quirks set forth by a capricious universe tired of pandas and kittens and longing for something with a bit more of scorched earth killer instinct, but the product of one (synthetic) man’s quest to best his creator.
The perpetrator of this most macabre and soulless of experiments is David (Michael Fassbender) who we last saw at the end of Prometheus zipping away with the sole human survivor Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in one of the Engineers’ ships – this alien race are responsible, so we’re told, for all life throughout the galaxy including our own – back to their home planet where it is greeted by rapt crowds filling a vibrant living city that soon becomes a sprawling, expansive Pompeii-like morgue.
Left to his own devices, he begins dark and twisted experiments using every last lifeform on the planet (every last one if you catch my drift), awaiting some more hapless flies to wander into his planetwide honey trap.
Treated poorly by his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), he is a child wronged, vengefully hellbent on proving that he is superior lifeform, and not the man who gave him and other synthetics “life”.
It’s into this witches brew of long-simmering resentment and all too successful Jekyll and Hyde experimentation that the crew of the Covenant wander, responding to a distress signal and the promise of a habitable home for the 2000 colonists and 1400 embryos it contains, that lies 7 years closer than the already-charted and selected planet of Origae-6.
As decision making bad calls go, this ranks right up there with pretty much the worst of all time, the product of newly-installed captain Christopher Oram’s (Billy Crudup) lack of faith in his own ability to lead as his deceased predecessor.
He leads his crew, which is made up of married couples who will form part of the colonist numbers down the track, down to the planet on which Michael and his menageries of Mengele-ish monstrosities await, forsaking rigorous science and painstaking planning for a disastrously lethal short cut.
At the crew, save for three left behind aboard the ship itself, fan out across an eerily quiet landscape, unsettlingly full of terrestrial plants such as wheat, the usual hellish nightmares unleash with crew members falling prey, much as you’ve come to expect from the franchise, to all manner of unpleasant encounters with spores, face huggers and the big xenomorphic beasties themselves.
But then an interesting thing takes place.
While the usual set pieces play out, and the crew are picked off one by one, save for the dead ex-captain’s wife Daniels “Dany” Branson who is essentially the Ripley of this instalment, Alien: Covenant becomes less about the obvious alien monsters without and within, all of whom make their bloody presence felt in ways that will please fans of the franchise, and more about the darkness that lurks within the hearts of men and those they create.
And if we follow the well-reasoned logic of this tautly-written and exquisitely well-paced and balanced film, which is equal parts horror sci-fi and existential ruminations on fallible humanity, then the Engineers too, who it seems couldn’t restrain their creative urges to cute and sweet creatures and had to go further and darker with consequences for all the rest of their creation.
It’s a brilliantly twisted exercise in vaultingly prideful intentions, accidental or otherwise, coming home to roost, which gives real substance and emotional resonance to the deaths of the people who are falling prey to the end product of their hubris.
Granted, the victims in this case aren’t personally culpable, apart from rank stupidity in most cases – if it’s look dangerous people, DO …. NOT … TOUCH IT – but Alien: Covenant makes a solid case, without losing itself in a philosophical morass and remembering it is there to scare and scare well, that humanity is the big loser in this whole The Island of Dr Moreau act of beastial creation.
Ridley Scott, working to a clever screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper, has delivered a sterling addition to the Alien canon, frightening the bejesus of us while reminding us in deeply thoughtful and horrifically unsettling ways, that there is more to be scared of than just the monsters who roam without, and that we should, perhaps, be more than a little terrified of ourselves.