All The Questions We Have After Seeing 'Alien: Covenant'
"There's so much here that doesn't make sense," says Katherine Waterston's character Daniels at one point in Alien: Covenant, the latest entry in the long-running sci-fi series about adorable facehuggers searching for friends in deep space. She's not wrong. Despite their spiffy space-suits and veneer of Silicon Valley optimism, the ostensibly "smart" characters in Alien: Covenant do countless "dumb" things -- and that's what makes the movie essential.
This shouldn't surprise anyone who saw 2012's Prometheus, which inspired finger-wagging take-downs, heated arguments on social media, and snarky videos that poked away at plot holes. It was a movie that teased explainer-y backstory information -- The Engineers! The origin of the Xenomorph! The Weyland-Yutani corporation! -- and then delivered visceral body-horror, philosophical musings on the origin of the life itself, and Idris Elba playing a squeezebox. It was great.
There's no squeezebox in Alien: Covenant, but director Ridley Scott -- who directed the 1979 original but only returned to the series with Prometheus -- plays the same beautiful and beguiling song. Despite being promoted as a back to basics gore-fest, Alien: Covenant is still very much a sequel to Prometheus: It favors images and sensations over plot coherence or character development. It doesn't explain itself. It chases the unknown.
And it will leave you with questions... so many questions. To help you make sense of some of the film's more head-scratching moments, let's don our Go-Pro cameras and stick our feeble human brains into the dangerous-looking contraption that is Alien: Covenant.
Why are these people on this ship anyway?
Alien: Covenant is a movie about a ship, named the USCSS Covenant, sent to colonize a remote planet and begin a new society because, judging from every movie in this series, things are bleak as hell on Earth. The vessel carries about 2,000 humans looking to explore the universe, and a bunch of embryos to help kickstart a kinder, gentler world. Think Earth 2.
We meet the crew -- which includes Waterson, Billy Crudup as the spiritually minded Oram, and Danny McBride as the hillbilly pilot Tennessee -- after a neutrino burst causes a fire to break out, killing the ship's captain, who is for some reason played by James Franco. (There's also a robot named Walter played by Michael Fassbender, but I'll get to him later.)
While the humans on the ship sleep, the crew, now without a captain, receives a scrambled message of a John Denver song from a nearby planet, which suggests the presence of human life -- or a race of aliens who love folk music. Should they investigate a mysterious new planet that could be ripe for colonization? Or stay the course? Unsurprisingly, they choose the unknown, because this is not going to be a movie about a super-chill space commune run by a regrettably mustache-less Billy Crudup.
So, why are the crew members so... dumb?
Now, the decision to explore the planet is not necessarily dumb. However, the scenes that follow this choice will probably test your patience, and the ill-advised curiosity and thirst for adventure that defines the human characters also reflects the film's misanthropic worldview. This is not a sequel to Scott's feel-good space thriller The Martian: The crew is not going to "science the shit" out of this situation. You can't defeat an army of Neomorphs by pelting them with potatoes you made from your own shit.
In one of the the movie's many squirm-inducing scenes, for example a character attempts to flee from an alien after a botched surgery attempt and slips in a pool of blood. It might as well have been a banana peel. Scott, along with screenwriters John Logan (Penny Dreadful) and Dante Harper, has created a movie that portrays medics, scientists, pilots, men of faith, and captains as fools susceptible to embarrassment. They're flawed creatures doing battle with forces of biology and history stronger than them. They're dummies. Brilliance won't save them. Nothing will.
Why was everyone on the crew married?
Again, this decision could scan as random, but it works on a larger thematic level. Waterson's character is married to Franco's burned-up captain. Crudup to Carmen Ejogo's Karine. McBride to Amy Seimetz's Maggie. This crew is not quite the blue collar space-grunts found aboard the commercial craft Nostromo in the 1979 original; they're a big happy family of mixed-up loyalties, emotional impulses, and unchecked desires. They're humans defined by their relationships to each other.
That vulnerability is what sets in motion the misguided choices they make; it also sets them apart from Michael Fassbender's robotic crew member Walter, and David, the android from Prometheus who returns as a Dracula-like figure fond of cloaks, flutes, and lurking in the shadows. The bonds that exists between the crew members are what make them uniquely vulnerable to David's manipulation.
In a way, Alien: Covenant is a film about a couples retreat run by a psychotic robot.
What was up with that Guy Pearce scene?
So, Guy Pearce (Memento, The Rover) is in this movie as Peter Weyland, the founder of the Weyland-Yutani corporation and a father-figure to David, but he's only around for a brief scene at the beginning of the film where he trades philosophical bon mots with Fassbender. If you're a true Prometheus-head, you remember that Guy Pearce was featured in that prequel as well, struggling to emote under heaps of old age make-up. In that movie, Weyland gets killed by a vengeful Engineer, those ancient white naked creatures.
"Am I your son?" asks David, as the two stand together in a pristine room. "You are my creation," says Weyland, establishing the theme that the film will circle around for two hours. Do we owe anything to our creators? Or is our responsibility only to the future? If Guy Pearce was your dad, would you betray him?
What happened to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus?
Short version: she's dead.
Though David first tells the crew members that Noomi Rapace's Dr. Shaw, who made an appearance in the film's pre-release prologue included above, died when their ship crashed onto the "Paradise" planet he now inhabits, he later reveals that he was using her body to conduct his own mad experiments. David's curiosity about the ability to create life has only intensified since the events in Prometheus, and he now has a Dr. Frankenstein-like impulse to build the ultimate monster.
What does that monster look like? The famous Xenomorph, of course.
What are all the aliens in the movies actually called?
By my estimation, there are four types of aliens in Alien: Covenant: the facehuggers, the Engineers, the Neomorph, and the Xenomorph. (According to this article, the Xenomorph at the end of the film should actually be referred to as a Protomorph, so you can call it that, too.) The facehuggers, unsurprisingly, go for your face; the Engineers drink cappuccinos; and the Xenomorphs fight Sigourney Weaver and the Predator a bunch. They are all equally scary.
While the facehugger is an old favorite from the original movies and the engineers are Prometheus inventions, the Neomorph, which we meet in David's lair, is something new. These white figures look like something out of Pan's Labyrinth in David's little home. They've got the same long head as the Xenomorph, but are even nastier and more erratic -- like a poorly trained dog. They've got spikes. They burst out of people's backs. Don't mess with them.
What is David actually trying to accomplish?
Again, it all goes back to the idea of creation. After arriving on the planet and massacring the engineers, David was clearly emboldened to further his experiments and expand his project. He researched. He made concept art sketches. He grew out his hair super long. He probably stopped showering. In space, no can smell your robot body odor.
At the same time, it's clear that David is not content with spending his life in a lab toying with DNA. There's an urgent need for him to get back into space and deliver the fatal blow against humanity: Spreading alien life across the universe. David is seeking to play god -- and he's pretty good at it.
Why did it take so long for Daniels to figure out Walter was actually David?
OK, despite the fact that I clearly have a pathological need to stand up for this movie against claims that it doesn't make any sense, I can't defend the final twist. Why does Daniels, clearly the smartest person on this crew, trust the robot she thinks is Walter? Yes, David cut off his own hand to appear more like Walter, but she should have done a more thorough test. Hasn't she seen a horror movie before? Also, why did Walter help Daniels and Tennessee in their final fight against the alien aboard the Covenant? Why not let them die? Cut all ties.
Also, on a narrative-level, it's such a clearly telegraphed twist that it makes the ending, where David waltzes away with some alien embryos, predictable. The grandeur of it all, the Wagner thundering away on the soundtrack, has an unearned quality. It fills you with dread, but there's an absurdity to it as well.
Then again, this wouldn't be a 21st Century Alien film directed by Ridley Scott if there weren't something to shake your head about as you leave the theater. More than the mythology, that ability to terrify and confound in equal measure might be this prequel's greatest innovation.
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