The movie Alien: Covenant has two main villains, and it is less intelligent than either of them. That’s the problem with trying to write formidably smart characters: if you are to represent them convincingly, you need to either be formidably smart yourself, or work damn hard at your script to make up the deficit. The script of Covenant, it pains me to acknowledge, lets its villains down. Not only that, it lets its rather less intelligent heroes down. This is the sequel to the thoroughly dire Alien prequel Prometheus, and though it’s a much better film than its predecessor, it suffers from the same essential flaw: its plot relies on supposedly smart characters periodically making arbitrarily stupid decisions. Covenant leans on this prop far less frequently than Prometheus did, but the bitter aftertaste of lazy writing still lingers. And yet, to this movie’s credit, it more often than not rises above this admittedly quite profound limitation. Covenant is a handicapped but functional action-horror flick, and when it’s in gear, it packs a solid and grisly punch.
Spoilers abound in what follows, because the best way to assess this film is to explicitly plot where it stands, and what it does, in relation to the numerous prior instalments in Ridley Scott’s acid-dribbling franchise. The plot of Covenant turns on the aforementioned two villains, and we have met both of them before. One is the android David (a coolly cerebral Michael Fassbender), who was last seen in Prometheus doing his calculated best to help a certain Dr. Shaw escape from the latest in these movies’ endless supply of bleak and monster-infected planets. The other, thank all the gods of Hollywood, is the Alien itself: the dependable xenomorph, described in the first movie and again in this one as the “perfect organism” – so long as your criterion of perfection is ruthlessly efficient slaughter. The Alien returns from hiatus after giving over its expected part in Prometheus to a seemingly endless array of tedious imitations. Note to the writers: you are not, repeat, you are not going to come up with any monster half as creepy or as terrifying as H. R. Giger’s original nightmare child, so you may as well just stick with the one you’ve got. Unless you happen to find someone else with an imagination as horrific as his. Second note to the writers: can you get Guillermo del Toro in on this franchise?
David, it turns out, now reigns in isolation on an Earthlike planet where he and Shaw ended up after the credits rolled on Prometheus. This is where our unfortunate band of human protagonists run into him after they land on the planet to investigate, as is traditional in these films, a temptingly mysterious and crackly transmission. By the time David shows up, they have already had several misadventures with several different monsters (technically two different stages in one monster’s life cycle, but whatever). It is in these chapters that the film veers closest to Prometheus territory: we’re thrown some derivatively scary creatures that proceed to derivatively massacre half the crew, and in the process, one crewmember facilitates them in this endeavour by choosing to lock somebody in a room with the monster, then refuse to let them out, then randomly enter the room with a large gun and shoot it, then leave again, then fire the gun wildly at some explosives and thus destroy the ship. Oh, Mr. Scott, we’ve been here before.
Covenant redeems itself from these dispiriting early episodes by getting two things right. The first is a bit of world-building. In a merciful rebuke to the muddled and directionless backstory-teasing of Prometheus, here is a movie that finally bites the bullet and provides an origin story for the universe’s deadliest species. From one perspective, you could argue that’s a bad thing: isn’t the Alien more scary the less we know of it? But to give Scott his due, the backstory he’s developed in Covenant is a thing of almost mythic resonance, and it works. Next-level spoiler coming up here: Covenant closes the loop that was opened by Prometheus, in which Scott showed us a mysterious alien being (a giant white-skinned man – sometimes it’s really not hard to decode the artist’s underlying assumptions, is it?) creating the human race. The closed loop now goes: mysterious beings create humanity; humanity creates AI; AI creates the Alien (yes) with the purpose of exterminating humanity. (And exterminating the original mysterious beings too, why not.) The son turns his child against his parent. The robot unites with the xenomorph against us. Say what you like, this is a cool twist.
Soon enough, of course, our dwindling gaggle of heroes discover that far from being a benevolent hermit, David is in fact Hell-bent on the eradication of the human race by his prize creation, the xenomorph. At about the midpoint of the movie, via the familiar but satisfying sequence of egg, face-hugger, and chest-bursting, a real Alien finally gnashes its way onto the screen. Its presence in the action is the main reason that the second half of this film is stronger than the first, for this is the other big thing that Covenant gets right: against all expectations, it makes the Alien a worthy enemy again. Covenant does not yield to the temptation, indulged by practically every film in this franchise since the second instalment, of upping the number of Aliens and thus diluting the power of each individual “perfect organism”. Instead it limits itself to a single xenomorph, and resolves to treat that creature with respect. This is a fearless, resourceful, unstoppably determined killing machine, precision-tooled to do just two things: survive, and bring death to all in its path. And once again, for a while, we believe it.
Alas, it doesn’t hold up completely. Here is that point about writing smart villains: you have to build your story with extraordinary sensitivity if you are not to undermine them by having them make decisions that they simply, if they really were that smart, would not make. At one point in Covenant, the perfect organism actually allows itself to leave a trail of bloody footprints. Shortly thereafter, it stands around in plain view in a garage, rather than hiding in the machinery like self-respecting members of its species have always done. But we should cut it some slack: to be fair on it, neither of those decisions is half as eyebrow-raising as the decision of the writers to have it violently interrupt a scene of shower sex. Yes, you read that right: in what might be the most hilariously tacky move this franchise has ever pulled, the Alien interrupts two of our characters during shower sex. Said characters do very little else in the movie, so that’s basically the only reason they’re in it. They don’t even get any set-up: we just cut to them in the shower while the rest of the crew are helpfully hunting the Alien. After encountering something so flagrantly gratuitous, who can blame the monster if it stops bothering to make much of an effort with these guys.
For all my teasing, nonetheless, Alien: Covenant works more often than it doesn’t. It is a film with sophisticated ideas and a clever twist at its heart. It contains scenes of visceral action. It tells an engaging story, albeit hindered and weighed down by some clunky plotting and irritating inconsistencies in the behaviour of its human characters. And while those humans are all forgettable, the android and his beast of prey stand out: two antagonists, one the epitome of cold, inhuman intellect, the other the embodiment of predatory animal instinct. Between them they turn this into a fun and blood-soaked ride.