Samuel Russell: Hey Chris, how’s it going? So after we saw Alien: Covenant last night I was thinking about the series it belongs to. My first encounter with the Alien franchise was through the 2004 b-movie Alien versus Predator, which is a good example of lowest common denominator sci fi slashers. Even my 10 year old self knew it was pretty boring, aside from the Predator and the Aliens being very, very cool. I later saw Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) on my iPod in a hotel while on vacation when I was in 7th grade. I don’t think I appreciated it’s brilliance, but it was certainly captivating. I was glued to the 2 inch screen. I’ve since seen it a few times and am blown away by on every re-watch. Sometime last year I saw Prometheus. I had pretty rock bottom expectations, as I hadn’t heard much good about it. I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t seen any of the other three films in the canon, but even in the sampling I’ve seen this series has run a wide ranging gamut. From the original- a near perfect slasher film and survival thriller, to Prometheus- a heady, high concept science fiction with inquiries about the relationship between beings and their creators. Alien: Covenant, I thought, found a really good balance between these two.
It’s certainly not a perfect film, it succumbs to the classic horror movie trope of characters making unbelievably poor decisions, but it is a really interesting movie. I wish more film series’ were willing to get this wacky.
Chris, what’s your relationship to this series, and how does Alien: Covenant factor in?
Chris Maher: Hilariously pretty close to your history: I really love Alien, and I know I’m in a minority of people who loved Prometheus, but I’ve never seen the other strong entry (Aliens) or the weaker entries.
I’m interested you thought Covenant was the better of the two prequels: I feel Prometheus and Covenant are going to be pretty exclusively compared to each other, and not to the earlier films, and out of the two of them I actually enjoyed Prometheus more, but only after a night of sleeping on it. They’re both films I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed, and in both cases I can appreciate what the detractors level against them (Prometheus is pseudo-philosophical, and Covenant was weirdly paced and had some pretty thinly drawn characters). I think Prometheus is honestly more clever than people give it credit for, but that’s neither here nor there.
So let’s not compare them, while still discussing them as sequels. The thing that’s interesting about the Alien franchise is that it’s essentially the same movie over and over again. They take this prototype and then add wrinkles and mess around with it. And I admit some of the wrinkles here were cool ones. Before watching the movie I had read the term “gothic” thrown around a lot about it, and there was indeed some gorgeous heavily gothic imagery – a city of blackened corpses, caught mid death, towering alien buildings, a mad scientist’s lair. These are new to the Alien franchise, though not to horror, and they were welcome additions. I can imagine people claiming the middle section sagged under its own weight a little, and while it wasn’t quite as exciting as the beginning or end I enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoyed Prometheus. I thought it was an interesting and in some ways new reflection on looking for answers of creation and destruction – and that is something horror has dealt with for a long time. It’s something Ridley Scott has dealt with well in the past even, with his favorite subject of creation/destruction (androids) and the search for meaning – not in Alien, but in Blade Runner.
Watching the movie, I had a different question: do humans deserve to be punished as much as we are in the Alien franchise? Our crimes, repeatedly, are the search for meaning and a sense of space exploration? Is Scott’s apparent pessimism warranted in this regard?
SM: I couldn’t agree more about the gothic imagery. Everything about the design of this film was stunning. Alien very tactfully and effectively withheld showing the monster as much as possible. Covenant let’s you see, and look at, and take in the details of the various kinds of creatures. Not only are they wonderfully designed but the decision to show rather than hide really works with this film, particularly when it comes to David’s (Michael Fassbender, reprising his role from Prometheus) perspective.
I find it really interesting that people would think the middle act was the weakest. The beginning and the end were more or less your standard Alien movie. I loved how the film tied up at the end, but the third act was overlong, and at a certain point the Alien versus humans mayhem felt repetitive.
The strongest part for me was the 2nd act where the crew is hanging out at David’s lair. The relationship between David (Michael Fassbender) and Walter (Michael Fassbender) was absolutely fascinating. (It helps that Michael Fassbender is an excellent scene partner to Michael Fassbender). There’s something haunting about two identical creatures looking each other in the eye and having a disagreement. And we know the one being more reasonable (Walter) only thinks that way because he’s been programmed to, or is he really rationalizing his arguments? Is it possible for David to change Walter’s mind? What do you think of this?
As for your questions- I don’t think humans deserve to be punished as much as they are in these movies…but I don’t think that’s what these movies are about. A lot of horror movies do have that old school moral code- where characters are brutally murdered for their flaws, be it directly (like in Saw) or indirectly (I believe it’s Scream that proclaims the previously unwritten rule- if you have sex in a horror movie, you die.) But do you think Alien: Covenant plays by those rules? Do you think that’s important to the central message?
CM: I’ll go in reverse: I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of the two androids. They are not identically programed (though they are more-or-less physically). Can Walter change? Or was David just a one-off? Androids destroy the question of nature v. nurture, because they’re all “nature” (or whatever the android equivalent of that is). But, as we know, life can find a way. David is obviously off the rails of his original design by this movie.
As for your question about the horror movie tropes: I wouldn’t call Covenant or Prometheus strict horror movies, but they both punish the characters just the same. The movies come with death built in, yes. But they make it look like we’ve made a mistake by leaving Earth in the first place. The characters of both films are severely punished, without giving too much away – no matter how wiley or good hearted they are, the punishment comes.
I’ll end on my personal thoughts with some final miscellaneous positives: the visuals of this movie, as with all Alien movies, are arresting. We’ve already talked about the gothic visuals, but the final battle in an open airlock with, what, shattered glass (?) shimmering everywhere in zero gravity is very cool. The aesthetic, as with EVERY entry in the series, is a beautiful grungy industrial future. And while, yes, the final act drags on (I honestly thought the movie was over a good twenty-ish minutes before it was) the fight sequences were impressive and exciting: the battle in a wheat field with a flaming ship behind the combatants which ends in a surprise blinding flare fired by a robed mysterious man was exciting from the second it began to the second it ended.
SR: Yes! I thought this, like Prometheus, did a really good at contrasting the filthy industrial cyberpunk settings you mentioned with sleek, immaculate, futuristic counterparts. And I agree that scene in the field is stunning. Even the scenes that dragged at the end, on their own, were really well staged and executed. (They just hit the same beats one too many times). Overall I had a great time and I’m genuinely excited to see where they go with the next film.
CM: Alien: Covenant delivered eight face huggers out of ten xenomorphs.
SR: I give this movie eight sentient robot gods out of 10 handsome Squidward gods.
CM: The Ozymandias poem is quoted frequently in modern culture (and in this movie, I should mention), often only one line: “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”. It’s sort of hilarious because the line is played for irony within the poem itself, though it is often given great power by the speaker.
CM: In a film with overall impressive set design, the opening scene features a room with the Statue of David, but with a ceiling too short. Instead of putting the statue in a different room they place its head in a hole in the ceiling so you can’t see it. A bizarre display space for one of the most important pieces of art ever.
SR: Oh I loved that set. Very vaporwave.
SR: This is a really weird trope that a lot of movies do… A familiar character has really long hair, and then almost immediately and with little motivation they groom themselves to look how they did in the last movie we saw them in. David does this, which is really strange because A) Androids grow hair? B) He’s disguised by a hood anyways, but more importantly C) Who cares why does this need to happen?
SR: John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Road” is over 100 years old in the world of this film.
There is also a really good, sexually charged cover of this song in the hit television show The Office.