The unknown is terrifying, and Ridley Scott used to know this. As much as I love A Nightmare on Elm Street, The VVitch, Get Out, Raw, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and the Argento canon, 1977’s Alien is actually my favorite horror movie of all time. It’s claustrophobic and atmospheric, and the terror of it works on multiple levels. Atypical heroine Ellen Ripley and her compatriots are forced to contend with two different faceless evils that press inward upon them from different directions: the known and the unknown, the “company” and the alien itself. Both of these entities pose a different kind of existential threat to the crew of the Nostromo, and that’s a huge part of why the film works.
The xenomorph, as it would come to be known, is a horrifying Lovecraftian nightmare, an unknown and unknowable force that lies outside the realm of all previous human existence. It lives only to consume, kill, and reproduce, and its grotesque chitinous body is hidden in shadow and smoke, and our revulsion upon seeing it is primal; the alien is simply not right, and its existence is a reminder that space itself is an eternal night of darkness that extends in every direction, full of sights that chill the blood and churn the stomach. The quietly understated human characters who comprise the Nostromo‘s crew are not Starfleet’s finest or mystical monks with laser swords: they’re blue collar blokes like most of the audience was and is, and they, like us, are completely unprepared for the horrors that lie in the deep darkness beyond our tiny, sunlit hospitable zone.
My biggest problems with Prometheus when it first came out (I am much less willing to overlook or reinterpret its faults than Brandon is), was that the chain of events needed to create the not-quite-xenomorph seen in the finale was needlessly complex. First, the mutagen goo has to be ingested, then it has to mutate Noomi Rapace’s lover’s zygotes, then said sperm has to enter another person (perhaps with conception happening, although it’s not explicit), then the new lifeform had to leave the life form in which it was incubating to then seed another life form for another form of incubation, then we get the chest-bursting and the derpy alien that followed. There are simply too many variables and the requirements for too many different forms of life for the process to seem like a cohesive possibility, relying on contrivance and truly unlikely coincidence to exist. My suspension of disbelief is pretty extensive, but even I have limits. And I will give Covenant this: as annoyed as I am by the continuing revelations of where the classic xenomorph came from, at least the film makes it apparent that it took a significant amount of time and experimentation for David to create them.
Covenant on the whole feels wrong on multiple levels. Everything that happens after the xenomorph erupts and starts tracking down the remaining members of the ship’s crew works, for the most part, capturing a lot of the claustrophobic terror of the original (give or take the scene where David’s littlest newborn alien spreads its arms out like it wants to give him a hug, which is actually more unintentionally comical than the parody chestburster scene in Spaceballs was intentionally humorous). That outright horror, however, highlights how little this film works as a cohesive whole, as the deeper philosophical issues that Scott seems to think he’s exploring simply don’t mesh with the campier elements of the film (the aforementioned chestburster and its need for a hug, David’s laughable wig in his first scene, everything that Billy Crudup does) or with the frightening alien stalking the Covenant itself. More than anything, the film reminds me of 1997’s Lost in Space, a movie that I frequently cite as being a flick full of ideas, which is praiseworthy, save for the fact that all of those ideas are bad.
For me, the latest problem isn’t one of aesthetic nitpicking (why does the Covenant look so much more advanced than the Nostromo?) or valid scientific questions (why is no one wearing something as basic as an air mask when they go down to the planet?), although those are valid criticisms, it’s the fact that all this retconning has minimized the terror of the xenomorph by telling us too much about it. This is a frequent problem with prequels in general: in the original Star Wars, we’re never given any reason to believe that Obi-Wan’s robes are some kind of special Jedi outfit; the viewer is left to assume that he wears robes because that’s what you wear in a desert, just like the Jawas do. We never see Luke wearing robes in any of the later films; he wears what appears to be standard civilian garb. But the prequels decided to make the robes that Alec Guinness wore in A New Hope the uniform of the Jedi, for no reason that I can think of except that, perhaps, the assumption was that the audience was stupid. I suppose that this Jedi conformity could have been mentioned in the extended universe books, but I’m not going down that hole.
I’m not saying that Alien is ruined by Scott’s later works, but I would go so far as to say that he is doing as much damage to its legacy as The Phantom Menace and its follow ups did to the Orig Trig, at least in my opinion. Before Scott dreamed up a reason to call it an “Engineer,” the Space Jockey was just one more part of an unsolvable riddle: a giant dead body from an unknown race, seemingly eviscerated with its chest open, fossilized. It’s a tableau that induces anxiety because the riddle doesn’t seem like it can be solved, with the perpetrator and the victim both lost to time immemorial–or so it seems until the monster is born again when a group of little humans, completely unprepared for the horrors that exist beyond the fragile atmosphere of their world, stumble into the killing fields of an implacable star beast they cannot comprehend or reason with. Until Prometheus came alone, there was no reason to believe that the Space Jockey had anything to do with the creation of the xenomorph; instead, he seemed to represent a previous incarnation of the cycle of violence, another innocent stargazer who happened upon a living nightmare in an earlier time and succumbed to it, its titanic stature further cementing just how fucked Ripley and her comrades are.
By explaining where the Space Jockey came from, showing him to be part of another monolithic species (seriously–all the Engineers look the same) who are adept at genetic manipulation and space travel but live like shepherds, and also making them interstellar saviors, that awe and fear and majesty of that original scene in which the tiny humans approach the body of a dead giant is completely undermined and cheapened. The film series seems to be headed towards a revelation that David was responsible for engineering the situation that leads to the creepy scene that the crew of the Nostromo will eventually stumble upon, making the diorama less of a frightening exhibit that defies explanation and more of a crime scene with fantastic genetic weapons, which is not only insulting but insipid.
Further, by giving the alien menace a face in David, Scott further distances himself from the Lovecraftian menace of the original film, in which there was no human face that represented the xenomorph and its interest. Aliens featured Paul Reiser as a villain with a face, but he was merely the representative of the faceless corporation that had been in the background of the first movie, and it worked by giving us someone to hate as a balance to the xenomorph queen, which we fear. By putting a human(oid) face on the alien menace in the form of David and his devotion to the destruction of the human race for its folly in playing god and creating him by, um, playing god and creating new life, we cross into Marvel style supervillainy. For lack of a better term, it’s basic as fuck masquerading as deep. And hey–I like the Marvel movies, but that’s a different franchise for a reason (although I wouldn’t object to an MCU movie that featured The Brood, unlikely as that may be).
I’ve dwelt on this long enough, so I’ll wrap up my argument as well as I can: Covenant seems like Ridley Scott’s attempt to reinvigorate the Alien franchise with a soft reboot, akin to the reinvention-by-way-of-remaking of the Star Wars franchise using The Force Awakens to wash away the taste of the prequel trilogy. But instead of doing away with what
Alien: Mission to Mars Prometheus did wrong and moving on from there to recreate the original Alien with a fresh start, there’s an attempt to smash Prometheus and Alien into one movie, and it simply doesn’t work to wipe the slate clean or build a new framework. It’s not a problem of design, or performance (I’ve been adoring Katherine Waterston since Queen of Earth, although I have yet to figure out what Danny McBride has been putting in the water that makes everyone love him so much), or casting, or editing, or cinematography. Frankly, all of these individual components work pretty well. The ultimate failure of both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant is one of Ridley Scott’s vision. He created one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and he just can’t stop himself from ruining it with his bad ideas and desire to explain what works better as a mystery.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond