Since James Cameron’s Aliens, none of the Alien films have known quite what to do with the iconic beast that serves as the series’ distinguishing feature. As early as David Fincher’s Alien 3, the creature’s antics became perfunctory, the beast having been thoroughly demystified by overfamiliarity. Indeed, the lifecycle of the creature has become so rote that later films have felt the need to speed it up in order to assuage the audience’s impatience with it; the creature’s gestation and growth now seems to unfold within a matter of minutes.
Little wonder that the many of the Alien sequels have tried to find ways to divert focus away from the creature, or at least find new ways to contextualize it. Covenant‘s predecessor, Prometheus never featured the alien at all, only gesturing at it through the appearance of its distant relatives. Prometheus created a new monster to serve as its focal point: an android by way of Frankenstein’s monster.
This android, Michael Fassbender’s David, also stands at the center of Covenant, and has now evolved into a mad artist-cum-scientist out to use humanity as raw material for his sinister creative projects. David proves to be much more frightening than the CGI beasts that also populate the film (outside of one or two moments, Covenant‘s beasties–some familiar, some vaguely new–are treated with all the ho-hum obligation that characterized the use of velociraptors in Jurassic Park sequels). David also has a much more complex emotional life than any of Covenant‘s vacuous humans (as with Prometheus, the human beings are sketched using dotted lines). The film never works better than when we get glimpses of the peculiar insanity that motivates David’s attempts to fill the void of his own purposelessness with artistic creation. Covenant keenly accentuates through his interactions with a new android, Walter (also portrayed by Fassbender), who is both David’s mirror image and his foil.
Covenant displays many other admirable touches, from a natural Böcklin painting recreation to smart allusions to Wagnerian opera. Covenant offers striking vistas that few recent blockbusters can match, including a haunting necropolis (the Pompeii-like ruins of an alien civilization) wherein much of the story’s action unfolds. These elements add grandeur to what is essentially a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau, following after Prometheus‘ variation on At the Mountains of Madness.
Alas, much of Alien: Covenant finds Ridley Scott straining to be James Cameron. Scott has never been particularly suited for the blockbuster sequences that Cameron or Spielberg so excel at crafting. Scott lacks the meticulous sense for geography, of setup and payoff, required for thrilling action spectacle. The larger setpieces in Covenant (which often rehash iconic beats from the prior alien features) only have life when Scott locates a striking image. The connective tissue is so perfunctory, so listless, that it renders the sequence inert.
Scott has been open about his intention to make more films in this series, and Covenant follows contemporary blockbuster convention in teasing yet another installment as it concludes. The lingering questions raised by Covenant aren’t enough to combat the feeling that the series has been suffocated by the staleness of its own conventions.