Movie Review: Alien Covenant is a Return to Blood-Splattered Form for Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott is easily one of the greatest living directors. The original Alien set a new standard for sci-fi horror, and Blade Runner is one of cinema’s all-time great masterpieces (the original Director’s cut). In recent years his reputation has taken a hit with some thundering duds like The Counselor or Exodus: Gods and Kings, which are genuinely quite terrible (although in the former case we can’t really fault him for trusting in Cormac McCarthy, can we?). But I think many of his later films have been unfairly maligned.

The secret to understanding Ridley Scott is that his ambition can easily over-shoot the limits of what studio executives will tolerate and tends to thwart the expectations of audiences. His vision is thus often brutalized in post-production while veering into weird, subversive territory that causes movie-goers to scratch their heads. This was the case with Kingdom of Heaven, the theatrical version of which was badly mutilated in the cutting room and turned an epic about the Crusades into a badly disjointed travelogue in which the motivations and arc of pretty-boy Orlando Bloom were difficult to track or understand in the larger scope of the film. The Director’s cut, like Blade Runner, is quite a different, more complex and interesting film.

This brings us to Prometheus, Scott’s much heralded return to the Alien franchise five years ago which was enormously divisive. Many people hated it because it was weird, verged on the nonsensical and it took a hard right away from the franchise roots by diving into very out-there sci-fi territory that explored the double-edged sword of creating life. Most fans were hoping for some old fashioned Face-Hugger gore, so when Guy Peace in old man makeup and mysterious ancient beings and fucking zombies started showing up they found themselves perplexed and then angry for being hoodwinked. Part of this is that Scott simply found himself at the mercy of the history and inertia of the franchise he created. Alien and Aliens are beloved classics, and the subsequent films are even well-known and admired in their own way for their ludicrous badness and involvement of marquee talent like David Fincher. Picking up that thread decades later obviously came with a lot of baggage and expectations.

Ridley Scott decided he didn’t give a fuck about those expectations and instead created this mysterious, confusing mythology laden with symbolism and weird ideas, such as the suggestion that Jesus was an alien and that Earth was about to be destroyed by cosmic beings because we crucified him. That is some nutty ass shit, but at least it’s not stale. I personally thought it was a gorgeous, intriguing film and respected his willingness to try something different. In retrospect, bringing on Damon Lindelof as the screenwriter may have been the big mistake since Lindelof obviously believes ambiguity is itself the goal, rather than deploying ambiguity creatively in service of a greater vision.

Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus, and it would seem Scott took in the criticisms of Prometheus and tried to split the difference. Covenant sheds some of the weirder mythological baggage, does a deep-dive into Scott’s obsession with the intersection between life, creation, God, Man and machines, and then dresses the whole thing up with a chorus line of face-eating Neomorphs and Xenomorphs. There is something for everybody in this movie then! There are tension-laden moments that burst into old-school Alien gore, like when a creature explodes out of some guy’s back and he falls over a table spilling his spleen out through his severed neck. There are also some weirdly contemplative and philosophical moments, like Michael Fassbender kissing himself, a moment when I felt really confused about my emotions.

Throughout, Covenant continues with its world-building and fleshes out the mythology, taking us incrementally closer to the events of the original Alien film while dipping into the themes of life and creation and the limits and pitfalls of human innovation. Some of this philosophizing is frankly stated when it probably would have been better to approach it more obliquely using subtle character beats and visual cues and imagery, but for me it never distracted from the experience. Many of the characters are thinly drawn and obviously just there to be alien food, but the leads — Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup — are strong and Fassbender is of course arresting and impossible to look away from in this role. As in Prometheus, his performance alone could carry the movie.

The visual language of Covenant is beautiful. Ridley Scott has been such a consistent visual wizard over the decades that I think to an extent he has spoiled us. The beautiful production design, the long takes of spaceships piercing the atmosphere, the creative and atmospheric ways in which characters meet their Maker — these things we take for granted in a Scott film and it is to our detriment to look through them. Like Prometheus before it, Covenant is a gorgeous and engrossing film to look at, with striking compositions in nearly every scene, and on those merits alone I think it would be worth the price of admission. But it goes a step further, managing to serve two masters by giving fans of the series the gore and viscera they expect while also hitting some deeper and more ambiguous sci-fi notes that beg us to ask heady questions about who we are and why we create H.R. Giger demon monsters with banana heads that spit acid.