There are a number of ways in which you might interpret the second half of the title of Alien: Covenant. The first half ought to be adequately self-explanatory. The title is the cleverest part of Ridley Scott’s new film. In very loose terms, the word ‘covenant’ means an agreement or a bond. It’s often used in legal and social contexts in relation to marriage. It’s also a prominent component of the Bible, in which in the word generally refers to understandings established between God and his advocates.
Marriage plays an integral role in Scott’s film, as does God. There’s also the fact that the main space ship is called ‘The Covenant’, which is less important. But the title, perhaps inadvertently, probably not, also highlights the relation that this film has to the two other films in this franchise that Scott directed. In both style and content, Alien: Covenant is an agreement between the disparate styles of Alien and Prometheus.
Alien, released in 1979, was Scott’s second feature film. It’s a masterpiece of horror. It was followed by James Cameron’s Aliens, which was a rare sequel in the sense that it at the same time honoured and re-evaluated its predecessor. After the franchise saw a series of subsequent sequels and spin-offs that ranged from good to particularly bad, Scott returned to the series in 2012 with Prometheus. Scott has made a few exceptional films but has made at least as many bad films as good ones. Prometheus straddles a line between his merits and his failings, and consequently the merits of that film made its failings more disappointing.
As a lonely entity Prometheus has virtues. In regards to its relation to Scott’s Alien, it was ill-advised, which Alien: Covenant also is, for the same reasons. Consider the recent onslaught of directors returning to franchises that made them famous, or the beloved characters that are being revisited. Of all of them, the only excellent example that comes to mind readily is George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe because Miller offered less insight into the titular character than previous instalments. Some things are best left unexplored and demystification is becoming a problem spurned by filmmakers and studios that don’t appreciate that.
Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant wants to say something but it may not actually have all that much to say. References to Milton and Shelley and Wells are well and good, but when they’re accompanied with the impression that they are being made simply for the sake of making them, discrepancies between intellectual appetites and intellectual realities become more increasingly apparent.
There also appears to be an attempt on Scott’s part to return to the horror roots of the franchise. Crew members are inevitably picked off one by one. There’s a lot of gore, but not much of what accompanies amounts to anything particularly scary.
In the original Alien, Ian Holm’s Ash says of the monster in question, “I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” There was purity and clear purpose to Alien. It was a horror film in the most immaculate sense because it negotiated horror without using jump scares as a prop or a substitute. Prometheus lagged under the weight of its own ambitions. Alien: Covenant is an uneasy weave of those two films. Regardless of how you feel about either film, it’s not a harmonious union. When did this franchise become so thematically complicated?