Photo credit: Fox
Of neomorphs and duplicitous synthetics
There is a moment in Alien: Covenant when David, after having taught his synthetic counterpart Walter how to play the flute earlier, hears him play a tune. David walks in and says “Whistle, and I’ll come.’
This is of course a reference to the classic ghost story ‘Whistle and I’ll come, my lad,‘ by English author M.R. James. Such reference is bound to be missed by all but the most hardcore of horror & classic literature fans, but it is a shining moment in the somewhat derivative and cliche-ridden script that underlies the latest chapter in the long running Alien story arc.
Covenant‘s main flaw is that a ‘seen-it-all-before’ sense pervades the entire movie. From the opening credits (a revisit of Alien’s original piecemeal lettering credits), to the final 20 odd minutes (a shameless reimagining of the classic final showdown scene in Aliens, where Ripley kicks the Alien Queen’s spiky ass with a Power Loader, replaced with a loading crane here), we can’t help by feeling that it’s all been done before. Scott played it safe, and used (perhaps overused) the most recognizable moments of the movie’s predecessors to convey his own story.
Bar Walter/David (by far the most interesting thing about Covenant), the characters here are unashamedly one-dimensional. Alien fodder, if you will, to be gruesomely dispatched one by one to whittle down the crew to the Final Girl (Daniels, played with great talent and intent by Katherine Ross). There are attempts to imbue some characters with an extra layer of depth. Oram, for instance, is a religious man (which is why the Company did not allow him to lead the mission, as his religious views might cloud his judgment). This also serves as a conversation point between him and David, after we learn of David’d activities since landing on this planet. But by and large, the crew is there to be offed by the alien creatures, deemed ‘neomorphs’ here. If you are seasoned enough, you can almost tell the order which they will each die in.
Covenant is full of common tropes of the horror genre, down to the ‘sex equals death’ one. I mean, when are people going to learn that nookie in deep space with an alien menace lurking around probably won’t end well. One could safely replace the classic line with ‘In space, no one can hear you come,’ (cause you will die before you do.)
We have touched upon the Walter/David duality, both roles played flawlessly by the solid Michael Fassbender.
As Walter, he is the Bishop-type. A synthetic tasked with looking after the ship and its crew, and prevent either from coming to harm. Crucially, this new-generation synthetic is purposely devoid of the willingness and ability to learn, instead being consigned to serve its masters and creators. David remarks upon this point during one of the movie’s best scenes, and a rather intimate one, too, as David teaches Walter to play the flute (I’ll do the fingering, David says,) while Walter blows down the pipe.
We also learn about the fate of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, from Prometheus, and what happened when the Juggernaut reached the Engineers homeworld. David has been up to no good.
But Covenant’s most critical flaw is its final twist, which you can see coming from about the movie’s halfway point. It won’t be revealed here, but think of the switcheroo, and you won’t be far from the truth.
Overall, Covenant is a solid, if somewhat cliched alien-by-the-numbers yarn. It is much more cohesive than Prometheus’ disjointed proposition for sure. But it is also not a huge departure from the series as Aliens was to Alien, for example, which turned out quite the better for it. David Fincher’s Alien 3 attempted to be different and ended up disappointing because of immense production troubles, and the less said about Alien: Resurrection the better. Not even the presence of the wonderfully underrated Brad Dourif could save it from imploding.
Covenant’s ending nicely sets up the next instalment (sequel to Covenant, prequel to Alien), provisionally called ‘Alien: Awakening.‘
We might see something different by then. For now, it’s alien business as usual.