The work of H. P. Lovecraft has always been connected in some way to the Alien franchise. The idea of a terror from beyond the stars that is indescribable, unnameable and utterly horrifying is not new to sci-fi. It existed in H. R. Giger’s work before he was ever commissioned to design the phallic xenomorph we all know and fear. It existed in Hammer Films’ Quartermass and the Pit as well as other famous science-fiction stories such as War of the Worlds. It is easy to see that Alien perfected this sense of cosmic horror and Alien: Covenant further explores it if not through its story then through its visuals.
Alien: Covenant is set in 2104 and follows the first large scale colonisation mission by humanity into deep space. After the ship’s android Walter (Michael Fassbender) narrowly saves the Covenant from destruction the remaining crew detect a distress call from a nearby planet. Upon landing, they discover all is not what it seems as deadly spores infect the crew and they discover a necropolis of dead aliens inhabited by David (Michael Fassbender), the sole sinister survivor of the Prometheus mission.
Alien: Covenant is, for the most part, a visual treat. Hard sci-fi fans will undoubtedly love the design of the Covenant while the more horror inclined will delight in the grotesque and gory displays of chest-bursting, mauling and acid-bleeding throughout. The enormous dead city seems to have been carved from basalt and resembles an alien Pompeii. Stone edifices look down upon David’s macabre sketches like statues of the Gods observing the plot of their downfall. With that said it is all a bit grey but the true colour comes in Alien: Covenant’s characters.
Michael Fassbender is the true star here just as he was in Prometheus. David is far more interesting than Walter with his soliloquys, misinterpreted poetry, and Machiavellian delusions of Godhood. Katherine Waterson is adept at holding Sigourney Weaver’s title of Female Badass in Space although she merely borrows it. Billy Crudup and Danny McBride also stand out as a conflicted man of faith and gung-ho pilot respectively. Although their performances do expose Alien: Covenant’s pacing problems.
When one sets foot on an alien planet one would expect a sense of wonder and awe. Instead the landing party rush through this silent, picturesque wilderness barely pausing to look at the scenery. The film rushes from point A to B to C without much consideration as to where it’s going. Much like Prometheus it fails to answer many of the questions it set out to. Questions like: ‘How did we get here?’ ‘Why did these things create us before trying to kill us?’ and most importantly ‘What happens now?’
Alien: Covenant is an improvement on Prometheus but it fails to remove the shroud of mystery that covers one of cinema’s most enigmatic monsters and the franchise it resides in. And perhaps that’s a good thing. The more I think about it the more I realise that maybe H. P. Lovecraft and Ridley Scott were right. Great horror is about waiting for the right moment before you reveal the monster. Alien was at its best when it focussed on surviving the unknown not when it tried explaining it. Alien was the horror story while its prequels are more like visually stunning guidebooks and that is where they stumble. Andrew Carroll