“How Do We Kill It?” – Thoughts on Alien: Covenant

May 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

I preface the following thoughts about Alien: Covenant by saying that I actually quite enjoyed watching it as a piece of entertainment; there’s a lot in it that’s well done, tense and exceptionally gruesome. However, while it could be said to be an average sci-fi film it’s a poor Alien film that plays more as fanfic than a studio blockbuster.

Even the soundtrack, good as it is, is essentially an homage to a better one.

There will be spoilers after the jump.

There are a lot of problems with Covenant. The plot is boring and poorly executed (there is a section in the film where David, now gone full Colonel Kurtz, is asked to explain his actions and he almost literally holds up a sign with the word “EXPOSITION” written on it as the film buckles under the weight of the Big Ideas it is trying to get across), the characters no better fleshed-out than those in Prometheus (Katherine Waterston’s Dany is less a copy of Ripley than she is of Prometheus’ Elizabeth Shaw, herself a quasi-Ripley) and everyone still does ridiculous things for ridiculous reasons.

They, however, are all narrative problems and there are films with far worse narrative problems. I am more interested in the worst flaw of Covenant (and, to a lesser degree, Prometheus); how they weaken the horror of the Xenomorphs by moving them from the nether realms of an unknown horror to the far more well-lit spaces of a known horror.

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In Alien the actual xenomorph appears almost as if from nowhere, a terror from the black void of space. It is inhuman, seemingly emotionless, parasitic, horribly sexual. It is vampiric, in the most grotesquely Nosferatu-esque sense of the word. It embodies some of the most basic human terrors; of being hunted, of our bodies being usurped, of death, of the thought that the rest of the universe is not simply indifferent but inherently inimical to our survival both as an individual and as a species. It is also, as Lovecraft famously said, a “horror of the unknown”. When we do not know a horror’s source, as we do not know the Xenomorph’s source, then it becomes a thing of shadow which we cannot fight against.

Covenant, however, is all about explaining the source of the Xenomorph in a effort to justify its rather gauche investigations into the nature of humanity. David, channeling a blend of Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, creates them almost out of sheer spite and, at that moment, they lose the most potent element of horror they possess. Their manifestation of the abstract terrors of human existence is demoted to that of a created thing and, like Frankenstein’s creation before them, something that is created a monster gains a strange kind of sympathy. This is exemplified most strongly in the scene where David appears to communicate with a neomorph, reducing it to a state of whimpers and head movements. Like Frankenstein’s monster, despite its external appearance it seems to be childlike and willing to please. There certainly is a horror here, it has just killed and partially eaten the Covenant crew-member Rosenthal after all, but it is an understandable horror. When the Xenomorph uncurls silently from the ducting of the Nostromo you feel that some ur-horror, something that is utterly incomprehensible, is unpeeling itself from the ancient skein of reality. When the neomorphs attack the away-team of the Covenant, on the other hand, it is the opportunistic strike of wolves or hyena; frightening, certainly, and equally deadly but the quality of terror that it provokes has changed.

There is more to be said on this subject but what lingers with me most strongly is that Covenant has done what few others could, it has killed the Alien.

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