Ridley Scott has never been a director who inspired great acting, but box office success ensures his projects attract fine actors, especially the brooding kind, such as Russell Crowe, and as here in Alien: Covenant, Michael Fassbinder – more about him later.
Scott is a supreme stylist; sparse dialogue, three second cuts, that’s how his career began, shooting thirty second television commercials for his own company RSA, Ridley Scott Associates. Blade Runner is his masterpiece, the pinnacle of his creative voice. The Duellists, an early project, is also outstanding for the same qualities, though its self-conscious prettiness can become sickly sweet.
You’d never contract Scott to make Casablanca, or Lawrence of Arabia. As soon as he tackles subjects without monsters, androids or alien worlds he’s lost. Biblical epics: Exodus: God and Kings, loyalty and betrayal: American Gangster, set in France romantic pot boilers: A Good Year, and the completely muddled, banal psychosexual thriller, The Councillor, show us his limitations.
His last big success, Gladiator, was pure spectacle, highly entertaining, but I’ve still no idea what the film was saying. Still, actors like working with Scott because he lets them do what they want and films it. He knows how to make them look and sound good. Able to command the highest studio budgets, he favours extensive use of two-cameras shooting simultaneously, allowing actors to play a scene straight through without a break for a new camera set up.
Almost 80 years of age, Scott is still making films, one a year, and now returns to an early winner, alien monsters. (He seems to have lined up a few re-treads for his pension years, a third version of Murder on the Orient Express, for example.)
This latest Alien spin-off is the most ambitious Alien film ever made. The budget is megabucks. He’s playing safe, and all-in-all, it’s a worthy addition to the series, some parts fresh, some parts predicable, all served with lashing of spurting blood. Yes, there’s plenty of screaming and running and gore – much of it effective, some of it very predictable. The question is, is the franchise jaded?
The Ridley–isms grab the attention, so much so that, as Covenant began, I wondered if somebody had spliced in sections of Blade Runner in error.
The film opens with the birth of Prometheus’ android, David, (Michael Fassbender), clad all in white, in a vast, elegant white room, while his creator, Peter Weyland, (Aussie Guy Pearce), belabours him with unsettling questions. Fassbinder’s android is super-quick to assimilate; asked for his name, he takes it from the Michelangelo statue nearby – “David” he answers. (What the statue is doing there and not in Florence is anybody’s guess.) When the conversation veers toward metaphysics, David seems to relish the unique certitude of his existence. “You seek your creator. I am looking at mine,” he tells Weyland. “You will die. I will not.” This is Ridley territory, philosophising that edges to the pretentious, but never quite falls on its face.
We then jump forward to 10 years after the events of Prometheus, to the colonization vessel Covenant making its way through space, carrying several thousand sleeping colonists and human embryos, headed to a supposedly life-sustaining planet with the name of a whole food store, Origae-6. When we first see the ship, its sole inhabitant is another android, Walter, played again by Fassbinder, sporting an American accent.
The crew, conveniently revived from hibernation by an accident involving a “neutrino burst”, to begin the drama with drama, intercepts a message from a seemingly habitable planet much nearer than the seven-years-of-cryosleep-away planet Origae-6.
This time the space travellers are not on a mission, but are settlers, many are couples. They hope to find a habitable planet and colonise it. They’ve just lost their captain, burnt to a crisp, and they’re crippled by mourning, uncertainty and fear. The angst is sky high.
The Covenant heads to the nearby planet against everybody’s better judgement, and they step out into a typical Ridley Scott television commercial, a Garden of Eden with shrub carpeted mountains and fields of wheat. One traveller notices there are no mammals or birds, everything is silent. Most sensible people would be spooked, realise the place was jinxed, get back on the spaceship and head for the planet of their planned destination. Our intrepid group decide to do the dumb thing and plough on to full jeopardy.
Very soon people are swallowing sentient microbes that chew up your innards. Creepy crawly multi-morphs, (my description) begin bursting out of people’s spines and mouths. Scott orchestrates the mayhem brilliantly. Scattered crew members struggle with panic, disorientation, poor communications, garbled instructions, fear, ion storms, (yes, we get those in Scotland) blood-spewing, and an escalating cascade of plain stupidity and cock-ups. Pandemonium ensues – no surprise there.
Our ten characters in search of a danger-free film script are not stoic or tough soldiers; they’re ordinary folk looking for a room for the night.
Scott has reached the age where he must be feeling truly mortal. From here-on-in the film is a discourse on creation, and asking, is there a god? From Frankenstein to Noah’s Ark, people in novels have wondered. In Covenant leading characters ruminate on life, love and the universe – they’ve very little else to do out in space.
Covenant could have continued as a serviceable action-horror sequel but Scott has metaphysical goals. We are given bon mots on the nature of faith, the mysteries of creation, the limits of humanity, visions of leadership and devotion, and how not to put a sticking plaster over a creature bursting from your stomach. He even takes a pop at powerful capitalism. I suspect most cinemagoers will just take the spectacle and be done with it. Science fiction fans will love the guff.
I saw the first Alien, the very first Alien, in art deco Odeon cinema in Edinburgh. I left my car on disused waste site surrounded by old dark tenements. It had no street lighting. Accompanied by a friend, I was scared to venture onto that rough ground to reach the car. No such thrill this time around. But newcomers to the series might well be scared.
As well as familiarity, I think the film has a secondary fault. There is an inability to stick to a mood or a theme or even an emotional through-line. The attention revolves around Fassbinder, all other characters get cursory attention. The story indulges each of its ideas for a few minutes and then tosses them over its shoulder for a new idea. That’s the brain at work of a three-second-edit television commercials director. The effect is of a film veering between lofty philosophical ambition and delivering effective spectacle.
Admittedly, the whipsawing between cerebral musings and visceral thrills generates its own wild energy – at least until the disposable and thoroughly uninspiring theatrics of the final act, as Scott desperately tries to wrap up loose ends and set things in motion for yet another sequel. The last twenty minutes is a rehash of the first Alien.
Scott likes to boast that he’s a story teller. All successful directors claim that, few actually remember to acknowledge they did not write the actual story even if they suggested the outline. Scott isn’t a gifted storyteller. He’s a master of mood and evocative imagery, but he falters with straight narrative.
The more Covenant tries to tell a story, the more of a mess it becomes.
The film belongs to Fassbinder. The android he creates is fascinating. David whispers to Walter, “You have symphonies in you, brother,” trying to convince this lowly mirror image of his inherent greatness. The scenes between the two are touching, erotic, troubling. Watch Michael Fassbinder make out with himself and then kick his own ass, it’s a treat, only spoiled by a strange Charlie Chaplin flat-footed walk away from camera.
The film seethes with self-importance yet is never boring or portentous. It can’t come close to matching the fascination and scary moments of the first two films in the series, there’s too many fussy ideas that get discarded. To paraphrase a relative, it’s not all of a piece. And ignore misogynist reviewers raving about Katherine Waterston as the new Sigourney Weaver. She’s nowhere close, and never slips into a space suit wearing only skimpy, sweat soaked bra and panties. Anyhow, the cinematographer is Dariuz Walski, cameraman from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He doesn’t do erotic.
Scott retains the same creepy music we’ve grown to like. Well, who expects original in a sequel, for heaven’s sake – expect fresh. I just hope Scott doesn’t create a director’s cut. Two hours is long enough. Nevertheless, I left this picture with positive feelings, and my car in a brightly lit car park!
- Star Rating: Three and a half stars
- Cast: Michael Fassbinder, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
- Director: Ridley Scott
- Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
- Cinematographer: Dariusz Walski
- Music: Jed Kurzel
- Duration: 2 hours