Alien: Covenant and the Ascent into Hell

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Paradise Lost, Book 1, Lines 258-263 (John Milton)

What if the Devil could create?

Lucifer’s greatest punishment is that though he aspires to God’s place, he cannot create like God does. He can react to, he can corrupt, he can bring God’s creation into his fold and warp it in his image. But it’s just that. It’s tailoring and resizing what already exists. The Devil can never be a father, a creator.

Increasingly, these are the matters with which Ridley Scott has concerned himself. While humans play various factors, Scott is returning to the well of Blade Runner, of asking the fundamental questions of humanity and what it means to be human and interacting with the natural world while becoming increasingly less concerned with the actual particulars of human behaviors, and of the characters themselves.

It’s a damned shame that he has to do that thinking in a blockbuster mode that is so often judged on the basis of its characters, and that is so constrained by the demands of its franchise. While not bad in its claustrophobic horror, Alien: Convenant, a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien, is at its best in its most unconventional and idiosyncratic, where it’s a Gothic Horror Sci-Fi resembling a holy fusion of Paradise Lost and Blade Runner.

Alien: Covenant introduces us to the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship headed to a new world to spread humanity throughout the stars. A freak Neutrino burst rocks the ship, killing the captain (James Franco) and waking up all the other members of the crew, including the Captain’s wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) who is now second-in-command, the new Captain Chris (Billy Crudup), the pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), and a whole bunch of other people who don’t really matter but one of them is played by Demian Bichir so you do care. Already awake was their synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender).

In an effort to cut the trip short and avoid going back into the Hypersleep pods that malfunctioned in the incident, the crew of the Covenant take a stop on a heretofore unknown planet. From there, you pretty much expect what’s going to happen to them, though what you may not expect is who’s waiting there.

I don’t know what’s considered a spoiler for this film, and this fact is given away extremely early. But, if you must go in with no prior knowledge, go see this and then come back. Otherwise, feel free to barrel forward.

On that planet, they find David (Michael Fassbender), the synthetic from the crew of the lost ship Prometheus, who has terraformed the planet and taken up residency among the dead civilization. But all is not as it appears.

The reason I mark that you should only consider that a spoiler is if you must go in with absolutely no prior knowledge is that to talk about Alien: Covenant is to talk about Walter and David, Michael Fassbender’s dual performance in this movie. All of its most fascinating parts, its thematic meditations and most impressive visuals (frankly) rest in that performance and what leads to it.

I want to discuss the visual aspect first. Scott has always been one of our greatest visual thinkers in cinema, so few have had such influence on the way generations of cinema have ended up looking like Scott. While Alien: Covenant is no great innovator, it’s still a remarkable visual work, and I think particularly of the residence that David has taken up.

Alien: Covenant feels heavily influenced by Hammer Horror films, and perhaps nowhere does that show through more than in David’s Necropolis, an imposing and dark place castle built entirely on the remains of a now-dead civilization. It’s perhaps one of the best sets I’ve seen in a film in some time, gorgeous and frightening and immersed in atmosphere. Introduced soaked in rain by a cloaked David, there’s perhaps no place that more immediately puts a film on its A-game, that immerses the audience in the mood so quickly.

It’s here that the film snaps most readily into place. Here, our Xenomorphs and their predecessors become ghosts, twisted Lovecraftian visages reaching through this darkened place. Our relationships become strained, immersed in a quiet hell. And no more does David more seem like the Devil, sitting on his throne in a place only he resides, a creation that he had to twist.

I’ve danced around it long enough so let’s just state it. Michael Fassbender’s performance isn’t just the best part of this film, it’s one of the best of the year so far. I count myself as a fan, and this is a performance that rivals Shame as his best.

It isn’t just the pyrotechnics of a dual performance, but the shading he gives each. Despite the fact that each is such a big character, he wears such subtleties in what should be very difficult roles. He has legitimate chemistry playing off of himself (leading to some…charged moments) and manages to so orient the gravity of the film around himself that it’s a shame when he’s not on screen.

Fassbender plays like a Blade Runner remake entirely oriented around Roy Beatty, driving the film and the thematic concerns almost fully around what he’s pulling off as a performer. It’s to the point where the movie feels unfocused solely by the act of having him off screen. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but I’m just grateful we have that Fassbender performance.

It’s also that everyone else just isn’t at that level. It’s not that our main characters are bad. Waterston is consistently a ton of fun to watch (reminding me that she should have been the lead of Fantastic Beasts) and I’m always up for more Danny McBride. But they’re largely just too thin to carry the dramatic meat of the film.

To be fair, they’re not supposed to. Scott doesn’t much care for humans, and they’re disposable on his tale of Luciferian creation. The humans and their stupidity is part of it, that flawed humanity can and will be replaced or molded into something better.

They’re here as tools of David’s plan, and as prey for the more perfect organism, the Xenomorph. It’s the Xenomorph, oddly enough, that feels most out of place here. Thematically it works, David twisting humanity into a creation befitting of his eye.

Narratively and cinematically, it’s when the movie shifts away from what it’s best at. It’s not bad at all. Scott still has a major penchant for framing these scares and he knows the weight the Xenomorph’s image carries. I’m not a huge fan of the CGI Xenomorph in motion, but the images of it lurking work fairly well.

It’s just convention creeping into something legitimately different and unnerving. The price Scott had to pay for a meditation on Satan and on the nature of man that shows sympathy for the Devil. This is such a singular and exciting movie for so much of it, that it’s a shame he’s forced to do anything else.

Grade: B+