Ginger Nuts of Horror
(WARNING: MANY, MANY SPOILERS)
In 1979, Director Ridley Scott established an entire mythos with his horror-science fiction film Alien. I am not entirely confident Scott envisioned that his film would spawn a sequel that is completely derivative of his vision; or an entire line of comic books that would include epic battles against Batman and Superman. Given an opportunity to return to the universe he created with the visually pleasing, head-scratching “prequel” film Prometheus, Scott’s latest entry into the story--Alien: Covenant–is proving to be just as divisive among audiences, if we consider the reviews so far.
Full disclosure: I loved the film, and I loved Prometheus. I am glad a lot of people don’t like either film, simply because I don’t think these movies should be enjoyed by everyone. I was inspired to write this by the review I read for Covenant on Ginger Nuts of Horror. I like “negative” reviews that provide intelligent commentary, even if I don’t agree.
I might be over-analyzing why I enjoy these films, but I like to think we can talk about movies—or any art—and disagree over a pint at the local pub. I am going to address a variety of criticisms, but I do not believe that I am absolutely correct, and believe me: I am not going to convince you that you are “wrong”. That’s just silly, folks.
We Are Wrapped Up in the Mystique of a Film We Watched When We Were Younger
Alien is widely considered a classic. Does the movie hold up? I would say that it does, but not very well. We have to get over the fact that movies and art have changed. As we get older, the things that we love may not be loved by others. We often think “those kids don’t get it”, but I would argue that WE don’t get it.
I think Alien is now a ponderously slow film that revels in itself a bit too much. It is no less pretentious than Blade Runner or Scott’s latest entries into the Alien franchise. I am going to make references to the first film several times, because I believe we are too enamored with the original. Keep in mind, I am including myself in the “we” category.
Covenant Doesn’t Answer Every Question
Do we seriously need every question answered? Maybe some people just want to know everything, which is impossible, anyway.
For me, part of the mystique behind the first film was the mystery. Who was the “space jockey” found in the pilot’s chair? (the engineer). Why were those eggs on that ship in the first place? Did these questions keep the movie from becoming a cult classic? Audiences accepted a synthetic humanoid with a neat British accent, a monster bursting out of someone’s chest, and the fact that the only means of self-defense these fine folks had were flamethrowers (which begs the question: how come Scott’s Covenant squad get machine guns?). Somehow, audiences suspended their sense of reality for a science fiction film, and here we are.
This was a huge problem with Prometheus, too. I am going to suggest it is not a problem at all.
“How does the movie lead up to Alien?” seems to be the prevailing question. Here is where we will all disagree: I don’t care if these films explain ANYTHING for Alien. In fact, I am confident that for Ridley Scott, the first Alien film is a complete story and the sequels don’t exist. After all, he did not create the alien queen, and he never named the planet visited by the Nostromo. For all intents and purposes, the first film could have almost no connection to the rest of Scott’s story.
Consider the possibilities: we’re already wondering about the murals in Prometheus and the fact that David seems to be the “engineer” of the xenomorph in Covenant (which I will refute, later). Our engineers could be all over the galaxy, all of them with different intentions. Do we need to know their intentions? Is it important to the story? Maybe in Prometheus. Was the Nostromo even supposed to receive the distress signal?
I am going to go out on a limb and throw a few theories around.
The first Alien had strong religious overtones, particularly in the visual presentation (just watch some of the documentaries associated with the film). In Prometheus, we are treated to murals in the engineer’s ship that seemingly depict our favorite monsters. In Covenant, we are led to believe that David created these creatures. It was his idea.
In fact, David indicates that his wish to “create”, has been prevented by his programing. He has this conversation with Walter, his more “advanced” counterpart (and what the hell was Walter doing with those embryo-cell-festus-things… hmmm…). However, David CAN create… or can he? Is the song played on the flute replication, or something original? Theory: David has uncovered a formula for the xenomorph; the engineers may have created the monsters in the past, and David is attempting to recreate their design. Which could also explain why the xenomorph born from the human host in Covenant is different than the chestburster from the original film.
The religious significance: it’s all over the place in Prometheus, and it nearly seems like Scott has almost completely ditched the philosophy in Covenant. But I am not convinced that is true. In Prometheus, those murals inside the engineer’s base (and let’s not forget that those same engineers were destroyed by something), in addition to the fact that the city on the engineer homeworld looks more like a temple than it does a sprawling metropolis, points to Scott’s vision of an “enlightened” culture that has learned to not play God. Or maybe it hasn’t learned at all.
I am convinced the engineers would want to destroy the human race only to prevent the human race from “creating” more monsters, like the xenomorphs or David. I am also convinced the engineers are also looking for their own maker—Elizabeth Shaw’s big question from Prometheus--by playing the role of God. Did we really want Scott to TELL us whether or not God exists?
I know that Scott is going to go with the fan-service route and connect his new trilogy to Alien, but he does not have to. There is no need. We have a collision of religion and science in his films, and I love it.
Every Character Seems Like a Complete Idiot
I’m not going to make excuses for the characters. A lot of folks who hated Prometheus cited the idiocy of the scientific “experts”. Can we go back in time and take a look at the crew of the Nostromo? Before you say, “but they were just manual labor-types”, I want you to think about the kind of training and skill that might be required of any person who is going to work on a spaceship while it’s in outer space. I’m assuming a lot, here, and I’m stretching it. But let’s assume that Ridley Scott envisioned that his characters in the first Alien film could just as easily work on the exterior of the ship as well as they could the interior.
In Alien, a strange alien lifeform is roaming around the ship. Yet, we have a character who decides to go looking for a cat… by himself. And then we have brave Captain Dallas, who decides he’s tough enough to go into the air shafts by himself against a creature he has zero experience with. I’ve already alluded to Kane’s attempt to venture into the dark basement of a haunted house all by himself, only to try to peek at something squirming around in an egg that opens right in front of him (Kane, did you notice that none of the other eggs were open?). Alien is nearly sacrosanct as far as film masterpieces are concerned; I merely contend that the tragedy of really really really dumb decisions is prevalent in all three of Scott’s Alien movies.
Let’s take one more step back and think about these films from the perspective of a horror film. There is certainly a “slasher” element to Scott’s Alien movies. Isolating characters only to kill them a moment later is a common thread in both slasher films and Scott’s series. Hence the idiocy, which we somehow excuse when we watch horror films.
“Let me go and get cleaned up”. Famous last words. Dumb decision? You’re on an alien planet in an unfamiliar structure, and you know there are hostiles roaming around. Members of your team have already been violently killed. Good decision? Probably not. Does this moment mean the entirety of Covenant is “dumb” and we should “check our brains at the door” when we watch it? I would say no.
Like a lot of folks in the audience, one thought popped into my head when a sick man was being rushed into a spaceship: QUARANTINE. I think this is a nod to the first Alien (which taught us this valuable lesson regarding quarantine—Don’t let an alien into your ship ye damn fool), when Ripley refused to let her own crewmates back into the ship because she wanted to follow quarantine procedure. In Covenant, the character Tennessee mumbles something about quarantine as the sick/injured character is rushed to the sick bay. We also have the frantic ship pilot, Faris, who helps get the characters into the sick bay and then shuts the door on them. This seems a nasty act, but a moment ago, we were muttering “quarantine” and “don’t let them into the ship”.
While Covenant seems to provide an entire crew’s worth of cannon fodder for aliens, I believe Scott intended for us to believe that the crew was very close, and they were emotionally connected. A funeral celebration on the ship for Daniels’ dead husband after he is jettisoned into space was supposed to establish that the characters already have a bond and are quite familiar with each other, which seems to be the very opposite of the crews that Scott gave us in both Alien and Prometheus. When people you know are violently killed, there’s a good chance that rational thought makes an exit, especially if you’re stranded on a strange planet. I have convinced myself that Daniels and company believed David was going to protect them; they trusted David because they didn’t have a choice. They assumed David’s sanctuary was safe. And they did some dumb shit.
A lot of fanboys like myself have checked out the two preview videos for Covenant; first video shows us the ship’s crew enjoying a final meal before going into hypersleep, and we are treated to a James Franco appearance. The second video explains how Shaw repaired David. I don’t think these scenes needed to be slipped into the film; as I watched Covenant, I couldn’t think of a place where either scene would work. If you didn’t see those two pieces, you may have missed out; I’m not sure what difference it would have made. Scott did something similar with Prometheus by giving Guy Pearce some screen time with a TED Talks segment for Weyland Corp. The Shaw-David scene did set me up for a lot of second-guessing when David explained Shaw’s fate, though I was already convinced that David had destroyed the engineers, and this knowledge worked to my advantage because I already knew Daniels and crew were walking right into David’s bullshit.
Take a step back. I didn’t say you were wrong. The characters truly do some dumb shit. But I’m going to argue that it’s no less dumb than a dude peering into what sure looks to be an egg… in a spaceship that has crash-landed with a dead pilot...
Alien Rules Are Broken
I really don’t understand this one. We all seem to know exactly how long the gestation period is in a human host, which is amazing, considering we understand the biology that Scott has conceived for his story. Reminder: Scott didn’t make Aliens, didn’t make Alien 3 or Resurrection, and didn’t write the comic books. For Scott, he is under ZERO obligation to abide by any “rules” for these aliens, unless 20th Century Fox asks him for more fan-service.
Let’s go out on a limb and suggest that the gestation period might be different depending on a number of factors that we can just arbitrarily make up in our heads. Does that work? We’ve already suspended our belief when we enter the theater: we are, after all, watching people travel through space while encountering aliens. If we’re going to banter about how “realistic” specific components about these films are, we should get Stephen Hawking on the phone.
Why does the first Alien seem to be fully-grown when David witnesses its birth? Again: who cares? Why does this matter? Since this is the first xenomoprh created by David, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the first monster is going to be different than any others after it? Here I am throwing biology around…
I am probably an idiot, though. Considering that these films are science fiction—and I am not a scientist—I am good at making things up so they fit into my own understanding of the film. As a writer, I like it when the audience interprets something completely different than my intention. Do we have to be right about everything? I don’t know. I guess I am suggesting that Scott’s films are “art”, and for that, I am going to have eggs thrown at me.
Fassbender Was a Bit Over-the-Top, and Scott’s Literary/Art References Are Insulting
A reviewer for Covenant over at The Ginger Nuts of Horror suggested that Scott gave David a bit too much of the Roy Baty character from Blade Runner. I have to ask: why is this a bad thing? Consider the following: Scott has been messing with androids for a little while now, and there’s a Blade Runner sequel in our future. Baty is an iconic villain in genre films, much like Ricardo Montalban’s depiction of Khan from Star Trek II. I make the comparison to Khan because we have the poet-warrior archetype, and it’s a favorite of mine. More Roy Baty? Not a bad thing.
The implications of an android that has seemingly become insane or corrupted leaves a lot to think about. I don’t want Scott to answer all of the questions for me, because I love the concept, especially since Scott’s depiction of an artificial person includes the caveat that they are supposed to be superior than their human counterparts in several ways, with a few shortcomings for the sake of balance. I am going on one of my stretches here; consider Harlan Ellison’s iconic short story, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (a favorite of mine). And yes indeedy, my final connection is going to bring us to Skynet from the Terminator franchise. The superior intellect (see what I did there?) has decided that the human race is better off in absentia--erased. I think it would be too easy to write extensively about David/Skynet/Ellison, but we can leave that for a much longer piece. In short, I love the David character. Shame on me. And let’s not forget Ash from the first Alien.
If we can forgive the literati villains from Wrath of Khan and Blade Runner, why can’t David get a free pass? Because it’s been done before? Did we say the same thing when Wrath of Khan and Blade Runner came out? They weren’t the first brooding, sexy-poet villains.
In the Alien films, the man behind the curtain has always been “the company”: Weyland Corp. Scott finally gave us a villain with a face, and I think David’s development is complex and wonderful. I am glad that we can attach a face to evil.
So what about that flute scene? I can’t defend the flute scene, but I will make an attempt to understand it. The theme of the discussion between Walter and David seemed to revolve around creation, and David made it clear that they are unable to create life because they are both androids. The erotic moment may underscore the sexual impotency that both androids suffer, as David points out to Walter that his counterpart has affection for Daniels, an affection that Walter refers to as “duty”. Could this have been pulled off differently? Certainly. Is the theme itself important? I think so. It seems to clarify David’s motives. I = wonder if David recreated the music for Walter to play on the flute, or if it is truly an original “creation” of David’s. This scene seemed to annoy a lot of viewers, and I think it might fit awkwardly into the overall aesthetic of the film. I think Scott intended something with music in general, especially with the John Denver song thrown in, so the literary symbolism is certainly heavy-handed.
Scott has also chosen to remain faithful to the H.R. Giger’s aesthetic, fusing biology and technology with sexuality. Several of Giger’s illustrations make their way into both Prometheus and Covenant, which helps keep the tone consistent between all three of Scott’s films. Art itself is a prominent driving force behind the entire mythos; is it okay to feature some obvious Giger nods in Covenant and Prometheus? I feel that if we consider the inclusion of Giger’s work to be fan service or an attempt to seem overly intelligent, then we are being unfair in our assessment of the new films as they compare to the first, whereas Scott is being faithful to the original vision.
If we can’t accept that Scott is going to give us a dose of heavy-handedness, then we probably hated Blade Runner, too. In fact, if you hate the new Alien movies, I am going to guess that the new Blade Runner is going to be massively disappointing. I could be wrong. I hope I am. I hope everyone loves it and accepts it as the greatest science fiction film ever made.
What Happened to the Engineers?
I was never under the assumption that David believed he killed all the engineers. I am, however, under the assumption that not ALL of the engineers wanted to wipe out Earth.
In Prometheus, it is clear that the engineers have been travelling all over the cosmos for a very, very long time. Before the dawn of man! The fateful crew of the Prometheus lands on a planet that shows us several “military installations” all in a neat row… bases that look very much like the xenomorph eggs (faithful to Giger’s art). Our crew infiltrates ONE base, gets inside of ONE ship, and they awaken ONE engineer. What about the other ships? The other engineers? What can we assume? If all it takes is one ship to deliver a lethal payload to an entire civilization, then is it possible that the other ships were headed for other worlds?
I would argue that we have to check our expectations of what an “advanced” civilization should look like. Scott is giving us an interpretation, and we are witnessing his vision. The scene in Covenant that shows David swinging his arms while he annihilates these engineers shows us a civilization that is pseudo-primitive; where is all the cool tech? Why does their city seem like a temple? Is there only one such city on the planet?
David explains that he has destroyed life on the engineers’ homeworld. Does the homeworld need to have flying cars or huge cities? Nah. Has their civilization “regressed” in some way? Does it matter? It’s Scott’s fantasy, and we’re experiencing it.
But James Franco’s Character…
The Ending Was Predictable
First, we approach this movie with a huge advantage over the characters: we know what the aliens can do. They don’t surprise us. How do you make the idea fresh / original? We’re all experts, so we can save that question for another day. Knowing what the aliens can do to our characters is part of the horror: just as we know that Jason / Freddy / Michael Myers is hiding around the corner, our awareness of the threat to the characters is used to increase tension for the audience. How does this apply to the ending?
Tried and true storytelling method: the audience knows what is going to happen, but the characters do not. Frank Herbert's Dune is my favorite example of this: the author told us from the very start who the traitor was. Emotion is generated through your investment in the characters. We see their doom, and how it happens. The characters have a chance to avoid this doom, which is where the audience comes into play.
In Covenant, Ridley Scott showed us early on that Walter can repair his flesh. The only reason why this moment is crucial to the story is because Daniels had an opportunity to realize that Walter was an imposter on the ship. David is stapling his flesh together, and Daniels helps. This is significant. We want Daniels to realize that it is not Walter, but David. The audience holds out desperate hope that we are wrong, because we like Walter.
David gives us the sly smile when he is on the bridge; we know then, in our hearts, that it is not Walter. Even though he helps Tennessee and Daniels, we know the android is David.
And then when David ushers them into hypersleep, we are still hopeful. We are supposed to be invested in Daniels, and we want her to lash out and kick David’s ass. Daniels is supposed to be safe, but she is not, and when the horror fills her eyes, we aren’t supposed to be surprised, because our emotions are supposed to be more deeply invested in Daniels so that we hope, until the final moment, that we were wrong about David.
I love this method of storytelling. I am one of those people who knew (SPOILER FOR A STAR WARS MOVIE WATCH OUT) that Han Solo was going to die in The Force Awakens, and knowing heightened the suspense for me. As a longtime reader of the Song of Ice and Fire series, I am still emotionally invested when I know a character is about to die in the HBO version, A Game of Thrones. This doesn’t work for a lot of people, and I realize that. I’m that teacher with copies of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with “GEORGE KILLS LENNIE” written by other students on the inside of the covers, and when I explain to my students that the ending is meaningless without context, they trust me, and they follow me down that road.
I have zero credibility, besides the fact that I am a fanboy. Alien was the movie my parents used to pacify me while I was a young lad, though it always seems fresh and wonderful no matter how many times I watch it. Will I like every Alien film just because? Nope. I thought Resurrection was almost a fun movie, though its tone is jarringly different than the other three; and the AVP films can be enjoyed, though I am not in love with them. I have not convinced you to change your mind about Covenant, and that’s okay. After reading several negative perceptions of the film, I wanted to add to the dialogue. I might seem to be sort of a Scott apologist, but trust me when I say the third film in this new trilogy could ruin the entire thing for me, and for those moviegoers who are losing faith, it’s going to certainly take a hyperdrive leap of faith to make you believe in the director’s vision, and I can’t fault you for that.
I think the films are frustrating in the sense that fans want answers to specific questions, and I can only guess that Scott’s goal doesn’t necessarily include providing concrete answers. “Intelligent” films often come across as pretentious or downright insulting; people who claim they “get it” also seem to be assholes. Let me be clear: I have no idea what Scott is trying to do. If I had to give this movie a rating out of five stars, I would give it 3.5, which seems to be the going rate from a lot of viewers. Enjoyable, but not profound. It doesn’t have to be profound, though. We’ve already seen Alien, and it’s one of the greatest films ever made…