So I went to see Alien: Covenant the other day, because despite the last installation of the franchise being almost comically terrible I still love the original Alien film and wanted to see if Ridley Scott could get back on the horse. Unfortunately, while Covenant does feel like an improvement, the shadow of Prometheus is still very much looming over the franchise for the foreseeable future.
Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.
Prometheus was an example of a kind of filmmaking that science fiction seems to suffer from more than any other genre; a production that began with a few good ideas which it then completely failed to execute in a satisfactory way. The “Chariots of the Gods” approach to life as an engineered process is one that could make an excellent movie, but it runs almost entirely counter to what the Alien movies tended to be about. The terror of the Xenomorph wasn’t that it was something we’d created, but that it was something so completely unlike life as we knew it. Prometheus‘ anthropocentrism – its desperation to explain everything in relation to our own species – felt like a massive let-down in terms of the cosmic horror element of the series. Covenant takes this a step further by telling us that the Xenomorphs we know and… love? were actually genetically engineered from the alien goop in Prometheus by David, Michael Fassbender’s android character from that film. Watching the movie, it began to feel to me that Ridley Scott has a pretty good idea of what he now wants the story of the Alien series to have been all along, and will stop at nothing to push that vision on audiences whether we like it or not.
This feels like a problem because it comes across as a massive change of direction thematically. The original films were not about the creation of life at all – in fact, one of the most interesting readings of Alien argues that its central theme is about rape and sexual assault, and the concept that there are some kinds of trauma which are impossible to come back from. This is something that very few films have dealt with, despite seeming like an obvious choice for the horror genre, and Alien (and arguably Aliens) did it extremely well. And of course this theme felt largely absent from Prometheus. It could be argued that it makes a return in Covenant, but here it feels either sidelined in favour of the Prometheus story or, when the filmmakers remember to include it, far too prominent and lacking subtlety. To put it bluntly, the violence depicted in the film is almost entirely directed toward the female characters, and in a way that often feels gratuitous, almost angry. Not to say that male characters don’t also suffer violence – in fact, if one wants to be charitable, one could argue that since all the aliens are born from male hosts, you could take the reading that they represent the most common perpetrators of sexual assault (that is, people close to the victims) – but the film never lingers on their suffering the way it does on the women. Combine this with the Prometheus story’s obsession with patriarchal creation myths, and it starts to feel like Scott has had something of a change of heart as to the central theme of his movies – and in changing the themes, is forgetting what made those movies so good to begin with.
I know it’s a bit lame to argue that the director and creator of a franchise “doesn’t know what he’s doing” – and the last thing I want is to sound like Star Wars fans of the early 2000’s, when we all realised that George Lucas had well and truly lost his mind – but it is disconcerting to see one of cinema’s few bastions of genuinely well-written, interesting female characters and thematic material moving in such a bizarre direction. Like a lot of people, I was hoping that Covenant would be a return to the series’ roots, rather than a doubling-down on the new direction that Prometheus took. And to be fair, it does seem like the intent was to bring the two parts of the franchise together, rather than create further division – but they haven’t managed it yet.