As a filmmaker enters his twilight years, he’s faced with a twofold path. He can allow the passage of time to ripen him, reducing him to a squishy facsimile of his former and more vital self. Or he can do what Martin Scorsese did with The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, and seize old age as an opportunity to pull out all the stops in pursuit of a grander and more shocking vision than ever.
Roaring back into multiplexes at age 79 like he’s got something to prove, Ridley Scott has handed down to us the goriest, and what’s more, the largest chapter of the Alien saga yet. The original remains the franchise’s most fastidiously orchestrated work of craft, and James Cameron’s Aliens gave the series its most cathartic action showstoppers. Covenant, to its credit and detriment, is simply the most.
Scott vacuum-packs a lot into two hours and couch change, both in terms of expansion to the mythology linking the Alien films with Prometheus and sheer blockbuster bombast. Chief among Covenant’s virtues is the sneaky fluidity with which the film drifts from tone to tone, even genre to genre; this installment hews much closer to no-mercy horror than many of its forebears, and yet operates on the titanic scale of the $200 million studio action tentpole that this is. Scott keeps his audience on their toes from start to bitter finish, and though the cumulative effect leaves a scattered impression after the fact, it makes the process of watching the film a suspenseful, even anxiety-producing one. In a good way! Mostly.
Scott’s winning, more-is-more ethic only backfires when applied to the film’s constant positioning of itself within the overarching legend of its franchise. For those who had to purge their memory banks after Life and threw some Alien memories out with the bathwater: Despite running under the Alien title, Covenant takes place before the events of all the Alien films, and operates as a sequel to Prometheus. It would appear Scott wants to make sure everyone understands this, and that everyone appreciates the lengths he’s gone to in order to cue up the pre-determined future. The ashen-skinned race of extraterrestrials from Prometheus make a fleeting appearance and contribute precious little aside from one in a handful of nods to our past/their future, designed to appease the diehards. (The core fandom, by the way, should be pleased with Scott’s continued commitment to intricate, lived-in art design. The corridors! The hibernation pods!)
Getting occasionally mired in easter-eggy myth making isn’t just tiresome, but a distraction from the perfectly serviceable plot at hand. Scott’s contrived a novel new angle for the usual schematic of “foolhardy travelers get wrecked in space,” placing focus on a convoy of colonists en route to a potential replacement for Earth. The crew onboard — an eclectic ensemble including anxious Billy Crudup, steely Katherine Waterston, and uncouth Danny McBride — are all couples, creating a permanent state of friction between their duty to the mission and sentimental attachment to their spouses. Moreover, this affords the routinely multicultural Alien pictures a chance to open the circle a little wider by introducing a gay couple — though that’s all but incidental, their union condensed to a single blink-length kiss.
Both steamier and more meaningful is the roiling homoerotic tension between David and Walter, both of whom are, in what is sure to inspire nationwide hot flashes, robots played by Michael Fassbender. Pulling double duty as Prometheus’ android in residence and the updated version released a few decades later, Fassbender has a ball with this study in contrasts. The arch, Shelley-quoting David regards the younger, flatter, less animated Walter as something between a brother and son, making the glaring vibe that they could jump one another’s synthetic bones at any second exponentially weirder. Those inclined to do so won’t have to dig deep to hit subtext; Scott wears his philosophical aspirations on his sleeve, double-underlining his statements about the hubris of man creating new life outside the auspices of natural reproduction — and in doing so, unnaturally daring to preserve themselves identically. The loftier bits of writing either veer towards obviousness or vagary, but this is minimally bothersome when you’re spending every scene featuring Fassbender ’n' Fassbender whisper-chanting for them to kiss.
When Scott gets down to business and shifts into killing-machine mode, however, Covenant is one vicious, snarling abomination. The Xenomorph and its newly introduced cousin, the dorsal-spined Neomorph, move at a faster and more erratic pace than in previous installments, a seemingly minor detail that ratchets the terror factor way up. (Scott communicates their unpredictable motion by shooting them with a slightly lower framerate, the same technique that made Max’s opening escape in Fury Road feel so hyperkinetic.) Perhaps it’s due to increasingly sophisticated CGI technology, but the aliens’ monomaniacal bloodlust feels more palpable this time around. There’s bursting galore, too — no surface of the body is left un-ruptured. Buckets and buckets of syrupy viscera spill in plain view, and yet never cross the line from gruesome into nauseating.
The immutable core components of the Alien franchise persist with the newest addition, for better and for worse. Hyperintelligent professionals will always act inexcusably stupid when the plot calls for it, as they must. Betrayals get telegraphed clearly and well ahead of time, and every successive knock-off of Sigourney Weaver’s original Ripley (Noomi Rapace, and now Waterston sporting the requisite awesomely bad haircut) brings diminishing returns. But Scott has successfully renewed the elements that originally endeared the Alien formula to audiences — the absorbing detail of his future, the chilling cat-and-mouse games between the humans and their unseen foes — and in many cases, inflated them to more colossal proportions.
It’s a coup to turn crueler, rougher, and more ambitious this late into a series and a career. Scott’s showing no signs of slowing down, having already lined up his next big project as he approaches the big eight-oh, but Covenant bursts with the leave-it-all-on-the-field maximalism of a pro who’s earned decades of confidence. While it may sometimes exceed its own reach, Covenant extends a grasp so impressively audacious, it might as well come from a director with nothing to lose.
Charles Bramesco is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Polygon, his work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the Guardian, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and Pitchfork. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.