In Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett's initial draft of 1979's Alien, there was no character of Ash. There was no Ripley, either, for that matter; in a deliberate choice, O'Bannon had decided to make every character gender neutral in order to expand casting possibilities as well as add a futurist angle, and focus on the titular creature that much more. As such, there was no character who was revealed later to have been an android all along. However, when producers Walter Hill and David Giler rewrote the screenplay, they changed nearly everything but the premise and the creature, and added the synthetic Ash. Dan O'Bannon was incensed, and thought the change to be "an inferior idea from inferior minds", as he put it on a 2003 audio commentary for the film. In O'Bannon's eyes, the character was a dull throwback to "the Russian sleeper agent" plot line of many a war drama. However, he praised Ian Holm's performance as well as Ridley Scott's handling of the material, calling it "well acted and well directed".
38 years later, one wonders what O'Bannon's opinion of Alien: Covenant would be, as his concept for a creature that incubates inside a human only to burst from their chest is not only back on the big screen, but shares it with several of those synthetics he disliked so much. For what began as a end-of-the-second-act plot twist in the original film, has now blossomed into a thematic cornerstone for the entire franchise. Each film in the Alien series has featured an android as a major part of the plot, but in Covenant, director Ridley Scott's second prequel to Alien after his Prometheus, the fate of synthetics and Xenomorphs are inexorably tied together. It's that aspect, along with the sprawling nature of this horror film, that allows Covenant to be yet another entry in the long running series that feels simultaneously of a piece and yet completely unique. It's difficult to come up with another example of a big summer blockbuster that's this bizarre, bleak, and ballsy (you may have to go all the way back to David Fincher's poison pill Alien 3 for that). Alien: Covenant is possibly even more divisive than Prometheus for these reasons, and is definitely not for everyone, but that's what makes it so admirable and enjoyable.
Following Prometheus both narratively and structurally, gone is the claustrophobia of the initial Alien films, replaced with something stranger and more sprawling. 10 years after the mysterious disappearance of the ship Prometheus, the vessel Covenant is on a mission to a distant planetoid in order to colonize it, with thousands of colonists and embryos on board. A freak neutron storm hits the ship and wakes the crew, far ahead of schedule. In the midst of repairs, they pick up a strange signal that is not only a human voice, but a song, and trace its point of origin to a nearby planet with an atmosphere "too good to be true", as a character puts it. Feeling obligated to explore it as a secondary colonization option, they land on the planet, where things go quite badly, and end up running into the lone survivor of the Prometheus: the synthetic David (Michael Fassbender).
Make no mistake, this is Fassbender's film, and then some. The actor has never been more dynamic than he is here, likely because he's playing two very different characters: the marooned David, and the loyal Walter, who is the Covenant's assigned synthetic. Far from being an Eddie Murphy/Mike Myers-esque ego trip, Fassbender sharing the screen with himself is part and parcel of the film's themes, leaning into the idea of the creation of identical beings who are anything but. It's a performance both showy and remarkably grounded, and the biggest high water mark for "acting with one's self" since Armie Hammer in The Social Network. It helps that David is this Alien prequel series' most remarkable character, a mercurial being who is both sympathetic and utterly monstrous. His is the type of villainy that is both repulsive and incredibly attractive. The term "love to hate" applies greatly here.
The rest of the cast is no slouch, though aside from the leads, Scott and writers John Logan & Dante Harper let the film down in the character department. Katherine Waterston's Daniels, Danny McBride's Tennessee, and Billy Crudup's Oram are undeniably the heart of the movie, bringing their own brand of determination and heroism to the series that's distinctive from any other characters in the franchise. Daniels isn't Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, nor is she intended to be. Instead, she's an incredibly physically capable woman struggling to rationalize a hostile universe. McBride's Tennessee is another feather in the cap of the increasingly dynamic career of the actor, a well rounded character who is neither the comic relief nor overcompensating macho pilot, but somewhere in between. Crudup’s Oram is the most intriguing secondary character in the series since Charles S Dutton’s Dillon in Alien 3, a neurotic man thrust into a leadership position who feels put upon due to his faith yet always strives to do the right thing. Unfortunately, while the rest of the cast is made up of fantastic actors who all do a fine job, their characters are essentially prey for the many creatures of the film, notable only for their gruesome demises.
But oh, those creatures. Alien: Covenant continues the thread from Prometheus, dealing with a mysterious substance that creates a bevy of bizarre beasts, as well as adds the classic H.R. Giger creation back into the mix. The film's newest creature, dubbed the Neomorph, is what you might get if you combined an Alien and a velociraptor. The Alien itself (as well as its attendant facehuggers and chestbursters) hasn't been this intelligent, this vicious, since 1997's Alien Resurrection, and it's a sight to behold for any fan of the creature. As is par for the course these days, the bulk of the creature effects are done through CGI, and yet the technique is used in the most intelligent ways. None of the creatures are made to do anything just for the sake of looking "impressive" or "cool", and the effects serve their character and purpose in the story. In short, despite your eye realizing the faux-ness of CGI, you never register these things as anything less than a threat.
The bulk of the credit for the film, of course, must go to director Scott, who is positively on fire here. At 79 (!!) he showcases the ambition of a younger filmmaker combined with the experience of an old pro. To wit, Covenant blends elements of nearly his entire filmography to date: not just the bleak Lovecraftian horror of Alien and the mythological trappings of Prometheus, but the seductive sociopathy of Hannibal, the existentialism of Blade Runner, the mean-spiritedness of The Counselor, the science-forwardness of The Martian, the action of Black Hawk Down, and the historical epic scope of Kingdom of Heaven/Exodus: Gods and Kings all make an appearance. Even films not made by him are an influence, as there are notes of King Kong, Jurassic Park, and The Island of Dr Moreau all present. If all of that sounds a bit unwieldy, well, it is. Just because Scott is a filmmaker with things to say doesn't mean he's concise, and as such the film feels herky-jerky in spots, too slow at one moment and speeding out of control the next. It's never boring, however, as around every corner is something literally and figuratively new. This isn't safe, four quadrant, franchise filmmaking. The movie leaves ample room for a sequel, and yet doesn't unfold with the knowledge that a sequel will undoubtedly exist. In these "cinematic universe" days, this may be the last bastion of old school franchise filmmaking, pushing the narrative as far as it can go without worrying about future installments.
How you feel about Alien: Covenant will depend a lot on what type of fan of the series you are. James Cameron's Aliens was a major influence across the board, not just in film but in novels, toys, comics, television, and video games. It's still unequivocally the best sequel to Alien, and for that reason convinced a generation of fans that its tone is the direction the series should go. Every sequel since has thus been seen as a disappointment, with the installments that deviated further from Cameron's adrenaline-infused rollercoaster ride being criticized the most. If this is where you stand, then Covenant will likely frustrate you (despite its standout action sequence set on a cargo lift). If, however, you prefer the bleak nihilism of Alien (or Alien 3, moreso), then there is a chance that you, like myself, will consider Alien: Covenant to be one of the best films in the series. Whichever side you end up on, there's the undeniable fact that, despite its flaws, a movie this bizarre and chock full of ideas is something to celebrate. Like Dan O'Bannon and Ash, like David and the Xenomorph, you may be able to find the beauty in the grotesque.