Conversations about film
February 20, 2022
Directed by Ridley Scott, 2012 & 2017
Jim Wilson: Alas, he returns. I think the last time you were here was for TV talk, back during summer. Welcome back, man. I knew someday we’d convene for this talk. You ready for the leap?
Jeff Wilson: Jim, I’m ready to get back up on the horse here after my brief hiatus (psychotic break), now that I’m feeling better, thanks. Getting ready to go down for the long nap as we sail in the Nebuchadnezzar to Geidi Prime. No, no, wrong story…
Jim: I always knew that we would eventually get around to this conversation. I didn’t know if it would just be a talk about the original Alien, or an overview of the franchise, or an inspection of its mechanics. Covering the two prequels was an idea it feels like we arrived at simultaneously, or it was just under the surface, and I nudged it up. All I know is that when the idea first took shape in my brain, I knew it was good. I could see it blossoming in a million different directions, and confronting the heavier ideas director Ridley Scott presents through the central character of David.
You were fourteen and I was sixteen when we saw Alien together on its release in 1979. I think it’s safe to say it’s been a big part of our connection with and conception of movies and cinema ever since.
Jeff: I think my experience of watching Alien in-theater at the tender age of 14 imprinted itself on me in several ways. First off, sheer terror and fear followed me into dark corners for a while. You know, like flipping the light switch and trying to jump into bed before it goes dark. Secondly, it gave me a deep interest in what science fiction could be. Unlike Star Wars a few years earlier, this felt raw, real, and full of discovery. The image of them climbing up to the pilot’s navigation chair struck me with a sense of wonder that survives to this day. The sets in that film, pre-CGI, are a true testament to Ridley’s unparalleled skills in set production and attention to detail. Scuffing things up so they’re not so shiny, like they’ve actually been in constant use. Making things look organic as opposed to plastic. Getting an entire cast to act truly terrified time and again.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it allowed me to understand just how far-out a film can be. That stretching things past the comfort zone makes for a better movie. There is really nothing you can’t explore in a film. I am quite sure that this experience was the genesis moment in forming my appreciation of film on a level beyond just “hey, that was a fun way to toss a couple of hours”.
Jim: Seeing Alien with you, with Dad’s necessary escort, when I was sixteen (or was I fifteen?) was one of those bomb blasts that went off in my teen years. Being a kid in the ‘70s was, you have to admit now, a singularly unique, if not somewhat deranged, experience. Alien had an enormous impact on me, and, I think, a big part of our entire generation.
Prometheus, from 2012, and 2017’s Covenant, and what I have to assume is at least one more installment, serve as set-up for the original Alien, released back in 1979, in which the crew of the mining ship Nostromo stumble over a horrifying discovery. The narrative of the prequels are not always a satisfying exposition, but an appropriate one. The idea that a couple dozen humans got lost skipping around the universe, who then triggered a massive self-destructive event, is an idea I can only fall in love with.
Both Prometheus and Covenant start with “prologues”, or segments that set the stage, conceptually, for what follows. In Prometheus, we’re treated to a staggeringly epic landscape of mountains and river valleys, shadowed by the arrival of a massive craft. We watch as a large, muscular humanoid opens a cup next to a roaring waterfall, then drinks its strange contents. The big guy rapidly disintegrates and collapses into the water, where his altered DNA is spread throughout the primitive planet’s biosphere. Or that’s how I see it. What’s this all about?
Jeff: The first thing we see right out of the gate in Prometheus is the oddly supplicant behavior of the large humanoid figure drinking the black goo and dissolving into the water, after his skin melts and legs break off and he tumbles over the massive waterfall. Interestingly, in the alternate version of this scene, you see others of his race, in clerical robes, observing him, giving the scene more a sense of a sacred ritual. The final edited version of the scene, while losing that hint of ritual, gains an extreme feeling of a cold, solitary sacrifice. It makes you shudder and wonder, like WTF was that? What’s funny is that of all the possible things that ran through my mind over what this scene could mean, it was my original impression that ends being the correct one. This place isn’t necessarily Earth, though it’s implied later that it was also done on Earth, at some point. What you’re actually being shown is that there is a species out there that has progressed in bioengineering and mutation to the point that they can “seed” habitable planets with their own DNA. Thing is, what it comes in contact with mutates in different ways.
On Earth, they seeded us. And as the story progresses, we find out that somewhere along the line, these creators fell out of love with what we’d become.
At this point, I just really have to give a big shoutout to Dariusz Wolski, the cinematographer of both Prometheus and Covenant, for the immaculate clarity and beauty of the films. The shots in this prologue scene are breathtakingly strange and wonderful. Like it’s earth but it’s not, and it’s all shimmery yet stark. And as you’ll notice with most of Ridley’s films there is a level of crispness to all the scenes, especially the action ones, that you just don’t get from other directors and DPs. You can actually see every move being made (as well as hear it); it doesn’t get blurry. This adds an enormous amount of believability to otherwise unbelievable events. The meticulous design of the ships and detail of their interiors is mind-numbing. It’s the accumulation of all these high-level visual and audio intricacies that lends the films a quality I find astounding, and sets them apart cinematically.
But, yes Jim, to your point. At the start of Prometheus I believe we’re being gifted a glance at another human-like species doing something genetically altering to an Earth-like planet. A genesis moment, if you will.
Now if you’ll allow me, when we jump into Covenant‘s prologue, we see another genesis moment, this one of humankind’s making. We are treated to David’s first moments in front of his creator Peter Weyland, in a huge, stark, beautiful white room fronted by an enormous wraparound window with a view of a lake and distant mountains, a glorious grand piano and a huge sculpture of Michelangelo’s David. David is informed, or just knows, that he is a “synthetic”. He’s told a few other things by his “father” in this scene, some of which appears to strike him as troublesome. You get the funny feeling that David is already moving past his father from this very first moment.
Jim: Much of what both Prometheus and Covenant are about is creation myths, meaning the creation of mythologies, and how myths are so often about creation. This is especially true with Prometheus, where the mythical sense is strong, from the ambiguity of the prologue to all the mysteries that swirl around this species called Engineers, a label they’re given by the human researchers who pursue them. It’s also true with Covenant – the central concern with origin myth – but in a more oblique and metatextual sense. In Covenant, Ridley Scott flips the idea of origin back on itself, along with the definition of what constitutes a myth. Ridley surely gets a chuckle out of the question “which comes first, the creator or the myth-maker? Isn’t that exactly what he’s doing here with his own intellectual property?
But to escape from the labyrinth and catch our breath for a spell, I want to talk about the performers here. The central character David, the android created by Peter Weyland, is played by Michael Fassbender. As you know, I’m a huge Fassbender fan, and I’ll argue the success of these two films is as much Fassbender’s doing as Scott’s. I’m always fascinated by how actors interpret the performance of artificial intelligence, of being a cyborg. Fassbender certainly had a long line of Alien franchise androids to observe as “family”, and his mostly naturalistic, while vaguely mechanical, behavior evolves (or devolves) directly from the previous (or, actually, later) ones, especially Ash and Bishop. Practically, Fassbender was inspired more by the synthetics represented in Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner than the assorted Alien droids. But Fassbender takes it to a whole other level, by simplifying it, by intuiting that a synthetic person would not be very good at disguising things, because deception is such a subtle human activity. David is too blunt to be effectively deceptive, and Fassbender plays that expertly. David is never anything other than himself, but it’s the layers of expectation, distrust, and loathing from his human counterparts that make him seem sinister and duplicitous. Conversely, he’s sometimes viewed as kindly, when humans observe him with benevolence. It’s all external perception that describes these versions of David, when the real David remains the static, unpretending being that Fassbender steadily inhabits.
Both films have great casts, but Prometheus is especially good. Along with Fassbender are Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and Noomi Rapace. Rapace plays the archeologist Elizabeth Shaw, whose research sets up the entire story. Would you like to lay that out a little, what she and her husband and partner Charlie discover, and what they and the Weyland Corporation do about it?
Jeff: The prologue’s aerial landscape footage kind of segues right into us flying over Scottish Highlands, if memory serves, and coming to rest, as we notice a band of science-y looking humans searching a hillside of what we are now informed is the Isle of Skye, lying off the west coast of the Scottish mainland.
We then zoom in on a female researcher in a cave in the side of the hill. This turns out to be Elizabeth Shaw, so eloquently played in this film by Noomi Rapace. We see Elizabeth transfixed on a flashlight-lit cave drawing of smaller beings kneeling to larger beings, who are pointing skyward at what appears to be a grouping of planets or stars. Shaw excitedly yells down to her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to come on up and see what she’s found. She has dated the drawings to be 35,000 years old, and apparently they very closely resemble other drawings found all around the globe, all dated differently, this one being by far the oldest. In their minds, at this point, the research has proven that all these differing clans on Earth had been given a singular reason to draw this same picture, meaning that they were all responding to the same catalyst, or interaction. They also conclude that the cluster of astronomical bodies is a solar system, and, of course, they find one that matches that configuration. Then, as we find out a bit later, they proceed to convince the wealthiest person around, Peter Weyland, of all this, to the point that he funds an entire mission to LV-223 in search of our “creators”, or, as Shaw and Holloway name them, “Engineers”. Weyland himself has deep personal reasons for this to be true, which we will find out later as well.
So, at this point the film leaps forward to a shot of the aptly named ship Prometheus, traveling between the stars. We are treated to the all too familiar computer typing on screen of the name of the ship, the date, the mission, the destination, etc.
We now have the layout of how and why we are on this beautiful, bad-ass looking ship (with its dog-like snout, or bird-like beak), heading toward a very distant planet, with an interesting assortment of crew members, all in cryo-sleep, except for one, a rather impressive looking fellow stewarding the ship. We see him bicycling around, shooting a basketball, practicing many different languages very intently, watching an old film, imitating Peter O’Toole (“The trick is not minding that it hurts”), while he calmly, meticulously combs his hair. This, of course, is David.
And so, the mission; to find out if the Engineers actually exist. Are they still on LV-223? Did they actually create us or guide us, and what can we learn from them if we do find them?
At this point I’m pretty goddamned interested to see how this all goes, what we’re going to find, and who will survive it.
Jim: Of course the script has to do this, setting up the archeological discovery, to establish a foundation for the story, and a reason to go out and find these beings, despite being the weakest part of the entire film. I dearly love Prometheus, but every time I watch it, I get more and more frustrated with this whole set-up part. That said, I’m perfectly cognizant that it serves as the practical mechanics of storytelling needed to get us to the more abstract, and interesting themes, namely the “fire of the gods”, meaning knowledge and creativity, and how that fire is managed by the humans to whom it is given, which is, of course, a direct reference to the Greek Titan Prometheus. Now, those ideas are fucking fascinating, and how the film moves forward addressing them is brilliant. I just find those initial gears kind of clunky. The film itself, I’ll argue, is eager to move past them, too, and once Prometheus, the ship, settles down on LV 223, it’s a full-tilt sprint into the guts, if you will, of the story, and the cave drawings are quickly forgotten.
I want to examine our main characters here, since it’s the people, organic or otherwise, that are the real subject of Prometheus. Almost none of them are likable or admirable people, which is, I think, the key to understanding the Engineers’ motives. Rapace’s Shaw is easily the most likable character, though there’s a kind of fanaticism to her early on. The multiple trials she endures and survives seem to strip her of her hubris and leave her with a persistent, even child-like, curiosity, which is kind of beautiful. Fassbender’s David is the most fascinating character. Where does his programming end, and some sort of independent striving begin? For example, why does he poison Holloway with the black goo? For Weyland’s sake, or his own, and maybe with a hint of spite? His affection for Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia, as you mentioned above, is a glorious touch, an artificial person who finds inspiration from an actor portraying a rebel strategist, a man who inspires a foreign army to resist their overlords. In fact, he’s so smitten with O’Toole’s Lawrence, he fashions his hair to resemble O’Toole’s. I love that stuff.
Then there are the others. The ship’s crew are mostly likable guys, not unlike the core crew of the Nostromo in Alien. Led by Idris Elba as the ship’s captain Janek, they’re honest working men, untainted by all the ambition that infects the various passengers. Janek can come off as detached and disinterested, but he’s a man of action, not theory, and when he’s asked to perform a task, well, he does. And the rest, the passengers, whether it’s Weyland’s daughter Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Shaw’s cowboy partner Holloway, Sean Harris’s simpering geologist Fifield, Rafe Spall’s arrogant biologist Millburn, or Guy Pearce’s despicable Peter Weyland, well, they’re all a bunch of pricks, and watching them all die is meant to be as amusing as it is oddly cathartic.
How do you read the characters in Prometheus, and most importantly, is Vickers a synthetic, too? I know there’s no empirical answer to that, but what’s your guess?
Jeff: You know, I’m gonna go with my gut and say she’s not an android. I like to think they just wanted to have this life hardened unsympathetic ice-queen of a human grumpily man-handle everyone on board, and to be the antithesis of David. She’s human attempting to be as cold as a synthetic. You get the feeling she’s trying desperately to disengage and desensitize from other humans, though eventually Capt. Janek breaks her.
David Marshall-Green’s Holloway is the film’s initial antagonist, in my book. He comes off too much as an alcohol fueled, pouty D-bag than a scientist, and while an edge to him is needed, I don’t enjoy the degree of it he’s given. A little more contrast in his character would go a long way. We see a couple of early interactions between him and David rife with condescension. Holloway seems to enjoy pointing out to David that he is just the robot, and “how does that feel” kind of bigotry. I love the line when David asks him why he thinks humans created him, and Holloway coldly replies, “because we could”, which attempts to minimize David, but what it really does is make us empathize with David and view him as more graceful than Charlie. It also begins playing with a core idea I feel the film is exploring. Just what is creation? What’s to say a creator is above its creation? If you simply do it because you can, did you have any real plan, any philosophy as to what it will become? Was there any wisdom or higher ethical perch to cast it forth from, or are you just pumping out the newest thing and then deriding or destroying it when it suits you, or threatens you? This seems to me just what the Engineers may be up to, what we’ve been up to. Hey, we’re all family, right?
Holloway continues his verbal assault on David as they are suiting up for their first excursion to “the mound” when he asks David, as he is putting on his helmet, “Why are you wearing that? You don’t breathe.” To which David calmly, though with a wry smirk, replies “Because I was designed to make you people feel more comfortable.” Ah, what a line. Holloway doesn’t know it but he’s doing a really great job of digging his own grave, and we get the feeling David knows it. And we’re kinda up for it, which is interesting in itself.
Jim: I’m reticent to talk about Holloway, since I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about him. What Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof intended for the character in their screenplay is unclear to me. And then there’s Marshall-Green’s performance, which might actually suck. I keep seeing him laughing, with his lower jaw going up and down like a ventriloquist’s dummy, and it weirds me out. He’s a cowboy, an adventurer, someone looking for a star-hopping joyride, which doesn’t square well with his role as a scientist. When the mission fails to deliver his comic book gods on a silver platter, he collapses, to use your characterization, into a pouty, booze-fueled malaise. Why does that make no sense to me? Both he and Shaw maintain an unrealistic and overly optimistic view of a mission sure to be fraught with endless unseen variables.
So let’s move on to the Engineers, the beings the Prometheus researchers discover on LV-223. More accurately, they discover their ghosts, in the form of some very cool holographic effects, and some of their mummified remains. Eventually, we learn that one living Engineer remains, but before then, we watch the humans observing what little they can find to explain who these creatures are, or were. They’re certainly humanoid, but beyond that they’re utterly mysterious.
Who does the film lead you to think the Engineers are?
Jeff: We learn about them in bits and pieces as we proceed through the film, the holographic video system being the first. We see a frantic scene of them sprinting down the hallways, away from something. One falls and gets his head chopped off by the vertical door (this is later examined by Shaw, when, electronically reanimated, its scalp begins to crawl with black organic bubbles, and then explodes). We then enter the room they are running to and are treated to large head sculptures of themselves, ceiling murals, and lots of vases of black goo. At this point we can start to connect what happened in the prologue scene more coherently. These dudes were definitely messing around with some kind of organic bio-mutation serum. You also guess that something went terribly wrong here (dated at 2000 years ago), when they got a good dose of their own medicine. All this, together with the startling discovery by Shaw that the Engineers DNA is an exact match to our own, allows us to feel pretty sure that these beings did indeed, at some point (at least 35,000+ years ago), seed the earth with their DNA via the black goo and created us. Or was it more, a mutation of some other living organism into an amalgam, a kind of alloy, which is us? Each one is slightly different because it’s an organic mix of genetic material. Wow, mind blown.
This is where it gets really interesting to me, the various ways people react to this knowledge. Fifield goes “yeah, see ya later, fuck-off. I’m a geologist I don’t have much to offer in the giant dead body ARENA!” Shaw is ecstatic. Holloway goes pouty-whiny bitch because he prematurely concludes the Engineers are all dead (what a fine scientist). David is thoroughly intrigued (ala Ash), and starts pushing all the buttons and testing his language skills. He keeps exploring, searching actively, and formulates an experiment to perform on his bestie Holloway. Vickers hates all of it and starts closing doors and firing up flame-throwers. Cap Janek seems to absorb it all, tries to make logical decisions and hold it all together, to some degree.
And yes, eventually we witness birth of something new and wonderful in one of the wildest, creepiest scenes since… oh yeah, the chest-burster scene in Alien.
But not before we see a couple other mutations and an ancient hubris-filled CEO attempt to ask his maker some questions, thinking in his own inflated ego that he is anything other than a busted up, pathetic version of a genetic experiment gone sideways. Actually, he is the perfect example of what went wrong. Or that the answer would be anything other than “because we could”.
Jim: It must be his bottomless wealth and unlimited influence that leads Weyland to rationalize that an unknown being on the other side of the universe is going to grant him immortality just for showing up and saying please, I guess. Which goes to your point about the assumption that one’s maker is any more powerful, or capable of miraculous feats, than oneself. Like with Holloway, I think I find Weyland so detestable that I can brush aside his dumb thinking as merely another example of why the Engineers wanted to exterminate us 2000+ years ago (that rough time period was not chosen arbitrarily, I’m sure). Let’s face it, there’s nothing particularly subtle about Prometheus, Covenant, or any of Scott’s films, really, and that’s fine, that’s part of why we love him, no?
Let’s jump into the dramatic core of the film, which involves multiple instances of infestation, whether on board the ship or in the mound. Fifield and Millburn are attacked by a phallic snake. Holloway, on the verge of transforming into who-knows-what after David poisons him, commits suicide-by-Vickers. And the cute little fetus Holloway’s black seed has spawned in Shaw is, well, aborted in the nick of time. These, and more, are, of course, some of the finest moments of the film. And while the humans are struggling with all this biological turmoil, David is applying his formidable intellect to understanding what the Engineers were up to two thousand years prior, when they lost control of their sludgy little game-changer. It’s a dichotomy I love in Prometheus, with all the meaty, mortal characters running around like mad, trying to keep their guts on the inside, in the face of an insanely creepy motherfucker who invades them with all the nuance of a captive bolt pistol. Meanwhile, the curiosity and budding creativity of the one synthetic, non-biological, character is actually figuring out how things work.
Jeff: Right. The meaty characters. I like that a lot. Yes, the pandemonium that begins to break out all across the film at this point where Ridley really shines. Nobody choreographs a deep-space alien-world fire drill like Mr. Scott.
“I’m givin’ ye all she’s got, Captain!”
No, sorry, not that Mr. Scott.
The part that gets me the most, though, is Shaw’s self-cesarian in the auto-surgery pod. First off, the fact that the pod was only programmed for a male, Weyland, and therefore couldn’t provide a “cesarian” function outright is just on point hilarious. So she hurriedly punches in “large foreign body in abdomen removal”, and clambers into the pod, grasping her pulsing tummy. The pod’s robotically paced announcements about how it will now apply anesthetics and so forth, in contrast to her absolutely frantic screams at it to “just cut it out!” is arm chair-clinching. As her abdomen begins to undulate like a wave-machine the pod calmly proceeds to laser slice a foot long opening across her lower belly and then produces a clampy thing which slowly lowers towards the new opening amidst her hysterical screams. What it pulls from her, seconds before it would have exploded out of her, is a not-so-small squid/octopus looking thing that wriggles wildly, attempting to free itself from the clamp, inches from Shaw’s face, and all inside the cramped pod. But the auto-doc still needs to finish up, and while she’s facing this thrashing alien thing that’s just been excavated from her, the doc fires about 20 staples across the incision, and then slowly the lid of the pod finally rises and Shaw spills herself out, turns and watches the lid slowly close again, spray the cephalopod with something which we are meant to think has killed or subdued it. She then proceeds to stumble through the corridors mostly naked, bloody, and in unimaginable pain, and no one really seems to be around or care. And this is just the start of her day, as it turns out.
Just a few doors down, David is waking Weyland, and preparing him to meet his maker. While the meat was being turned, David had found one Engineer still living on low life support in the navigation chamber of the ship, which is buried within the mound. And so soon, Shaw is zipping up her skintight body suit over her fresh wounds to go confront the Engineer, with Weyland and David, and again, receives no sympathy from anyone, just a terse “are you coming to meet your maker” from Weyland, and a serpent-y quip from David about her recent dilemma.
But yeah, David. As much fun as it is to watch the humans running around self-excavating and flame-throwering each other, you realize that it’s almost all of David’s making. At this point it’s hard to know for sure what David’s full plan is. Is it that, with his loser human master serving as a pawn, he will attempt to level-up and orchestrate a coup? His only mis-step is the same as Weyland’s and Shaw’s, that the Engineer doesn’t give a turd about him either. Or was he just following his natural scientific curiosity through its natural process.
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Jim: Lol. You know, it’s hard to get into the head of an android, but my guess is he’s just pursuing his own innate curiosity, by observing cause and effect. And one of the things he’s curious about is being human. He sets things in motion, then observes the outcomes. But he’s also programmed to serve Weyland. Whether he’s using that service as another way of creating cause-and-effect, I don’t know, but probably. He’s crafty. He learns a lot, and quickly. The Engineers are as much a mystery to him as they are to everyone, but I don’t think he’s placed the same degree of wishful thinking on them. In fact, I don’t think David expects anything from the Engineers at all.
So why did the Engineers want to destroy humanity 2000 years ago? Because we were becoming increasingly violent, as I’ve heard others theorize? Or was it because we were creating these new religions, crafting these ever-elaborate myths about where we come from, what defines us, what we must value, and what we should and should not do? Were the Engineers supremely annoyed that all their attempts to get us to recognize them had failed, and instead we were making up fictional creators out of whole cloth? From the Engineer’s perspective, that would be pretty annoying. Or maybe they just hated that humans were worshipping anything. What, if anything, do the Engineer’s worship? I always think about the mural on the wall of the giant head room, which seems to depict something resembling the xenomorph, which doesn’t yet exist, as far as we know. Were the Engineers trying to manufacture their own god? It’s enough to make me dizzy. Heady stuff.
Jeff: Vickers shows up to Weyland’s awakening, throws in her mandatory couple of cold jabs, but then bends the knee in a truly Romanesque, gladiator kind of way, kisses the ring, and, we can tell, hopes he dies. Vickers’ main mission the whole time has been to keep herself safe, while overseeing one final vain, unnecessary escapade from her father, in hopes that if all goes well, she’ll finally be rid of him.
Again, this pounds at the idea of the created abhorring the creator, and the creator being unimpressed with its creation.
Now, Janek, throughout all these goings-on, is seeing the overall troubling thing, that these beings had accumulated a massive stockpile of bioweapons. Though they’d lost control of it, they were planning on sending it somewhere. Shaw makes him promise that, no matter what happens, this shit can’t get off the planet. And as things get funky, and the Engineers’ ship reveals to David that its destination is actually Earth, Janek and his trusty mates follow through, and smash the Prometheus into The Horseshoe ship, as it’s preparing to depart, which brings it down pretty much right where Vickers and Shaw are running from their own separate Idahos. This scene needs to be watched; it can’t be done justice with words, so I’ll leave it there.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, David’s head – since that’s all that’s left from his encounter with the Engineer – gargles a message to Shaw that “he’s coming”, meaning the Engineer that beheaded him. Shaw has made it to the life pod. Amid the flickering lights and hanging wires and warning klaxons, we get treated to the most Alien-esque scene of the film. Shaw grabs a huge axe. We see signs of her squid spawn confined within the autodoc lab, apparently alive and well, and greatly enlarged. We see the big, imposing Engineer himself clamber up and into the pod and attack Shaw. We see Shaw punch the autodoc lab door open. We see a massive octopus-like thing grab the Engineer. We see an epic struggle, and the creature eventually jams its egg tube down the Engineer’s throat, and then engulf him. A few minutes later in the film, after Shaw goes and retrieves David’s head, we see a scene none of the characters do.
A fresh, moist, and shiny neomorph uses its knife-blade-like head to slice its way out of the now unnecessary Engineer. We see its profile. It looks like something truly alien with some humanoid traits. We see it’s inner jaw jab outward and we hear a high-pitched, chalkboard screeching. And we don’t really wonder, “what does it care about?” Not yet anyways.
This scene freaked me out, and stayed with me into the dark quite deeply the first couple times I saw it. A true horror moment, but it’s all organics. The axe is not used. It’s all biology. Intercourse, conception, birth. That’s what makes it all so goddamned far-out, man.
Jim: The struggle between the Engineer and the giant face-grabber is one of the most visually arresting things I’ve ever seen. And it’s not because of the effects, though those are wonderful. Instead, there’s something about the lighting of that scene that is unique to the rest of the film, a dimmer, maybe gauzier tone that lends gravity and renders it almost dream-like. You can feel the weight of it, of this giant humanoid grappling with an enormous beast, the Engineer’s feet braced against the wall, straddling the doorway. Is the film maybe even slowed down a little? It’s an incredible scene, when all of David’s handiwork comes to incidental fruition, concluding with the birth of the first “alien” xenomorph, or neomorph, born of both human and Engineer organics. Or is it the first? I think back to that mural in the giant head room. Meanwhile, Shaw and David commandeer another horseshoe ship and take off for the Engineers’ home planet, which leads us directly to Covenant, but I always have to wonder what becomes of that neomorph, all alone on LV-223.
Let’s head straight into Covenant. We’ve already talked about the prologue to Covenant, which predates the events of Prometheus, with a freshly minted David and a younger Weyland, as they discuss grand things in a big white room. In the story proper that commences after that scene, we find ourselves aboard another big ship, with another lone synthetic, who looks a lot like David (it’s Fassbender again, after all), except his hair is different and he speaks with a flat American accent, not the posh British drawl that distinguished David in Prometheus. This turns out to be a newer model of the same synthetic class as David, this one named Walter. Please set the stage for us here and describe what Walter’s doing as the action of Covenant begins, in what we soon discover is an extremely action-packed film.
Jeff: We first see the David/Weyland genesis prologue we already discussed, and then shift immediately to a shot of the Covenant, the ship herself. Another incredibly beautiful deep space ship, though this girl looks quite a lot larger, longer, and we soon find out it’s a colonization vessel with lots of life forms in cryo-sleep for the long haul. Ala Prometheus, the first being we encounter, as the camera pans through the interior of the ship, is David, or a version of David. Turns out this one is named Walter, and his designers have toned down the freewill and ability to harm humans settings, given him a goofier haircut, but, thankfully, allowed him to remain Michael Fassbender. We see him being very task oriented, carefully checking the life pods, removing an expired embryo from the cryo-embryo drawer. We don’t see any of the bicycling, old film watching, or hair combing from Walter. And when Mother warns him of a nearby solar event, a neutrino storm precisely, he leaps into action. The storm turns out to be quite bad, and as it hammers the Covenant, we see Walter thrown side to side navigating the hall to the bridge. The gigantic copper solar sail deployed for recharging has taken a direct hit, and power is sporadic. Thus, mother urges Walter to wake up the crew from their cryogenic pods.
Jim: The rapid awakening from cryo-sleep during a power crisis results in the death of one of the crew spouses, and not just any one of them, but the captain himself, played by James Franco. Because of the deleted supper scene, we never see him alive on screen, except for a video of him we eventually see his wife watching. I loathe James Franco, so, as you and I have joked about before, I consider this his best performance ever, since his character dies at the very beginning of the film. That aside, it is harrowing and grisly scene to start the film with, and foreshadows the darkness to come.
With the death of the ship’s captain, the first mate is promoted to captain, a man named Christopher Oram, played by Billy Crudup. There is immediate tension that arises from this, particularly with the captain’s widow Katherine Daniels, performed with wonderful grit by Katherine Waterston, the eventual heroine of the film. Captain Daniels’ more casual commanding style is replaced by a petty fussiness in Oram that Katherine openly resists. Oram is also a devout Christian, which hearkens back to Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus, though it’s clear that Oram is a more austere believer than Shaw. Though none of his fellow travelers seem to have any open conflict with him about this, Oram himself complains that others look down on him, and discriminate against him for his beliefs. It sets up a clear power imbalance between him and Katherine, which plays out nicely through the course of the film. The question of religion, of faith, devotion and ideas about creation and mythology are at the heart of both Alien prequels, so the inclusion of a character-of-faith is a useful, if obvious, one. It’s not, however, by my estimation, a theme that’s covered effectively in the film, and Oram is perceived mostly as a sniveling fence-straddler, who can’t make hard decisions and stick to them. This comes out notably when, after a space-walk to repair the damaged power sails, a rogue transmission is accidentally picked up from a habitable moon not too far away. When the transmission turns out to be a distorted John Denver song, everyone’s curiosity is piqued, and Oram makes the decision to change course from Origae 6 and investigate this promising new world instead.
What of this decision to change course do you think has to do with Oram’s religious faith? Is he following his gut-feeling, or his faith, in place of the long-deliberated and scientifically founded destination of Origae 6?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s interesting. If Capt. Franco hadn’t died, would they have even taken this “easy” option. Oram is swayed by the crew, and perhaps his beliefs, that this was “ordained” to happen. Religion in general seems to be led around by just such lazy assumptions. “It’s a miracle!”
Only for it to blow up in his face. Daniels stridently objects to Oram’s leap of faith, and apparent lack of backbone, and demands her objection be put in the ship’s official log, arguing that they shouldn’t throw away years of scientific study put into selecting the best-bet planet on a strange chance occurrence that makes no sense. “Why wouldn’t we have seen this planet?” she asks. As for how the whole religion concept is actually looked at in the film, I’ll agree with you that it is not effectively done. And quite frankly Ridley tends to do this with religion a lot, and I actually get it. He references it, puts the sides out there and then just lets it roll. He doesn’t openly, or overly exploit it, thus allowing the viewer to see it their way, and give it their own amount of weight. It’s not what the film is about, but like everything in our lives, it’s always there, driving a wedge, and he uses it for exactly what it is, an extremely polarizing human phenomenon.
Having said all that, I do think having it out in the open in this film makes some sense. As Prometheus gave us an introduction into David, the Engineers, and the goo, all very seated in science, and the mission in that film was to “find extraterrestrials”. Covenant feels more faith-based as a whole. These couples are looking for a nice watery planet to build cabins-by-lakes on, not run into nutty Dave and neomorphs. In fact, they are trusted to take a bit of it on faith, and so are we. We get David’s strange ramblings to Walter, the Armageddon feel of a “paradise planet”, and the haunted house feel of Dave’s inner sanctum.
With the jettisoning of Franco’s charred, shrouded body out into space and Oram’s new plan to land on the new planet complete, we descend. We are treated to a wonderfully executed drop-ship descent through the charged atmosphere, with a hard descending burn to the left, finishing with a water landing. Very loud, very cool. The team clambers out onto a pretty earthy looking, green hillside. Faris (Amy Seimetz), the pilot, stays behind to tend to the damaged communications system. Tennessee, her husband (Danny McBride), is also a pilot, and steers the mothership, Covenant, still in orbit. They will be in contact as the rest of team explores their new world.
Curiouser and curiouser, we clamber up the wheat-filled hillside to find our “paradise”. Security team leader Lope notices there is actually wheat growing right there. Odd, isn’t wheat an Earth crop? Eventually, we see one crew member unknowingly inhale a bunch of tiny spores released from fungus pods he steps on. Then we see it happen to another. Then we notice all the trees along the hillside appear to have been mowed down by something rather large.
So the away team eventually finds what flattened the trees going up the hillside. A giant horseshoe-shaped ship. As they investigate, they find Shaw’s dog-tags and recognize the name. Walter recalls that she had gone missing ten years ago as part of the Prometheus mission. While they are checking out the ship, which is most definitely not a Weyland ship, Daniels points out, they get multiple distress calls from Faris’ that Ledward is sick, and to get back to the lander.
What proceeds to happen next here is the wildest one-two punch of alien birthing we’ve yet experienced.
Ledward, one of the spore ingesters, rapidly descends into a troublesome state, causing Karine, Oram’s wife, to hustle him back to the lander, and blow-off quarantine protocols, much to Faris’ dismay. They get him to the medical bay, where Faris locks them in, freaking out that this is happening on the lander. We then stand witness to a neomorph, an opaque milky looking version of a xeno, violently crack its way out of Ledward’s back and spill out in a blood-fall of after-birth. Karine freaks, yells at Faris to let her out. Faris says, yeah no, and runs to get a weapon. She contacts Oram and demands he get back NOW! With a wonderfully frantic scene of her sliding and falling in copious amounts of blood, Karine is munched by the neo, and Faris slips and falls, attempting to shoot it. The neo smashes its way out of the sealed med-bay, and gives chase. Faris’ wild shooting at it throughout the lander eventually hits something explosive and we, as well as Oram and the rest of team, are treated to a massive detonation of the lander, which is their only way off the planet. Immediately on the heels of this, we see Hallett, the other ingester of spores, writhe in agony, then jettison another neo right out of his fucking mouth (how’s that taste?). This neo, after a moment’s hesitation, goes right after Daniels, skipping and hopping to avoid gun fire. Walter intercedes, blocking its pursuit of Daniels and fends it off by getting his hand ripped off. After a bit more of this, we are hit with a loud sound and a bright light. A cloaked and hooded figure stands in the field not far away with flare gun raised. We notice that the neo is directly affected by this signal, almost like a command, and it scurries off to grow up.
As we pan in on this new, magically appearing form we excitedly realize that it is none other than David. And this is when our brains really start to hum. We get our next connection to Prometheus, as we start straining to make connections. How? When? Where’s Shaw? Why this planet?
Jim: Great summation. The whole sequence you just described is easily, for me, the single greatest horror action sequence I’ve ever seen. It all unravels so rapidly, after that gorgeous landing scene. A lot of praise has to be given to the editing of it, by Pietro Scalia, to maintain a constantly increasing state of all-out panic and mayhem. Even during the earlier discovery segments, the atmosphere of dread and impending doom is oppressive. When everything quickly goes to shit, I gasp with the sheer intensity and wonder of it, every time I watch it. The characters are strewn across four locations, from Tennessee up on Covenant, to his wife Faris down on the lander, Karine and Ledward taking bio samples, and the rest exploring the crashed ship up on the hillside. The way the tension builds to the grim realization of what is about to happen, to the complete shitshow that ensues, is beautiful film craft.
Maybe one of the most powerful elements of the sequence is Scott’s understating of the audience’s relationship with it. We know what’s about to happen, since we’ve seen it in multiple films already, but none of the crew know it, and that tension is controlled with maddening precision. Of course, we don’t know exactly how it will happen, but we know what. Bringing the trauma of it all directly back into the lander is the true stroke of genius, and serves as a kind of wonderful metaphor for the relationship between the pathogen/xenomorph and humans across the franchise. Nothing and nowhere is safe. It will find your heart, your most precious space, your safe space, and strike without a moment’s hesitation. The vulnerability that’s exposed by the entire sequence, and especially on the lander, is a bloody gash that’s never closed, a mercilessly complete invasion, in mere minutes.
I love your point about the mission of Covenant, the vessel, being a faith-based journey, and how that extends out into the broader narrative, and certain decisions that are made. Even what compels David to do the Frankenstein-like experiments he does with the pathogen goo, breeding an ever more lethal and survival-hardened creature, feels like an act of faith, of a synthetic person’s reverence for the act of creation, which he, like all people, meat-based or silicone, carries with him inside his very existence.
So answer me this. We eventually see how David and Shaw, aboard the Engineers’ ship from the ending of Prometheus, arrive at the Engineers’ presumed home world, and witness what David does. How do you explain that with the crash landing on the hillside? There’s a part of the story there that’s never touched on. It fires my imagination. What do you think?
Jeff: My best guess is that was the only option. David and Shaw, didn’t really know how or where to do it safely? It is definitely an open, unexplained point. But like much about their arrival sequence, it goes unanswered here. Is this the Engineers’ home world? I think not. It looks and feels more like an agricultural colony they’ve seeded with a simpler version of themselves. We don’t see any kind of tech that would lead us to believe they manufactured here. It also seems that the planet as a whole is not populated. From what we’re allowed to see in the scope of the film, this one area where David let fly his full load of goo reducing it to “this dire necropolis”, is the only built-up place. And it is through this dark, crusty square, filled with dead Engineer bodies, that David now leads what’s left of the landing team. He rambles out half-truths and full-lies to them as he explains his situation. How the pathogen was released “by mistake”, and that it destroys or mutates all non-botanical life, the meat, if you will. It’s why this place is so quiet and dreary. It’s just Dave and his experiments. I mean, House of Usher or what? What a setting for some truly hellish creativity to gnaw away at itself. It’s all just too good. The hundreds of old science book-y looking drawings of his experiments blowing in the ever-present breeze inside his workshop adds immeasurable layers of texture to every scene shot in that space. If you look at them all long enough you can start to discern a pattern, yes, that Davey’s been trying to strengthen and refine his oh so organic bio-mutation products. And we get treated to a few of the latest here without much delay. This next act of the film really amazes me. The constant flow of info we’re getting on what David has been up to, dotted with quick shots of the neomorph attacks is like an all-you-can eat buffet. The confabs between Walter and David, interspersed with Tennessee’s attempts to get the Covenant low enough in the atmosphere to communicate without destroying it in the monstrous ion storm/hurricane that is, of course, now sitting over their location on the planet, the recorder lessons, the wrongly ascribed Ozymandias ramblings, the lone flower on Shaw’s grave in the garden. Ah, Paradise.
Jim: I like to think that after seeding the square, David didn’t know what the goo would do, so stayed in orbit, watching. For some reason, he stayed off the planet until his booster fuel ran out, which is when he crash-landed, as close to the scene of his crime as he could get. What the pathogen had resulted in, from gestating in whatever fauna on the planet it could find, was the material with which David began his research, which we see in his hundreds of drawings and specimens. Shaw he kept alive until he had developed a phase, or stage, of the species that would require a humanoid host to significantly advance. However, what happened to any of David’s actual spawn is a black-hole, a complete unknown. This is what I’ve always hoped the third prequel would address, what the experiments produced, other than fungal spores, and, somehow, face-grabber eggs.
Home of the Engineers? I guess I always suspected it is, but it doesn’t matter. Your argument against it is sound. Either way, it serves simply as a place with corruptible meat. As for identifiable technology on the planet, we have to talk about the deleted scene called “Crossing the Square”, in which the team is first being led to David’s lair. They pass by a huge pit, in which there is an obvious Engineers’ horseshoe ship lurking deep in the shadows. This strongly suggests that it’s more than just a seed planet, but a part of the Engineers’ network. But any details beyond that remain as murky as the hidden ship.
So David vs. Walter. Walter is clearly resonant of Bishop, from Aliens, who suffers a fate similar to David’s, but has Walter’s kindly disposition. I think the David-Walter distinction primarily highlights the problems inherent in how to design artificial intelligence. David is a truly synthetic human, or as close as his creator could get to one. He recognizes the disparities between power and weakness, and seeks power for himself. He has ambitions. He can express anger and sadness. He actively mimics the behavior of humans. He can even be spiteful. He is imbued with human qualities that make him unpredictable, charismatic, and cruel. He is, very much, like any human who wishes to be powerful and create his own world. I respond to David the way I would respond to any dangerously ambitious person.
For Walter I feel only pity, since he’s devised without any means by which he can be more than a glorified slave. Walter, for me, illustrates the very real problem with creating synthetic beings that only serve. I think of the Replicants in Blade Runner, of synthetics whose will to be more than servants is considered a crime, so they’re either terminated, or simply not programmed to ever have that will, both of which, to me, are equally ferocious and inhumane. There’s a lot to be said about the moral quagmire of robotics and artificial intelligence in the dueling natures of David and Walter. Walter may be the kindly and harmless version, but he reveals his maker’s true barbarity by creating a defenseless slave. David I may not like, but he can exercise a degree of freewill. Like humans, he is fallen, and not to be pitied.
Jeff: It occurs to me that in designing AI and robots, it’s probably best to not give them overly humanoid form. If you make them to look too much like yourself, it makes it harder to treat it like an appliance. It’s much less egregious to treat a vacuum like shit than something that looks like your weird neighbor. This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, somewhat not. It is, of course, actually about what level of sentience a thing has, and not it’s appearance, supposedly. It falls very much into line with racism and genderism at that point. At the David and Walter level it is most definitely a horrid thing being done to either of them, but not a surprising one. It is quite human, fallen as we are.
As to the deleted “crossing” scene, it’s been mentioned that Ridley cut it because the fact that there were other ships right there would have negated David having to stay in this dead place after all the meat was gone, perhaps causing a slight switch in movement forward of the story. Hard to know.
Now, Jim, at this point, before I forget, I want to bring up something you briefly touched on in the Prometheus talk, namely the wall painting in the large head sculpture room in the mound of what appears to be a full-fledged xenomorph. It is something that really grabbed me on this latest re-watch, since I was researching for this talk and was establishing chronologies, and in my mind at that time I was thinking that David was the originator of the xenomorph, or at least the neo- and protomorphs, via the giant eggs and their face huggers, which we see in Covenant. So the fact that we see this mural in the ship that’s been lying there for 2,000 years before Prometheus even got there raises big questions. The most obvious answer is that in their time with the goo, the Engineers themselves had already done the research David ends up repeating somewhat on Paradise shown to us in Covenant. If so, they had refined their research, created the xenomorph, and even deified them to some end. But, and here’s the kicker, we know that the pathogen’s morphing is very dependent on the host life form. So, if David only finally gets his protomorphs from Oram and Lope, it would stand to reason that the Engineers needed to use humans as well, right? And if so, is that the reason for the seedings, to find the right organism from which to birth the ideal xenomorph? That once established, humans on Earth were really just a livestock reserve for making ultimate xenos, the most cunning, nastiest, stop-at-nothing-to-survive symbiote. Were they dropping by and disappearing us here and there to build some kind of super soldier army, much as humans themselves are trying to do in a reverse way in Alien 3, and most notably in Resurrection. Did it all start going sideways as the xenos started using their ferocious tools to break away from and topple the Engineers themselves (much like David vs. the humans)? And if so, were the Engineers on their way to goo-spray the Earth to take away the meat incubators necessary to morph xenos? Anyways, just throwing it out there. It could be an intersecting storyline in films to come, that it’s not just What’s David gonna do?, but some kind of collision, or at least a very cool reveal.
Jim: You may have something there. The cycle of creation is obviously a functioning dynamic in the prequels, and the moral questions that arise from creating beings to serve specific functions. Which brings us back to this concern again.
You’re right. It is a measure of sentience that makes the difference when considering the moral boundaries of how we treat the beings we create. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, whether it’s humanoid, or looks like a block of wood, or a beach ball. If it observes, reasons and reacts. If it’s sentient, then enslaving it is a moral crime, which is what’s being committed against Walter. David is a much less troubling synthetic human than Walter. David might be the devil incarnate, but (and because of that) he’s infinitely more human than Walter. David can resist. Does that make sense? And this isn’t just me talking. Without getting into citations and footnotes, there is a growing concern about the ethical applications of artificial intelligence and robotics, by those who are invested in the field, and those who monitor it. And I think it applies just as much to the xenomorphs as it does to synthetics, which speaks right to your hypothesis. When do they become sovereign entities, when they must, morally, be granted self-determination? Playing god is a dangerous fucking game, just as creating gods is, too.
Before David starts arranging rendezvouses between face-huggers and Covenant crew, there’s a fantastic sequence that begins when one of the neomorphs, from the earlier spore infections, the one born from Hallett, stealthily enters David’s lair. We see it arrive in the garden (I think there’s something amusingly biblical about that setting), a pale, very human looking neo, with a blank, featureless face. It sneaks up on crewperson Sarah Rosenthal, beheads her, and is eating her corpse when David discovers it. He’s clearly enchanted by this next phase of his handiwork, and as he begins communicating with it, Oram comes up from behind and kills the neo with his firearm, sending David into a rage.
This sequence has become a favorite of mine, over repeated watches. Horror is always at its best, I’ll argue, when it reaches into the mythical and the mystical, and thrills you on a level that’s less about fear and more about sensuality. There’s something darkly beautiful and erotic about these scenes. Sarah’s head floating in the pool of water, David blowing gently on the neo’s face, and the appalling physical violence of Oram’s attack. It’s a moment when I truly do feel pity for these creatures, which is made possible as much by lighting, setting and sound, as by the subtlety of performance (particularly Fassbender’s) and skillful writing. It’s immediately after all this that David confesses to Oram about the truth of what happened when he first arrived at the planet on the Engineers’ ship, and intentionally released the goo to infest all the meat.
From your time spent with David and the Covenant crew in David’s laboratory and surrounding areas – what feels like some kind of ancient stone palace – what are your thoughts about the synthetic and his efforts, alone on a depopulated world, dreaming his electric sheep, so to speak, and longing to create? I’ve wondered sometimes if David was at first happy to have humans invade his world merely for the company, to have others to interact with, before his real thrill of having some warm new hosts for his experments. I think especially of the flute playing part with Walter, when he might well have enjoyed the company of his own kind, only to realize his line had been shackled and dehumanized.
Jeff: I get the impression that David is initially a bit enlivened by their arrival. He saves them, shows them around, and tries to interact encouragingly with Walter. But as we find out, he has been damaged. Probably his rebuild after being torn apart in Prometheus, in addition to his already fractured relationship with humans, has stripped him of… something. And as Walter so poetically states after witnessing David’s inaccurate credit of Byron for Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, “if one note is off, it can ruin the whole symphony”. So, between his “offness”, the limits put on Walter, and Oram’s treatment of his newest, grandest neo in the “Neo whisperer” scene you referenced beautifully, David seems to lose hope in humanity, once and for all. He gleefully introduces Oram to “creation” in the face-hugger egg lair. In a frightful scene where the two synthetics combat one another, David pulls out Walter’s “mainline” in the film’s campiest shot: the quick frame of Walter going bug-eyed. Then he goes after Daniels, who he finds in his sanctum, absorbing what he did to Shaw, observing her flayed open body, still preserved on the research slab. She is able to stab the symbolic nail (for the cabin by the lake) of her necklace pendant under David’s chin, to which he calmly responds, “that’s the spirit”. I love this reference to Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, during an equally lop-sided synthetic v. human struggle with Harrison Ford’s Deckard in Blade Runner. The nail also echoes the one Batty jabs into his hand to keep it open, as his life-clock ticks down. At this point, the resurrected Walter (the newest synthetic models have self-healing abilities he does not) attacks him anew, allowing Daniels to flee.
While this is happening, we see a little scene where Lope and crewmember Cole are fighting off a loose face-hugger which briefly hugs Lope. While Cole is patching Lope’s acid-burned face, sprayed during the face-hugger removal with the creature’s corrosive blood, the Oram protomorph, in a very cool upward shot, is seen coming down off the ceiling, and shreds Cole, as Lope limp-runs away. What we don’t see all of is Walter and David’s smackdown.
Ridley leaves us hanging mercilessly right as the final blows are coming. So, as Tennessee is ponderously descending through the atmosphere in the flying loading platform crane-thingee, we see our only survivors – Daniels, fucked-up Lope, and what appears to be Walter, emerge from the sanctum, run down the necropolis stairs and sprint across the square to the platform, with the protomorph close behind.
What ensues next is a Ridley-only action scene aboard the ungainly airborne platform lift. And beneath all the action is tucked the nagging itch of a thought: is it really Walter? His hand is gone, like Walter, he doesn’t have the nail wound in his chin, and old David didn’t self-heal. He talks like Walter. And all of this, of course, makes everything else feel all the better.
Jim: But you know it’s not. Great eye on those Blade Runner references. I know that Roy Batty was one of Fassbender’s main inspirations for David, though I think he got more out of, or was more truly channeling, the way Sean Young plays Rachael. It’s such a great big, sublime theme that Ridley captured so well in 1982, and one he was still clearly in love with 35 years later.
I forget what they call it in the film, but it’s basically a flying barge, the thing Tennessee brings down from the orbiting Covenant to rescue them. At work, I can imagine it like a big hovering flatbed that you could load stuff onto easily. I’ve never entirely succeeded at imagining what the huge claw is for, like a scoop, I guess. But the great complication it adds is what makes the battle scene between Daniels and the protomorph so thrilling. The claw crane is meant only for use when the barge is secured in place. Using it to capture the protomorph is a good idea, but it radically imbalances the ship while it’s flying around frantically over the square, resulting in some hair-raising and beautifully crafted action effects.
I love the design of this protomorph. It’s as close as anything we’ve seen so far from either prequel to the beasts we see in the original films. Though it possesses that insectile quality that defines the xenomorph, there’s something ungainly and twisted about this one. I have always felt, though, that it doesn’t get a fair shake, and Daniels dispatches with the thing a little too quickly. The whole sequence, and the one that follows aboard the Covenant, are clear nods to Cameron’s Aliens, and the use of heavy mechanical devices to battle the xenos. It points all the way back to the heavily biomechanical nature of H.R. Giger’s paintings, the Swiss artist who designed the original xenomorph, and other elements of Alien. With that in mind, the idea of an android perfecting a blend between organic creatures and practical mechanics, the marriage of the fleshy and the synthetic, is tantalizing.
With the survivors of the landing party safely back aboard the Covenant, there’s a brief respite before the finale we know is coming. And what comes underscores for me something that’s such an important feature of the gestation period of these various morphs. They work fast. It takes little time from infection, through gestation, to birth. Even when you think one process has been disrupted, you soon learn it doesn’t matter. The deed is already done.
Jeff: Good call, Jim, on the final two big battle sequences in Covenant drawing a lot from Cameron’s Aliens. All the heavy machinery used to aid in the battles. As for the proto’s somewhat quick dispatch, perhaps David sees and acknowledges this and he sets about refining and strengthening its design. Or, perhaps the eggs and their face-huggers, which produce the alien, and onward xenomorphs, are the Engineers’. We can’t be sure at this point. It also keeps the film true to form, all things resolved on the quick-side. Always moving on. It’s what makes Covenant… Covenant. It most certainly is not Prometheus 2. While they share a lot of threads, they are quite opposed to each other, almost like the positive ends of two facing magnets. And I really love that about these two films. What will the third be like, you know?
Now what we do find out is that the face hugger that grasped Lope accomplished its objective. For as the survivors return and settle into the Covenant, yet another alarm goes off. In Mother’s not quite monotone Alexa voice we hear “Unidentified life form in med bay”.
And as Tennessee and Daniels arrive there, we see that, yes, Lope has had a successful delivery, his exploded body decorating the floor.
We are now treated to Tennessee and Daniels hunting the proto through the corridors of the Covenant, directed remotely by Walter/David, as he relays the creature’s location to them from what he sees on security monitors. Before they can catch up, the proto meets and greets with Ricks and Upworth, who are showering together to a loud, old Motown tune. Its tail slithers into the stall between Upworth’s legs while it’s inner jaw punches out through the glass, through Ricks’ head, and out of his mouth. After finishing with Upworth it moves on. At this point Ridley is still not completely showing his hand on David. He has David continue helping Tennessee and Daniels track the proto, his baby, but with Walter’s dutiful complacency.
At this point, I think, David is playing the fence, just in case the battle is lost, but also because he knows as long as he keeps his cover, this proto doesn’t really matter. I think he’s more interested in watching how well it performs. So, with David’s help closing hatches behind it, Tennessee and Daniels funnel the proto towards “their” turf, the terraforming bay, home of some very large dump-trucky vehicles. Another Ridley choreographed Aliens-esque battle with the proto occurs, resulting in the proto’s demise. While I love what he’s trying to do with this final battle scene, having Tennessee and Daniels working together, it has so many huge moving parts that, to me, it comes off a tad cumbersome in its execution. I find the flying platform battle more memorable.
Jim: I love that you’ve worked out the back strategy for David. That’s devotion.
The terraforming bay, right, where all the big earth-movers are stored, for transforming an existing biosphere to conform to a human ideal (do keep this in mind). Honestly, this is the bit of Covenant I forget about the most often, because it’s stale. Seen it before, and better. If there was something I would have voted to excise, I would easily choose this bit, though it would have to be replaced with something. What? There’s also something those kinds of big-screen prestige genre films require, in order to be complete, and it’s scenes like that.
It’s the final coda-like ending where the film’s true gravity finally rests, when the real villain is revealed, who’s not only not Walter, but considerably more nefarious than the xenomorphs could ever be, a creator that humans created.
Talk about the ending, if you like, but I’m curious which of the two films you prefer aesthetically, meaning the designs, the cinematography, the feel and heft, you know.
Jeff: Well, for the ending Ridley lines it all up nice and tight. After the battle with the proto, we see Daniels putting Tennessee into his cryo-pod, ala Ripley with Newt and Hicks in Aliens. We then see Walter tucking Daniels into her pod, her smiling at him, but with some slight apprehension. Is she worried about being in the pod, or losing consciousness, or control? As the lid is closing, she asks Walter if he’ll help her with the cabin. David looks down at her without comprehension. Daniels works out what has and is happening in the handful of seconds after the pod seals itself and she loses any control. As she begins screaming, David smiles broadly and tells her “don’t let the bed bugs bite.” And yes, we do realize which entity is actually the most horrific thing in the film. Yeah, subtlety goes a long way in horror. And in true Covenant form, we don’t linger on this truly horrific moment that the film has been building to the entire time. We move right along with David, who uses his old passcodes and name to order mother to open the colonist cryogenic hall to him. He orders up the Wagner piece he played for Weyland on his genesis day that we saw during the prologue, “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla”. He saunters over to the embryo storage drawers, coughs up a couple spheres and places them inside. We see that they’re little face-huggers. The drawer closes, David clasps his hands behind his back and casually strolls down the hall, inspecting the refrigerated hanging meat. Curtains!
It feels like Prometheus is quite singular in the series, while Covenant is all inclusive of the series.
Prometheus is my favorite aesthetically. The designs, set production and cinematography are extremely high-end.
Jim: I would have to agree, that Prometheus is the more beautiful of the two, but there are moments in Covenant that have left a permanent impression on me in ways that no image or scene from Prometheus does. The scene in the med bay with Ledward, Karine and Faris, when the first of the neomorphs is born out of Ledward’s back, is easily the most gorgeously horrific thing I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold. The acting, directing, editing and effects are unequalled. David’s laboratory is another one, with all those macabre drawings always fluttering in the breeze. There’s a darkness to Covenant that really appeals to me.
Maybe it goes without saying that David is the most outstanding character in either, but I’ll still ask it. Who’s your favorite character, or who are the characters that most impress you?
Jeff: Agreed. There are scenes in Covenant that just stay with you more. For me, the neo-whisperer moment is firmly harpooned to my frontal cortex, and the drawings, and the births… nevermind! I also think that the absence of the Weyland Corp. angle in this film gives it a less corrupt, more tragic feel.
David is the center-piece character here and double performed brilliantly by the singular Mr. Fassbender. After that, I certainly have to go with Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus. Each time I watch it I love her performance more and more. She’s so warm and polite, even naive in the opening half of the film, then proceeds to hack through the most unpleasant second half of a film… ever, without ever losing her. We know she’s the same person and the way she pulls that dichotomy off impresses the hell out of me. It’s a lot like what Fassbender is pulling off.
Idris Alba’s performance as Captain of the Prometheus was the over-looked one I noticed and was impressed by the most this time around. I love his laid-back attitude, but with the gears always quietly turning. The chemistry between him and Charlize’s Vickers is pretty well played. It’s like they have their own little film going on inside the bigger one.
In Covenant, I actually have to go with Seimetz and Ejogo in the backcracker scene in Lander. Their frantic screaming at each other while wiping out in rivers of gore is so real it sells the scene that launches the film.
Give us your favorites and most memorables, if you would, and then how about your funniest moments of the two.
Jim: It’s hard to place any of the characters over David, but I have to give a loud shout out to Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston. Waterston takes a role that could be easily overdramatized, but instead Daniels is an authoritative figure who’s never dominant. Her presence is always intense, and reassuring, while her footprint is feather-light. Daniels is a very cool character crafted by a very gifted actor. I’ve always loved Waterston in whatever she does. The comparison has been made millions of times, but she’s the closest any actor has come to capturing that Ripley energy Sigourney Weaver made so famous. And it’s not because Waterston is trying to imitate Weaver, not at all. It’s just an energy she has, a calm, even bashful, ferocity I love watching every time I see Covenant.
Funniest moment has to be the rolling horseshoe ship scene in Prometheus, which crushes Theron’s Vickers and spares Rapace’s Shaw within inches of her lovely visage. I always wish I could see Vickers being crushed, to see if she squashes red or white. But there is something to say about humor in the scene you just mentioned, in the lander’s med-bay in the middle of the huge action extravaganza in the first part of Covenant, namely the slipping in blood routine, which is pure fucking Ridley, to add a comic pratfall bit into a revolting, terrifying scene.
What parts tickle you?
Jeff: Okay so you took the Horseshoe Ship fall, roll, tip, smash. I’ll stick with Prometheus and a couple of moments involving my close friend Charlize. First off there’s a little scene of the two co-pilots talking about their ongoing bet over whether they will find Shaw’s Engineers. They’ve wagered $100 yea and nay. One of them says whenever it’s decided they could just put it towards a lap dance with Ms. Vickers. A cheeky nod to the immaculate presence Charlize brings to the crew/ship, wandering around in her skin-tight one piece acting all cold as ice.
Which brings up my second moment, when Capt. Janek, after yet another argument with Vickers, bluntly throws out the serious question, “Hey Vickers. Are you a robot?” To which she replies, after a very brief pause, “meet me in my cabin in ten minutes”. Lol.
So, Jim, of all the great visual effects in these films does one moment/shot or sequence stand out for you…and why? I say let’s remove any of the birthing since they go without saying. Let’s pick one per film.
Jim: Because it’s not technically a birthing scene, but a conception scene, I choose the climactic rape scene between the surviving Engineer and the giant face-hugger, near the end of Prometheus. It is, without question, the penultimate episode of both prequels. It’s practically scripture for Alien nerds like us, no? But if you’re disqualifying me on a technicality, I’ll stubbornly refuse to budge from the climax of Prometheus. The assault from within the lander sequence in Covenant might thrill me more than anything, but there’s no more iconic moment from the prequels than the conjunction between an Engineer and Shaw’s monstrous spawn, in Prometheus.
Jeff: No, no, Jim, the awe-inspiring rape genesis scene between the trilobite and Engineer is fair game. It is conception not birth, as well as one of the greatest other-worldly sequences ever produced.
And I will go with the Lander in Covenant. Not the birth scene, since some knucklehead put limits on this. I’ll go with the lander’s actual flight and landing. Starting with Alien, then Aliens, then Prometheus we have been treated to better and better versions of loading up the lander, releasing it, ass-burning through atmosphere, with the crew bonding through taunts and expletives, and then landings on extraterrestrial worlds. What we get in Covenant is the next and best in this line. The detail of the lander itself, the telemetry data of the atmosphere, the storm, the landscape flyover and then the huge arcing turn down to, yes, a water landing amidst the roaring off the engines. Not only are the effects here completely transparent, it is a truly beautiful and inspiring sequence. It’s also one of the most important sequences in an outer space science fiction film, and why Ridley (and James Cameron) makes such a point of it in each film. It’s the first huge transitional scene of the film, the scene that has to sell the whole idea and feel that you’ve left the relatively secure confines of the mothership and thrown yourself into an uncharted alien world in the space of a few minutes. It’s what separates meh, okay space films from fuck yeah space films. If you don’t really sell that feeling then the rest of the film is just people running around on a huge set in a studio parking lot… or New Zealand.
Jim: Right, New Zealand or Iceland, those otherworldly islands.
This has been an absolute blast, Jeff. I’m so glad we finally took the time to work our way through these two remarkable films, and stamp our love for them permanently onto the walls of the blogosphere. Maybe we can do some TV talk soon. Love you, brother. Take care.
Jeff: Yeah, I know we’d been thinking about trying to do this for a while, and it feels really good to have laid it down. These films, along with Alien itself, are a huge part of what I love most about film, and I know you feel the same. That feeling of being taken away to somewhere altogether different, yet oddly familiar. Cold yet beautiful. Scary yet natural. I really, really can’t wait for the next one. C’mon, Ridley, you’re not getting any younger, you old goat. Let’s blow this three-alien town. Later!