Note: This review contains major plot spoilers.
As a family doctor, I love practicing obstetrics. There is a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment in seeing a child take his or her first breath, especially in cases where medical complications require judicious use of my medical knowledge or surgical skill. Sadly, practicing obstetrics also entails dealing with cases where things go wrong, and there is a different sensation when one extracts a dead child from his or her mother. There is a visceral sorrow and disappointment at life that could have been—or, in the cases of severely malformed children, a life that was genetically incapable of life in the world.
Alien: Covenant is about what happens when we choose to reverse those situations and seek fulfillment by trying to perfect human bodies.
In the nearly four decades since the Alien franchise’s inception, each of its entries has taken a different tack. The original Alien was a slow burn horror masterpiece, while the first sequel, Aliens, was a sci-fi action film with compelling characters. Alien 3 was a confused mess, and Alien: Resurrection was a heavy-handed, gore-laden warning against the military-industrial complex. The series’ most recent entry, Prometheus, tried to inject more explicit philosophical reflection but never quite got anywhere with it.
Alien: Covenant, which is set after Prometheus but before the original Alien, is in many ways is a pastiche of all these previous films, succeeding where some of the others failed and failing where previous entries succeeded. The plot is a mixture drawn from its forerunners: A spaceship full of colonists in “hypersleep” and frozen embryos is headed to a distant planet in order to start a human colony. The rest of the crew are all married couples except for an android named Walter (played by Michael Fassbender). They stumble upon a planet that appears remarkably hospitable to life, so they choose to explore it—which, as is customary in Alien movies, is a prelude to aliens infesting and then bursting out of the unsuspecting crew members on the ground.
The crew is rescued by android David (one of the few survivors of the Prometheus expedition from the previous film, again played by Michael Fassbender), who leads them to the ruins of a city once populated by the “Engineers” who created humanity. David and Walter are both robots played by the same actor—but the similarity ends there. Walter, the newer model, reveals that he is programmed to be less “human” than David, as David’s line of androids expressed too much emotion and were found to be unsettling.
In a masterful performance by Fassbender, David proves their creators right by demonstrating a disquieting degree of humanity as he explains that his creative inclinations led him to massacre the Engineers, experiment on his human crewmate from the Prometheus, and then spend his years alone on the planet trying to create a “perfect creature.” He infects a crew member with the fruit of his labor—the titular alien—which hunts and kills many crew members before the last two humans manage to escape with Walter back into space on their ship.
Alissa Wilkinson has noted the numerous literary and biblical allusions in the film; unfortunately, though, as she notes, none of them manage to hold together by the end. David considers himself something of a Nietzschean Übermensch—but somehow he is also Milton’s Satan? It doesn’t make much sense. Instead, he’s far more effective as an incarnation of human technological ambition, more along the lines of one of the New Gods from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.