Alien: Covenant – why Ridley Scott's facehuggers and chestbursters will never die
A terror looming from the dark to upset humanity’s delusions of grandeur’ … Alien: Covenant trailer: Ridley Scott returns with sci-fi thriller
The Guardian Danny Leigh 10 May
At various points in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien was released into cinemas, a nasty-minded B movie with hopes of shifting a certain number of action figures. As you may have noticed, it did better than expected. Out this week, its latest descendant is Alien: Covenant, the second of four intended prequels. In the 80s and 90s, three sequels were added to the original, and these four were then marketed as a “quadrilogy”, a phrase bursting horribly through the frail chest of the English language.
For the film business, Covenant is a big deal in the battle against a future where actual movies are subcontracted to Marvel and everything else ends up on Netflix. It’s important to the rest of us, too, even if the brooding scene-setting of the film before it, Prometheus, was a little dry for some. Covenant, while a very good movie, can also feel like a carefully planned family holiday, designed to let Scott explore his favourite places – robotics, evolution, Hows and Whys – but with regular visits for the kids to the bloody fairground of facehuggers and xenomorphs.
Scott, of course, is a victim of his own success in creating a monster this moreish. The original Alien was planned as an intergalactic spin on Jaws, another terror looming from the dark to upset humanity’s delusions of grandeur. But where the shark had us for breakfast, Alien did something still more psychically traumatic – it made us the unknowing host of a baby that ripped us open from the inside.
Fuse that primal freakout with HR Giger’s famous creature designs and you get images that can never be removed from the mind. But Alien was a strange kind of cultural juggernaut. A decade after the first Apollo moon landing, with the gleam of the space age dulled, the scene onboard the commercial spaceship Nostromo was rarely less than glumly claustrophobic. The film seemed to be saying that, if we as a species ever make it into space en masse, our lives will end up like this: an underpaid, cooped-up grind that left you looking like Harry Dean Stanton.
‘The bloody fairground of facehuggers’ … Ian Holm and John Hurt in Alien. Photograph: Alamy
In the new films, there has been a sly pleasure to be had in seeing that grimy distant future joined up to a bright-eyed version of life not too far from now: the advance publicity for Prometheus featured a video of a purported TED Talk given by entrepreneur Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce) just around the corner in 2023.
Whereas most blockbusters rouse, Alien has always been a tune played in an ominous minor key. The characters you meet in each film are usually dead by the end of it. The alien keeps coming until it gets you. The continuation of the series created a need for what you might in the broadest sense call happy endings, but they were usually tired, ambivalent things. It came as no great surprise to learn Scott had wanted the first Alien to close with the death of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, her escape-pod bound for Earth with a lone, triumphant xenomorph on board.
Not doing that – there was panic among studio executives – was probably best for the series. Still, the popularity of the first two films can obscure the fact the next two nearly destroyed their directors’ careers. After James Cameron made the bullishly irresistible Aliens (the first sequel and still his best film), both David Fincher’s sombre Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s deeply 90s Alien: Resurrection were regarded as fiascos.
The master builder … Ridley Scott and Katherine Waterston on the set of Alien: Covenant. Photograph: Mark Rogers/Mark Rogers / Fox Film
Interviewing Fincher years later, I told him I thought Alien 3 was underrated. He looked at me as if I’d brought up a family bereavement. Jeunet, meanwhile, returned to France to make the sugar-sweet Amelie. That the series returned at all was tribute to the deathless appeal of Giger’s monsters, and the feeling that Scott was the one filmmaker who could properly wrangle them, Prometheus marking his return as director.
But the Alien movies, however flawed, never felt irrelevant, always connecting to the realities of Earth. For anyone who sees blockbuster cinema as the place the collective subconscious bubbles to the surface, the films are rich pickings. It was hard to miss the timing with which the original arrived in 1979 – opening in Britain four months after the election of Margaret Thatcher, and shortly before Ronald Reagan won the US presidency.
As such, the era of Alien has precisely mirrored the age of modern capitalism. You see it in the story of faceless corporations killing off their staff to chase a profit – and in the xenomorph itself, remorseless and voracious. Now, the role of founding father has been assumed by Peter Weyland, a billionaire industrialist, whose expansive plans to help mankind would fit right in with those of Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page.
The feminism of the films might feel haphazard – the first script of the original involved a male hero – but still, in an era in which the film business has struggled to put women front and centre, Ripley was routinely the best hope for humanity. In the latest film, Sigourney Weaver’s place is taken by Katherine Waterston, deadpan and stoic, just like her forerunner. But, more than just being female-led, the Alien films always hummed with ticklish thoughts about motherhood and reproduction; the hero is the ultimate final girl, the last woman left standing, with men seldom saving the day.
Ultimate final girl … Sigourney Weaver in David Fincher’s Alien 3, 1992. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
And then we have the androids. If Ian Holm’s treacherous Ash in the original gave audiences a whisper of unease about the march of technology, it has since grown deafening. Having built both Prometheus and Covenant around Michael Fassbender’s turn as a primly gifted “synthetic”, Scott is clearly concerned with the point where circuitry acquires a soul. In the era of coming automation, why wouldn’t you be? (In recent weeks, as Fassbender and Scott have been promoting their movie, they have shared media attention with the all-powerful Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma, warning that the world is about to enter decades of “pain” caused by artificial intelligence.)
The scowl, the voice of gloomy fatalism, is much bigger in the new Alien episodes: films about the rise of robots in which the humans are usually messy, fleshy, venal and feeble. In his heartfelt sci-fi epic Interstellar, Christopher Nolan told a tale of space travel tied up with misty childhood memories and the bonds of family. You suspect Scott would take one look at all that and ask someone from the crew to pass a bin bag.
Scott’s Alien films have always put the sheeny efficiency of xenomorphs above the feelings of people. Now planning at least two more lavishly mounted episodes, alongside a slate of other projects, he remains a force of nature himself, a master builder turning 80 this year, using his industry clout to pursue big ideas while throwing the crowd enough red meat to keep us turning up.
And space? In the years between Alien and Covenant, the prospect of commercial space travel has advanced spasmodically at best. Scott for one believes other beings will get to us long before we reach them. Of course, he has said, there is life out there. It is smarter than us – and violent. Four decades after that first doomed voyage, his advice is simple: “When you see a big thing in the sky, run.”
Alien: Covenant is released in Australia on 11 May, UK on 12 May, and US on 19 May.