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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Uneasy Endings of Alien: Covenant (Spoilers)

I really wanted to like Prometheus. After the unambitious and disposable AVP films, here was the director of Gladiator returning to develop his original vision. Unfortunately no amount of depth can excuse the fact that the surface layer is a largely nonsensical plot centred around an improbably stupid cast of characters. There are tons of articles and videos online dedicated to 'explaining Prometheus' not just because there is so much to examine, but also because the film does such a poor job of explaining itself. Prometheus claims to be a prequel without actually setting up the original film and flirts with being an Alien movie without actually spending much time on a proper Xenomorph.

Alien: Covenant does a solid job of addressing the worst of these failings. Although it is a direct sequel that requires Prometheus in order to make sense, it promptly clears the decks in order to focus on the subject of civilian spacefarers getting hunted by horrifying monsters. Although competence levels vary, the crew as a whole acquit themselves about as well as you'd expect under the extreme circumstances.
Covenant also finally gives the original Alien the respect that it deserves. Of all the factors that turned a basic monster movie into one of Western cinema's revered classics, the genius design of Giger's creature is definitely one of the most potent. Since horror monsters are less scary once you've seen them, the sequels have often looked for a way to improve on the design – but only the original Queen has really added to the creature. In Covenant Scott uses the prequel conceit to cast the original design as the perfect organism, a final form that the protean horrors of the earlier scenes evolve into.
I enjoyed Covenant a lot and feel that it is easily the best Alien film since Resurrection – and a worthy equal to all but the first two. Despite this, I left the theatre with a sense of dissatisfaction that took that took me a few hours to properly understand. I will be exploring that element in this article, since it is the subject on which I have the most interesting things to say. However I do still recommend that you see the film, without spoiling what should be a tense ride with detailed foreknowledge. For those of you who have, let's look closer at that ending and what it means for the series.

The ending of Covenant is not one that has any ability to take the viewer by surprise. Anyone with any experience of the medium will be alert to the possibility and Scott does nothing to prevent us from being certain of the twist before its 'reveal'. But unlike Oram's lemming-like encounter with the Facehugger (which actually drew laughter in my screening) knowing what is coming does not prevent the scene from being truly chilling.
It isn't that Daniels dies (or at least seems certain to do so) but rather the fact that she loses absolutely all agency. This isn't Ripley diving into a vat of molten lead to take her nemesis with her. This is Ripley being cocooned into an Alien hive with no-one but Ash left to hear her screams. When you consider that Daniels has seen detailed drawings of what is intended for her – and that she knows she cannot escape from the tube because she recently watched her husband die inside one – this is about as dark an ending as you can possibly get.
It isn't surprising that such an ending would cause me to leave the cinema with more unease than satisfaction. Such a sensation is pretty much the point. But I concluded that my niggling feelings ultimately stemmed from the fact that I was dealing with the conclusion of two protagonists' tales – because Covenant also provides a final ending to the tale of Elizabeth Shaw.

One requirement of moving on to new things in this follow-up to Prometheus was the infliction of Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome upon Dr Shaw. This was always going to feel like a let-down – after spending an entire film watching her fight for survival against the gravest odds, being informed that she had died off-screen was disappointing and arguably cheapening. Even so, these feelings have to be weighed against the widespread disinterest in spending another film chasing after the motivations of the moronic and unlikeable Engineers. Unlike Hicks and Newt, Shaw was not sacrificed in the service of a story inferior to the one in which she had starred. Daniels' status as part of the crew makes her a better fit for the protagonist of Covenant – and frankly putting both her and Shaw up against the same Alien would have left me feeling that it was outgunned.
Before her death, Shaw evidently rebuilt the other 'survivor' of the last film – the synthetic David. Despite the poor outcome of this choice I don't actually mind it. Whether you read her actions as the pragmatism of the Prometheus' greatest survivor or the lived commitment to forgiveness of a dedicated Christian, it feels more like a reasonable in-character move than the result of throwing out the Idiot Ball.
We are initially told that Shaw died in a crash-landing upon her destination planet. David has built a monument to her memory and speaks of her with great fondness. However we later learn that she was actually killed by David, who experimented on her body in order to improve the Xenomorph species. In the absence of an Alien Queen it is strongly implied that her reproductive systems were critical to creating the first generation of eggs (despite the huge size of the eggs we've seen, the regurgitated Facehugger embryos at the end suggest they are viable from a very small size). It is unknown how much Shaw suffered before her death, but she certainly perished helpless and against her will thanks to his actions.

This is a deeply uncomfortable set of revelations due to the harm Shaw had already received from David in the previous film. His deliberate actions caused the death of her husband and impregnated her with an Alien. It was only through her own acts of resistance against David's attempts to have her carry the 'pregnancy' that she was able to remove the creature before it killed her. There is a lot to unpack there, but it is hard to escape a sense of sexual violence from the whole thing.

The theme of sexual violence has always been deliberately emphasised in this series. At a biological level, the Xenomorph survives exclusively by raping other species. All the stages of the original creature exhibit threatening phallic imagery, which is reinforced by the penetrating double jaw attack that serves as their deadliest weapon.
This sexual threat was originally intended to be targeted at the male members of the audience via the default all-male crew. The momentous decision to change the gender of Ripley (and Lambert) meant that some of this subtext ended up aimed at the female characters instead. One example comes from the synthetic Ash, who attempts to choke Ripley using the end of a rolled magazine in a cubby hole decorated with girly pictures. That scene is presumably the inspiration of the forced kiss against Daniels that David performs in Covenant. Although not as severe as the attack on Ripley in Alien3, it is highly uncomfortable to watch despite being surrounded by far graver horrors.

This, really, is what made me uneasy about the ending. In addition to all of the other factors that make Daniels' fate so awful, she is ultimately helpless in the hands of a man who has sexually assaulted her in the past. But this isn't unique to Daniels – David even states that what he is going to do to her is exactly what he did to Shaw. By adding an epilogue to Prometheus, this one film gives the series a recurring theme of 'male-coded predator murders the heroine he violated and gets away with it'.
This is... extremely different to the over-arching narratives of the Ripley saga. Given Scott's skill as a director and obsession with layered meaning in these new films, it is hard to imagine he did not notice that his creative decisions would stack up that way. Given the immense importance of the female domination of this series to a huge number of people, it is even harder to imagine why he thought it was a good idea.

I cannot say how much this thematic issue actually troubled the majority of those who saw this film. But with Scott intent on creating two more prequels, it would be a shame if he became sci-fi's next George Lucas by diverging from the sensibilities of his audience. So far he has shown less interest in absolute inter-film consistency than geek culture is accustomed to, but it is still unlikely that anyone other than a Wayland-Yutani conspirator will end either upcoming movie with the ability to share their story. If that is so, I hope that the next female lead will at least be able to seize meaningful control over the manner of her own death.

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