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Alien: Covenant sneakily explores the horrors of directing blockbusters in 2017

If you want to create something new, you’re going to have to make it out of something old’s DNA.

Alien: Covenant
Michael Fassbender plays two — count ‘em, two! — androids in Alien: Covenant.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

As I left the screening of Alien: Covenant I attended, two of my fellow viewers were loudly arguing about how they thought the film was “unnecessary.”

Sure, they said, the movie had some effective sequences and some good scares. And director Ridley Scott can still put together a gorgeous image, or explore a sci-fi concept in a way that underlines all of its most potent elements. But did we really need a movie that demystified the terrifying beast from the Alien movies by revealing its origin myth?

Yes and no. I like Covenant a lot, while quibbling with much of it as well. (The cast is well-chosen, but few of them have actual characters to play beyond, “It might be fun to see this character eaten by an alien.”) But the more I thought about it, the more the “unnecessary” criticism struck me as fundamentally hollow. Like Prometheus, the movie that precedes this one in the Alien chronology, this is a film about what it means to play God.

Which is to say that this is a movie about what it means to be a Hollywood director, especially in the year 2017, when getting a green light for something not connected to a franchise people already know and love is harder than ever.

To explain why I think this is the hidden subtext of the film, though, I’m going to have to spoil everything, so back up if you haven’t seen Covenant.

It’s all spoilers after the below picture of an alien. Grrr. Hiss.

A scene from Alien: Covenant
I am an alien!
20th Century Fox

Alien: Covenant indeed reveals the provenance of the titular monster. Android David (Michael Fassbender), stranded on a planet where he had killed everybody else (namely the godlike Engineers), starts tinkering with the DNA of an alien pathogen created by said Engineers and the beasts that result from said pathogen. (Unlike the usual alien, those beasts are white — let’s call them the proto-aliens.)

In the 10 years he’s stranded, David apparently designs the famous eggs that open to reveal the beasts that grab hold of a human being’s face and plant an alien ova deep inside a person to gestate. Said alien then bursts out of the person’s chest, which gets us back to the most famous sequence from the original film Alien.

Did I really need all of this explanation for the alien’s life cycle, or how it came to be? Not particularly, but in the grand scheme of prequels, the film had to be about something, which meant we were going to get answers to those questions, like it or not.

It’s in the pondering of those questions, though, that Scott ends up turning both Covenant and its precursor Prometheus (a film I like even more than this one) into an examination of humanity’s desire to seek out its creators. That it does this even as it ignores the ways humanity itself has become a kind of god to its own creations, androids like David and Walter (the new robot Fassbender plays in Covenant — yes, the movie has two Michael Fassbenders, and they kiss), is simultaneously the most fascinating and most frustrating thing about these films.

The bleakness inherent to this idea — humanity will ignore its own “children” while seeking questions that have either no answers or inherently disappointing ones, because the universe is vast and incomprehensible — is the stuff of great science fiction. But getting a major studio to greenlight a movie about these ideas in the 2010s means finding a way to shoehorn those ideas into an already-established franchise.

David the android is basically a major Hollywood director in the 2010s

Michael Fassbender is quite the android in Alien: Covenant.
Hi, I’m Michael Fassbender. I’ll be your android for the day.
20th Century Fox

This is not to say these ideas are a bad fit for the Alien franchise, which has always been interested in funhouse-mirror versions of parenthood. The alien bursts out of the body of a man, not a woman, and it takes a woman (namely Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the original films and Katherine Waterston’s Branson in the new film) to consign this perversion of childbirth to the void.

But there’s still something interesting about the way David is compelled to try to take a bunch of junk DNA, designed to destroy, and craft it into something beautiful. It is, quite literally, about a creator who has to take the leftovers of some other world and turn them into something he’s proud of and passionate about.

This, in a way, is the story of Scott himself, who is one of the best directors out there at blending the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster with the big ideas that drive great genre storytelling. He’s the man behind the original Alien and Blade Runner and The Martian, and even if he’s inconsistent (few directors as good as him make as many bad films as he does), he’s a guy who’s earned some degree of trust.

And yet the genesis of Prometheus, which went from a straightforward Alien prequel to something far stranger and less directly connected over its long gestation period, was, from all accounts, driven by some degree of wondering just how much the film would have to be an Alien movie in order for anybody to give Scott money to make it. It was a bold, original idea for a science fiction film — that had to be grafted onto to the DNA of another franchise to even get made.

The same goes for Covenant, which is a more direct Alien prequel in that it features most of the famous elements of the original — that egg and the face-hugging little beastie and the jet-black alien itself — but attaches them to a story about the horrors of creation. One of the film’s final shots is even that of a bunch of human embryos alongside a couple of tiny alien embryos, locked away in cryostasis by David as the ship the Covenant jets off to the planet humans will colonize, only to become alien chow, presumably.

If you want to tell this story, it seems, you need to have a devil present in the details somewhere. And if you want to tell any story in Hollywood in the 2010s, it needs to have the DNA of some other franchise, no matter how much it resembles junk DNA, hidden away in it somewhere.

Hollywood directors of Scott’s stature are increasingly just like David — trying like hell to tell original stories that nevertheless feel familiar to the fans studios are terrified will run far, far away from the unknown. But Scott understands that it’s precisely the unknown where the real horrors lurk. To try to avoid this is to invite perversion and terror and, finally, death itself.

Alien: Covenant isn’t about the end of creativity in Hollywood, but it is about how creation becomes frustrating when the only building blocks you have to work with are those left behind by ancients whose motives might have become inscrutable, even if you’re one of those ancients yourself. It’s enough to drive an android — or director — just a little bit mad.

Alien: Covenant is playing in theaters nationwide.