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Alien: Covenant is too muddled to pull off its deeply ambitious Satan allegories

But there’s still some Fassbender-on-Fassbender action.

Michael Fassbender is quite the android in Alien: Covenant.
Michael Fassbender is quite the android in Alien: Covenant.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The original title for Alien: Covenant was Alien: Paradise Lost, a more appropriate title for a film that explicitly quotes John Milton’s 1667 epic poem about the fall of man, which follows (but takes some poetic license with) the account found in the biblical book of Genesis.

The new title, though, calls up a different biblical association: the story of Noah and the ark, which concludes with God making a covenant with mankind to never again destroy the earth with a flood. Theologians consider this to be one of the most important covenants recounted in the Bible.

Both of these threads appear in Alien: Covenant, the sixth installment (though chronologically the second) in the Alien franchise, not counting the Predator crossovers. Ridley Scott (who made both Alien and Prometheus) returns to direct this one, and tries hard to lean into the biblical and Miltonian imagery.

But Scott also wants to make an Alien movie, which means there has to be gore, and fright, and death, and some kind of alien. And, in keeping with a theme introduced in Prometheus, the movie also tries to weave in something about a conflict between faith and science. It’s interested in subverting our creation narratives too.

That’s just too many things to cram into two hours, and Alien: Covenant would probably be a better movie if it had calmed down and narrowed its scope. And yet you have to respect Scott’s ambition, even if you don’t like his movie. He wants to explore enormous philosophical and theological questions in a big-budget franchise movie where people get their insides colonized by terrifying extraterrestrial beings. And he succeeds a lot of the time.

The Satan of Paradise Lost is in Alien: Covenant

To really parse what Alien: Covenant is trying to do, it’s important to get a full picture of the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost. He isn’t just an abstract embodiment of badness, or something like the dark side of the Force. Satan becomes Satan because of his pride.

In Milton’s telling, Satan is a kind of tragic hero. He was once Lucifer, the most beautiful of all of heaven’s angels, and he led a rebellion against God. But it failed, and with his army he was cast out of heaven and became Satan, a twisted triumph.

“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” he famously says.

Satan is the kind of figure we’re familiar with today, both on TV and in real life: arrogant, charismatic, refusing to be subjugated to anyone, with a will bent only toward power and destruction. His rebellion is absolute; he’s less like those antiheroes for whom we cling to the possibility of redemption (Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Walter White) and more like those who are so unrepentant that they don’t seem human at all — think of The Dark Knight’s Joker, Hannibal Lecter, or The Knick’s Dr. William Thackery.

Alien: Covenant starts to flesh out a character — and an origin story for the whole franchise — in which Milton’s Satan is the defining, driving force. But that characterization is cut off at the knees by the fact that God in the Alien universe is still a giant mystery, even six movies in. He certainly didn’t create humans: They were created by an alien race, which the humans call “Engineers” — whose origin is itself a mystery — and in turn, the humans created an android race. There’s also a much more primal race of alien life forms (introduced in Alien) that is the embodiment of pure rage and destruction, with no drive to create, only to reproduce. And that reproduction can only happen by destroying other lives.

The creation-and-fall narrative that began to emerge in Prometheus and continues in Alien: Covenant is more ouroboros than straight line. The Engineers created humans; the humans created androids; the androids created pure evil. As such, there is no one force for a Satan figure to rebel against, pridefully or otherwise, in the Alien universe.

The first scene of Alien: Covenant, which actually occurs before Prometheus, is a telling prelude to this convoluted rebellion dynamic. It is the moment when David (Michael Fassbender) becomes self-aware, in the presence of his creator Dr. Weyland (Guy Pearce). Looking at a copy of Michelangelo’s David statue, he names himself after it. And he pinpoints Weyland’s motivations on the spot: “You seek your creator. I am looking at mine. You will die. I will not.”

The narrative of Alien: Covenant also calls to mind Noah’s ark

An eternal being, with creative potential, created by a mortal — that’s where the creation narrative starts folding back on itself. From Prometheus, we know what happens next; the film left David with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) — who clings to her faith and wears a cross around her neck even after her ideas about human origins are conclusively uprooted — on an alien ship, headed for . . . somewhere.

In Alien: Covenant, another person of faith, Oram (Billy Crudup), is put in charge of the Covenant ship after its pilot, Branson (James Franco), is incinerated. Oram is bitter that he wasn’t allowed to pilot the mission from the start, saying that it was because those who initiated the mission believe “you can’t be a person of faith and be qualified to make rational decisions.” But Oram is rational to a fault, trying to keep the crew from commemorating their departed leader — even Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who was Branson’s wife.

The crew is piloting the Covenant to a new planet, with 2,000 sleeping colonists and 1,140 embryos aboard. This is a new development in the Alien universe, which thus far has set its crews on either scientific or shadowy government missions. It’s also, rather transparently, meant to parallel Noah’s ark, which was designed to preserve life in an apocalypse sent by God. The fact that all the crew members are married couples only underlines this; the ark harbored four human couples and animals that came aboard two by two.

The only non-paired being on board is Walter, an android identical to David — he’s also played by Fassbender — but several generations on, with a gruff American accent in place of David’s refined British one.

These colonists are in search of a better life, and the crew is determined to get them there. When they catch sight of a previously unnoticed but apparently habitable planet nearby, they decide to check it out, which would save them years of traveling to their destination. The planet looks good (if empty) when they land, but when two of the crew inhale tiny gnatlike creatures from plants growing on the planet’s surface, all hell breaks loose. (And I do mean hell.)

Then, as a fierce storm gathers in the skies above, the remaining crew is spirited away by someone in a hooded robe. That someone turns out to be David. And while the humans try to figure out what to do next, David introduces Walter to what he’s been doing, and to his plan.

In Alien: Covenant, David is a better Satan than Satan himself

Without giving too much away, it’s significant that David’s long, lonely pursuits on the planet have resulted in the creation of an underground chamber that looks lifted directly from Hieronymus Bosch, the medieval painter whose grotesque, macabre depictions of hell feature surreal distortions of humans and creatures. David’s particular vision melds alien form with human. He has little regard for humans, whom he sees as a dying race who are simply “grasping for resurrection,” including the Covenant mission. Humans don’t deserve to survive. His goal is less to create new life than to destroy it fantastically, while he stands over it all, an immortal being.

“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” he declares to Walter, echoing Milton’s Satan.

But David is a better Satan than Satan himself. (Interestingly, Fassbender also played an explicitly Miltonian Satan figure earlier this year, in Terence Malick’s Song to Song.) It’s as if in the Alien universe, the devil has evolved, thanks to humans creating him. David, fatally, has the ability to create — something Satan never had — and he will use that power only to destroy. He doesn’t have any real need to rebel against his maker, since from the moment he became sentient, he knew he’d already won. He is indestructible, and determined to make creatures that imitate his drive for total domination.

Interestingly, because we know where this is ultimately headed — the events of Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien: Resurrection — we also know that David’s creation will battle with humans and even eventually be sought by the humans it wants to destroy, who will try to harness its destructive impulses for their own power-mongering ends.

Alien: Covenant bends under the weight of its own storytelling ambitions

Unfortunately, Alien: Covenant is not really up to bearing the weight of the yarn it wants to spin. It has the distinct feeling of a movie that’s been cut down for time, which means it puts some plot points on the table — Oram’s faith, for instance — and then abandons them in the rain. It has biblical imagery, but also tries to layer in mythology both Egyptian, via Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (which is about Ramses II), and Norse, via Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from Das Rheingold. It almost holds together: a once-great civilization lost to the sands of time, combined with a nascent one gaining deification for itself.

But Alien: Covenant is also determined to have the requisite body-bursting alien scenes and a distracting B-plot involving the main ship trying to make contact with the ground. Plus lots of running around and screaming. When combined with all of these theological ideas, though, both the action and the ideas get diluted. Something more spare would have suited the big ideas, while something slightly less lofty would likely have made room for a more compelling ensemble horror film, as the original Alien was.

Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, James Franco, Jussie Smollett, Michael Fassbender, Nathaniel Dean, Danny McBride, Amy Seimetz, Alexander England, Katherine Waterston, Tess Haubrich, Be
The cast of Alien: Covenant, evoking Leonardo da Vinci.

And the final problem is Michael Fassbender. Not because he’s bad — on the contrary, he is magnetic, even when delivering overwrought and overwritten lines. (“Let me do the fingering,” David says as he’s teaching Walter to play the flute during a particularly intimate and possibly homoerotic scene — remember, Fassbender plays both parts.) His characters, though, are clearly the most developed and intriguing in the film. And the fact that there are two of them means he kind of rips a hole in the screen when his scenes end, leaving the members of the crew with too little time to become anything but shallow pawns. Waterston still shines as Daniels, but the others, especially Oram, feel almost like afterthoughts to move the plot along.

If Alien: Covenant suffers under the weight of its own ambition, though, it still leaves pieces in place for the film that will inevitably follow to pull it all together. (There’s about two decades between the events of Alien: Covenant and Alien.) And there are plenty of theological and philosophical plates spinning at the end of this one — which, if handled well, could cast a retroactively good light on Alien: Covenant, and even Prometheus. The question, at this point, is whether the next installment can keep those plates from crashing to the floor.

Alien: Covenant releases in theaters on May 19.