NB: This is your final warning for major, major spoilers for Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
Prometheus was billed as a prequel to Alien, but it was also a huge departure from that 1979 classic. Where Alien was a streamlined space horror – a ship, a monster, a small and rapidly diminishing crew – Prometheus opened up the franchise’s vistas. What was dark and interior became bright and largely exterior; the story of one monster became the story of humanity’s origins. In the place of pure astral terror, Prometheus aimed to ask Big Questions: where the Alien came from, where we came from, our species’ innate need for religion, meaning and purpose.
How curious, then, that Ridley Scott’s latest film in his planned series of Alien prequels effectively abandons all those Big Questions. Alien: Covenant re-establishes the motivations of rogue synthetic David (a returning Michael Fassbender) to get audiences up to speed, but quickly takes a U-turn back into the straight space horror of Alien.
Note how much of Prometheus is reduced to a cameo in Alien: Covenant. The Engineers, who played such a role in the 2012 film, are dialled right back here. Likewise Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the nominal lead in Prometheus: she’s a goner before the opening credits even roll. Indeed, her fate is so cold and harsh that we wonder if it isn’t an indication of something going sour behind the scenes. The Engineers lie dead – blackened husks like the victims of Pompeii; Shaw is laid out on a table, horribly eviscerated by David. Is this Ridley Scott’s pointed attempt to scratch out as much of the last film’s events and start again? (Alternatively, maybe David killed Shaw because she wouldn’t stop singing John Denver hits.)
However Scott and writer John Logan arrived at Covenant’s story, they’ve evidently made the bold choice of making David the prequel series’ anti-hero and connecting thread: a fallen angel who’s turned on the civilisation that created him. Funnily enough, this was something we’d vaguely predicted a few months ago; Ridley Scott’s reliably displayed an affection for his non-human characters in the past, whether it’s in Alien or Blade Runner. Alien: Covenant takes things further, effectively casting David in the role of Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
As Ridley Scott described the character in 2015, “He’s the evil son of a bitch! He’s the good-looking one who gets all the girls and goes to all the nightclubs. The good one is kind of dull and depressing!”
As many suspected, it’s David meddling with the Engineers’ black goo – or pathogen, as the film’s makers have started calling it – that created the xenomorph we all know from Alien and its sequels. Alien: Covenant ends with the title ship, now seized by David, heading off to Origae-6, the planet it was destined for right at the beginning of the movie, before Oram (Billy Crudup) made the foolish decision to switch course to the Engineers’ planet.
The Covenant is therefore heading to an Earth-like world with 2,000 humans in the deep freeze, hundreds more embryos in another cold storage, alongside a pair of xenomorph specimens, queasily regurgitated by David in the dying moments. As Hollywood endings go, it’s bravely downbeat, even if the final revelation that David had assumed Walter’s identity could be seen coming a mile off. It’s a variant on Chekhov’s Gun: you wouldn’t go to the expense of casting the same actor in two roles if it didn’t have a significant bearing on the plot. This, coupled with the abrupt cut when David and Walter ended their MMA smackdown in the Engineers’ abandoned city, made the conclusion all but inevitable.
Transparent plotting aside, Covenant leaves Ridley Scott with plenty of possibilities for another film. Surviving crewmembers Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and Tennessee (Danny McBride) may have been put on ice, but we’ve already seen how cryopods can automatically wake up their occupants if there’s an emergency on the ship. There’s a chance, then, that the sequel to Covenant – if it happens – will see Daniels and Tennessee attempt to wrest control of the ship back from David, who’s still pretending to Weyland Yutani that he’s Walter (complete with that iffy American accent).
Having the two humans fight David and his experiments on the Covenant would certainly make for a logical continuation of the story – because, let’s face it, bringing in yet another ship full of astronauts, despatched to find out what happened to this latest doomed expedition, would feel horribly predictable by this point.
Besides, if Scott makes good on his stated aim to make two more films which lead right up to the events of Alien, he still has a considerable number of threads to tie up.
We still don’t know why the Engineers on LV-223 were on the brink of destroying humanity before they were killed by their own black goo in Prometheus. We don’t really know exactly why David wiped out the entire planet of Engineers on Paradise, other than a vague line about creation and destruction. Did David discover something about the Engineers while he was alone on the Juggernaut and Shaw was asleep?
Presumably, the Engineers David destroyed weren’t the only examples of their species in any case. For one thing, they looked less tall – and less technologically advanced – than the ones on LV-223. Our best guess is that this was another small outpost of Engineers, and that they also exist on at least one other planet somewhere in the galaxy. Otherwise, how does the derelict Juggernaut, with its chest-bursted pilot and its silo of eggs, get onto LV-426, the moon from Alien and Aliens? Paradise and LV-426 don’t appear to be the same place, since the Juggernaut in Alien is patently different from the one in Alien: Covenant.
If David created the first xenomorph eggs, the Engineers must also encounter them at some point between the events of Alien: Covenant and Alien. Maybe the next film will see a ship full of warrior Engineers show up at Paradise and its city of the dead, find David’s secret chamber of horrors, and then head off to find him. The Engineers take the eggs back in their Juggernaut, which then kill the occupants – but not before one of the Engineers sets off a warning beacon as it crashes into LV-426.
The xenomorph itself has some evolving to do before the franchise marries up with the events of Alien. Although it’s clearly a xenomorph as dreamed up by Giger, the beasts we see in Alien: Covenant appear to be less stealthy and intelligent than the ones in either the 1979 film or its 80s sequel. And what of the Alien Queen? Did David engineer that, too, or did it somehow evolve by itself between Alien and Aliens? What exactly is the deal with all these flutes that keep appearing in these prequels? Will it emerge that the eerie, piping music composed by Jerry Goldsmith for Alien was actually performed by David himself?
It’s possible that several of these questions will never be answered – especially the one about the flutes. What we do know, though, is that Ridley Scott only has a relatively brief period of time between Alien: Covenant and Alien to tie up all his loose ends. According to this promo video and the movie itself, Covenant takes place in late 2104; as we understand it, the crew of the Nostromo discover LV-426 in 2122. Scott, then, has two films and 18 years of history to bring his acid-dripping saga full circle…