How Alien: Covenant Retcons James Cameron’s Aliens and More
Ridley Scott declares ownership once and for all over the xenomorph in Alien: Covenant, ignoring Aliens, Alien 3, and more.
This article contains major Alien: Covenant spoilers.
In the build-up to last year’s Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott made a candid admission: he had refused to put the xenomorph in 2012’s Prometheus because he thought the creature had its day and needed to be left to the past. He now considers this a mistake and even views Alien: Covenant as a chance to make amends.
While discussing the disappointment around Prometheus with Yahoo! Movies, Scott bluntly said with the air of a confession, “We discovered from it that [the fans] were really frustrated. They wanted to see more of the original [monster], and I thought he was definitely cooked with an orange in his mouth. So I thought, ‘Wow, okay, I’m wrong.’”
Personally, this writer is not so sure he wasn’t, because by returning to the Alien from the original film—or “xenomorph” as James Cameron dubbed it in Aliens—Scott revealed both a certain pragmatic view towards the creature and, amusingly, a sense of defiant ownership. It is no secret that Scott previously considered the many flaws of the misbegotten Alien sequels that followed him and Cameron were due to an overexposure of xenomorphs. And yet, as Scott also returns to that well in Covenant, there is a sense of the obligatory to his monster scenes, like this is a necessary steppingstone to get to his much more enthusiastic musings on David and Creationism. He also in the process reveals how indifferent he is to the many failed Alien sequels and spin-offs that came after 1986… including James Cameron’s Aliens classic.
In truth, Alien: Covenant somewhat retcons every non-Scott directed Alien movie out of mythology, and doesn’t exactly fit like a glove even with the 1979 original and Prometheus. It seems as with playing God onscreen, being a moviemaking progenitor is also a messy business.
No Queen, No Problem
What has been the most hotly discussed element of Alien: Covenant among franchise fans is the revelation that David is the mastermind of all this madness. As it turns out, the sinister synthetic spent years on the Engineers’ home world dabbling in gene-splicing. And from their ruin, David went the full Frankenstein and crafted a perfect organism. Apparently, the neomorphs and other monstrosities created by the Prometheus’ black goo and spores had a limited lifespan, so it was David, the first robot, who used them to create the xenomorph. Perfection.
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There is a certain logic to this that is appealing. As we discussed here, David takes on the role of Lucifer in his own head for a passion play, and in a sense it is an amusing reflection on how all children eventually rival their creators. Engineers begat humans who in turn begat David, who in turn begat the perfect species that could destroy us all, making David a god.
But it also begets a great deal of retconning. Most especially in terms of doing away with the procreation cycle Cameron established for his take on the xenomorphs in Aliens. In that film, it was established the aliens were actually quite bug-like in their culture and habitat, subservient as drones and (more or less) worker ants to their Hive’s Queen, who bore the eggs which in turn birthed facehuggers. This never quite lined up perfectly with Ridley Scott’s Alien, as those eggs seemed to be an ominous cargo belonging to the long deceased “Space Jockey” (which somewhat lines up with Prometheus’ Engineers and biological weapons). Also in the extended “Director’s Cut” of that movie—which wasn’t released until 2003—the solitary Alien that never acted much like a bug or drone was revealed to be turning some of its victims into eggs.
The lifecycle and birthing process of the titular Alien in its first movie is intentionally confusing and unknowable, a Lovecraftian nightmare that to learn the answer of would lead you to the same fate as Captain Dallas—a lovable blue collar Joe now caught between humanity and grotesque egg form.
Given that these details were not in the theatrical version of the 1979 film, it made Cameron’s wrinkles easy to accept in 1986. But apparently not to Ridley Scott since the Queen appears permanently removed from the lore of Alien: Covenant. (Intriguingly, not unlike the recent video game Alien: Isolation, a love letter to Scott’s film that also ignores much of Cameron’s mythology.)
In Covenant, David is able to make these eggs from an implied laboratory, and they do not create queens. Like the original Alien, they create the “perfect organism” that one suspects David considers alone in its purity.
A Return to Perfection
As Ian Holm’s Ash—the clear forerunner for Michael Fassbender’s David—mused in his final moments of life in Alien, “I admire its purity.” By this he means the evolutionary triumph of a peak predator with no discernable vulnerabilities. Its acid blood taunts you for even considering attacking it, and for all intents and purposes it doesn’t even appear possible to kill in that movie. Also like the Alien: Isolation game, the original creature is pretty much indestructible.
Likewise, there’s an indefinable intelligence and cunning to the creature in Alien, which Alien: Covenant is eager to return to, even if it contradicts Aliens and Alien 3 in the process.
In Covenant, the two xenomorphs we do glimpse also appear to be harder to kill than the drones in Aliens. Gun blasts will not do the job, nor will even knocking one of the critters into the thrusters of a spacecraft. They just keep coming. There are also certain other aspects about the creature’s methods that return to the perverse nightmare of Scott’s original. In that film, the Alien not only appears like a psychosexual fever dream endured by H.R. Giger (and it was!), but it also acted that way too. The way the tail climbs up the character of Lambert’s leg implies a heinous physical violation beyond mere consumption. And that open implication is also fleetingly present in Covenant, as one of the creatures corners a naked couple in a shower, clearly killing them in methods not observed, albeit that slithering and rising tail surely is.
Similarly, Covenant would seem to ignore other sequels’ additions, such as the xenomorph taking on elements of the host whom its facehugger latches onto. This was explored in Alien 3 when the eponymous creature is borne from a union between facehugger and dog (or ox if you prefer watching the assembly cut). As a result, it is more animalistic, crawling on all fours—slighter in size but swifter in attack. And for what it’s worth, we also gleaned what an Alien-Predator hybrid looked like in AVP: Requiem.
Scott and David seem disinterested in this idea. Granted, we never saw the facehuggers hatch in anyone but humans, but I understood the indication to be that these creatures David has intelligently designed are meant to be Ash’s perfect organism. As such, they are indistinguishable from the creature of the 1979 movie, as well as from each other. The host appears to be wholly a vessel and not a biological mate in Alien: Covenant. They’re just materials for David’s perfect organism to be given life.
Alien vs. Predator is Completely Erased
Not that anyone will mind, but Alien: Covenant continues a trend begun by Prometheus wherein the film completely ignores any element set-up in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien vs. Predator crossover monstrosity.
Prometheus already stuck the first dagger in by introducing Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, the founder of what became the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. This is in direct contradiction of the inclusion of Lance Henriksen’s Charles Bishop Weyland, also the Weyland founder of the company in 2004’s AVP. Alien: Covenant takes it a step farther by confirming David completed his creation in the year 2104, a full century after the contemporary events of AVP, which revealed that Predators had been fighting xenomorphs for millennia on planet Earth because… um, Paul W.S. Anderson?
As bemusing as this retcon is, it leads to a few more that are much more problematic for some fans…
What Alien: Covenant Ignores About the Original Alien
When Prometheus came out, fans had a field day pointing to the discrepancies and inconsistencies between that quasi-Alien prequel and the real thing from 1979. Nevertheless, the movie did make some genuine attempts to line up with our basic understanding of the lore, even if you are still disappointed the Space Jockey turned out to be a hairless albino bodybuilder.
Alien: Covenant seems much less bothered about creating gaps with Scott’s original film, never mind even Prometheus. In the film that started it all, the U-shaped spaceship was called a “derelict” by Tom Skerritt and John Hurt’s characters as they approached the abandoned vehicle. Indeed, the space truckers of that film mused the ship had been there for a long time. Probably millennia.
Nothing in Prometheus contradicts this per se, as it took place on a different moon and it is conceivable that around the same time when things went to pieces on LV-223, another ship carrying a similar type of biological weapon crashed on LV-426. But that’s now impossible after Covenant, because those leathery eggs that a hapless John Hurt uncovers in Alien could not have been on that moon for even 20 years.
Given that David is the inventor and god that created the Alien organism, the eggs in Alien were laid fairly recently since that film is set in 2121 while Covenant takes place in 2104. This makes the question of why that Derelict and Space Jockey looked like ancient fossils a complete mystery, one that’s left for Covenant’s multiple sequels.
For the record, this also contradicts Prometheus since in the room the Engineers reserved for designing their biological weapons, there is a wall mural dedicated to the “xenomorph.” Implying it is the ultimate evolutionary zenith reached by their black gooey weapons (and the one living Engineer who gets body hugged at the end of Prometheus would seem to confirm this).
Further, Alien: Covenant bends and ignores many rules established by Scott’s first science fiction picture. In Alien, the birthing process of the Alien takes many hours with the creature attaching to the face of Hurt’s Kane and then needing quite a bit of time to work its magic—even threatening to strangle him to death with its tentacles if anyone tried to pry it from the orifice it is violating. Kane then appears to have about an hour after it is removed from his face before the chestburster scene. Similarly, some time passes again before the Alien becomes full-grown and life-sized.
Alien: Covenant bypasses all of these rules. It would appear a matter of minutes occur between a facehugger jumping on Billy Crudup’s skull and a cute little monster punching through his chest. And even less time would seem to pass between that moment and the creature being full-grown when Demián Bichir’s character sees it hanging from a ceiling.
Likewise, the second xenomorph grows even faster between popping out of Bichir’s chest and then jumping in the shower a few minutes later. There is also the curious question raised by the fact that the facehugger only, in fact, hugged Bichir’s face for seven seconds, yet found enough time to impregnate him with its little bundle of joy. This makes the facehugger in the original Alien just look a little lazy, or at least overeager for cuddle time.
What do all of these elements add up to? A movie that very much didn’t feel the need to stay beholden to previous films while penning its own story of terror. Ridley Scott may seem compelled by fan reactions to revisit his earliest sci-fi creation, but he does so on his own terms, and without being handicapped by even his own movie. Fans seem to have seen it differently.