I enjoyed Alien: Covenant immensely. I found the neomorphs frightening, the saga of David and Walter intriguing and the finale a gloriously grim statement by a legendary director in the winter years of his life. I left the theater satisfied, penned a short review and then did something unexpected.
I read Alien: Covenant—The Official Movie Novelization on an airplane.
To be clear, I hadn’t picked up a film novelization since middle school—and I’ve spent a good portion of my life since then dismissing novelizations as residual commercialism. But I felt a weird draw to this one, in part to see how the author addressed issues of interplanetary contamination but also because I’ve grown increasingly anxious on flights and figured any indulgence was better than freaking out over turbulence.
The deciding factor was the fact that Alan Dean Foster himself penned the book—a name you may recognize from decades of film novelizations, including books for the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, plus the first three Alien films. But that’s just a portion of the Alan Dean Foster bibliography. In addition to his novelizations, he’s written numerous original books, including the the Humanx Commonwealth and Spellsinger series.
What I’m trying to say is that, sure, Foster participated in a fair share of literary mercenary work, but at 70 he’s a grizzled, experienced merc with a robust legacy all his own. Why should I feel self-conscious about reading a Foster film book? Why should I care anymore? I bought the book. The aircraft’s engines roared to life. I dove in.
Alien: Covenant is a very lean novelization. For the most part, if you see it in the film, you read it on the page. The only exceptions, aside from necessary internal monologues and light character development, fall into two categories: The re-sciencing of science fiction and script details that clearly didn’t survive final cut.
Re-Sciencing the Sci-Fi
If you’re at all familiar with film novelizations, you’ve observed this before. The best example of re-sciencing the sci-fi is probably Isaac Asimov’s 1966 adaptation of Fantastic Voyage. Asimov reluctantly agreed to the project, but instilled a great deal of hard science into an otherwise impossible scenario. Foster doesn’t attempt anything so grandiose in Alien: Covenant, but he does throw in additional details about the ship’s energy collectors, synth-dependent human culture and biological contamination.
The synth issue is of course most central to the grander themes in the film. I interrupted my journey through Ian M. Banks’ Matter to read this one, so I couldn’t help but interpret the synths of the Alien universe as a dark reflection of the Culture’s benevolent, pro-human AI masters. The humans of Alien: Covenant are “a dying species, grasping for resurrection,” holding back the harder edges of the technological singularity via the enslavement of their superior creations. At one point, Daniels muses to herself that humans have become “little more than backups to computers.”
In conversations about the film with friends, the topic of biological contamination comes up quite a bit. After all, planetary protection is no small matter. Here on real-life Earth, the issue’s covered by the NASA Office of Planetary Protection, the COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy and Article IX of the 109-nation Outer Space Treaty.
Why didn’t the Covenant crew wear protective gear on the alien world? Why didn’t they wear helmets? What the Hell did they think would happen?
For my own part, I was more inclined to overlook these details in viewing the film. Helmetless trips to a foreign world are tantamount to sound-in-space at this point in main stream sci-fi cinema, so I tend to activate my Harkonnen-esque disbelief suspensors and float on through. But it’s also fun to apply the rigors of known science to these scenarios (as we did in a recent episode of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast).
Foster doesn’t quite give Alien: Covenant the Asimov treatment, but he does throw in a number of additional bits of exposition and dialogue to flesh out the crew’s approach to an alien biosphere. He stresses preliminary orbital bio-scans that clear the planet for landing. Then, the android Walter performs his own surface test prior to full debarkation. Again, everything turns up clean.
But of course it wouldn’t be much of a movie if there weren’t hidden death spores. After the blood and entrails settle a bit, David expands on the dormancy of the Engineers’ deadly pathogen:
“The pathogen itself has an extremely long lifespan. Given a suitable environment in which to exist in stasis, it can lie dormant for hundreds if not thousands of years until a suitable host presents itself and awakens it to commence the cycle again. If not controlled, a single application is quite capable of rendering an entire world permanently uninhabitable … While it is dormant, the virus is completely inactive. There was nothing for your ship or companion—competent as their respective instrumentation might be—to detect.”
That elaboration may or may not satisfy you (you really should learn to trust your machine masters), but it at least allowed me to lower the settings on my disbelief suspensors—notwithstanding questions about the nature and scope of their bio-scanning technology.
But what does Foster’s novelization reveal about earlier versions of the Alien: Covenant script? This was a question that motivated my reading as well. What did Ridley Scott change and why? What clues might the book contain about the next film in the David series?
Major spoilers here obviously, but three deviations stood out to me—all from the final, doom-sealing moments of the film.
- David and Daniels don’t discuss the log cabin. The android’s ruse is not so overtly revealed. There’s no screaming and we’re left to wonder if Daniels even noticed at all. She promises to ensure a place of meaning for Walter in the colony. He tells her that, even if she can’t, he’ll “love her just the same.” I suspect the filmmakers found this too subtle and I personally prefer the gloomier tone of the final cut.
- David still asks Mother to play The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla as he ventures amid his comatose subjects, but there’s no regurgitation. The two facehugger embryos are already stored away. Again, I prefer the version of events in the film. It feels more fitting that David should, in some sense, “give birth” to the genetic seeds of his future kingdom.
- Prior to requesting Wagner, David asks Mother to “please open a secure line with the Weyland-Yutani Corporation headquarters on Earth”—a detail I don’t remember from the film (though I might have missed it in the horror of what was happening). We’re left to wonder what message he might wish to convey and how that might play into the next film. Perhaps David’s entry in the ship’s log (present in the film, absent in the novelization) achieves the same aim. Or does David intend to gloat over his creators? Is this a lure for more biomass? Perhaps the company far more insidious than any previous Alien installment led us to believe.
All in all, the book satisfied my curiosity. It answered a couple of questions and helped me get through the flight. I’d recommend the novelization to sufficiently obsessed fans, though for a story so dripping in violence and H.R. Giger’s morbid necro-eroticism, the book doesn’t pack much of a horror punch. The architecture and creatures feel somewhat sanitized without a language of sufficient bio-mechanical morbidity to describe them.
Foster’s not quite finished with the David-era Alien universe. He has an Alien: Covenant prequel novel due out this fall. Assuming it’s no mere Prometheus novelization, we might be in store for even more insight into earlier stages of production—or perhaps a fresh tale of android dreams and weaponized evolution.
Here’s hoping it’s ready for my next flight.