• Ben Erickson

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is the most recent installment in the ever-expanding Alien franchise. The film was originally intended to be scored by Harry Gregson-Williams, who supplemented music late in the post-production stage of the former Alien prequel Prometheus. However, due to scheduling conflicts, Jed Kurzel was brought in to produce the score. Kurzel followed the lead of renowned composers Jerry Goldsmith (1979 Alien), James Horner (1986 Aliens), and Elliot Goldenthal (1992 Alien 3), a not inconsiderable task given his lack of experience and previous poor reviews. The score of Alien: Covenant seems to add to the long history of controversy regarding Ridley Scott's use of music. In the original 1979 Alien, Scott infamously tore Goldsmith's finished product apart before including it in the film. What should have been a through-composed musical arc of motifs and soundscapes became a hardly recognizable jumble of mixed cues. What is more, Goldsmith's music was largely discarded in favour of silence, and two of the cues included in the movie came from the temp score. One was a track composed by Goldsmith for an earlier picture, Freud: The Secret Passion, and the second appeared in the credits, Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2 'Romantic'. While the Hanson symphony offered the audience alleviation from the horror-filled tension, the film would have been better served by the inclusion of Goldsmith's unrealized score. Scott's latest inclusion of music from both Alien and Prometheus in Alien: Covenant has sparked further controversy. On the one hand, his decision to revisit music written for previous films in the series built cohesion and enhanced our relationship with the narrative without spoiling our expectations of what was to come. On the other, considering the seriously inconsistent use of composers throughout the series as a whole, nevermind the turnover in films under Scott's direction alone, it comes off as too little too late. Nevertheless, we can observe the effectiveness of the returning music and make judgements accordingly. The obvious place to begin is the theme from Alien. An isolated solo trumpet opens the melody with an ascending three-note statement to signify the vast emptiness of space. The arpeggio trades pitch back and forth before landing on a suspension, as if contemplating the very nature of space, and resolving to the fifth. Despite this idea of emptiness, there is a lack of definition with this theme and its function within the original film. It often appears at arbitrary moments and in incomplete statements, likely due to Scott's meddling, making its narrative associations generic. However, based on its appearances, it can most readily be associated with the ship and various members of the crew, or taken from a broader perspective, humanity. This association holds true for its use in Alien: Covenant as the theme is first brought back when we meet the ship at the beginning of the film, heard in "The Covenant" cue. A sudden, dramatic build often accompanies the theme, climbing through the entire orchestra from low brass to high string. The build comes to an arrival, as if in expectation of something happening when we reach the peak, yet we are left in the dark. If you were to hear this in a Star Wars film you might expect a scene change as a crash of instruments bring you aboard the Executor, but here nothing happens. It is as if it is trying to put us on our guard, particularly when the bell tolls follow. The bells signify the beginning, the chime of the clock as it were, putting us in the story immediately after the dramatic build foreshadowed its end. The bells could also be playing to Scott's idiosyncrasies as religious overtones are often prevalent in his work. In Alien: Covenant the cue appears twice. Once as the sails deploy, and again, returning when the Covenant reaches the planet ("Planet 4 / Main Theme").

Kurzel took the opportunity to inject elements of his own theme for Alien: Covenant at the appearance of the original. The prelude to Goldsmith's theme is led by atmospheric, pulsing flutes, and bridging this to the Alien theme we hear a few dramatic leaps in the strings that lack any real purpose beyond a desire to be heard as the ship extends before us ("Alien Covenant Theme"). It was a wasted effort given Kurzel's theme was written beside a better one and is also clearly heavily organized around it. Regardless, it is always nice to hear an updated recording of a well-loved theme. The revival of the theme from Prometheus was appropriate, both for its call back to the creation story and its relationship with themes of discovery. Its introduction in Prometheus, set against the bleak tone and imagery emblematic of Ridley Scott's first film of the series, had an inspiring outlook on the events to follow. The melody begins with a major second, not unlike a horn call. In fact, the cue "Life" from Prometheus actually does begin with a horn in the melody. This major second is repeated, almost like a response to the call, presumably by humanity. The melody is divided into three phrases after the initial call, resolving on a half cadence. Defined by its quality of reaching out, the theme explores further and further into the unknown with each interval. And more than any other aspect of Prometheus, it represents an ideal of hope amidst discovery. In Alien: Covenant the Prometheus theme first appears when David shows Walter the garden with the grave marker of the Prometheus' former science officer, Elizabeth Shaw (performed in the same key and with the same instrumentation as it appears in the score for Prometheus). Shaw, more than any other member of the Prometheus, represented that sense of discovery and hope for humanity, even after undergoing an ugly alien abortion and evolving into a consummate survivor. Its second appearance was also made with David, only this time he performed it as a farewell elegy on a primitive recorder within the diegesis of the film. While this again captured an elevated sense of hope in a place hope had no right to be, it represented more than just humanity's hope, but David's as well. David's musical creation is his expression of hope for the future, bound with the fate of the alien virus, with which he seeks further creation. Just as the Engineers created humanity when we first heard this theme, David works to create the perfect species. The use of Wagner is also very telling of David's character. At his inception David asks his creator Peter Weyland probing questions about his place in the natural order: how can he exist below humanity when he is so clearly above them? Weyland instructs David to play a piece of his choosing on the piano, and so David plays the "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla", taken from the finale of Wagner's Das Rheingold, to which Weyland makes an amusing remark about its being anemic without the orchestra, missing the point entirely. Ironically, it is at this moment in the opening credits that "Music by Jed Kurzel" appears against the backdropped piano. While Prometheus did not offer much insight as per David's motives, this choice of music revealed his intentions from the start of the film. As the story progresses it becomes clear David is no less disappointed of humans than he is their creators, and when he finally discovers a species worthy of his praise (not unlike the android Ash from the original Alien) the cue returns, only this time in its full orchestration. David is delivered by the crew to a massive company of potential hosts where he is finally able to accomplish his goals. Though past grievances with Scott's musical choices pain me to say it, both the use of previous musical material and the use of Wagner were very effective. We come now to the newly written score by Jed Kurzel. While it lacks the silence characteristic of the original Alien, it brings back lots of Goldsmith and offers a similar chilling soundscape. The first cue on the soundtrack, "Incubation", introduces the new alien motif in the form of a two-note scratch descending a perfect forth, present during most alien sightings and first heard in the darkness preceding the opening title. And, though the simplicity of this figure made it a potent indication of danger, it was unnecessarily exhausted throughout the film, as though nothing else could be relied upon. Had it not been abused it would have kept from losing its threatening value and becoming homogenized in the course of the film. "Neutrino Burst" uses deep brass moans and unstable harmonies, shifting into a major tonality when the danger is passed. One of the better tracks, "A Cabin On the Lake", uses a soft piano melody that gently cascades and skips, like ripples of water, before soothing strings take over the texture, assuaging the audience as Daniels grieves for her husband. In "Sails" a slow build reaches an oddly assuring climax. This seems out of character for Scott given our previous musical experiences with Alien films have been anything but assuring. Perhaps he wanted the music to match the grandiose image on screen. The cue "Launcher Landing" uses a spanning wash of uninspired strings to invite us to the new planet, while "Wheat Field" borrows more Goldsmith-isms. "Spores" plays back to the deep, almost reverential presence of the Engineers established by Marc Streitenfeld in Prometheus when we encounter the crashed ship, heard in the brass, and "The Med Bay" develops as another slow build. Like several tracks to follow, the underscoring to this cue had no direction. The new alien motif resurfaces at the beginning, warning us of impending danger, but we already knew there was danger. It needed to lend real urgency to the situation, and it failed to do so. "Grass Attack" used more aimless dissonance, and in the latter half enters a percussive, driving beat, serving as a cheap device to trigger alarm. "Dead Civilization" was a little more interesting. Sympathetic strings whine as a lonely conch shell blows a cry to the remains of a massacred people. The didgeridoo also makes a return here, previously used alongside the conch shell in Alien. The music holds an abandoned, mournful quality, as though echoes of the necropolis are trying to speak. When David learns of the colonists aboard the Covenant we receive the "Survivors" cue. It shares similar ideas in the strings, but more so with the fate of the crew in mind as they unknowingly find themselves in a similar situation. No doubt the music mixers had a fun time working with "Payload Deployment", beginning with a wave of noise that sounds completely... alien, and assisting our transition from the current time to an earlier one. From this noise erupts a steady andante beat, not unlike a hulking enemy stalking closer and closer, growing louder and louder. This stomping effect is sadly lost amidst the screams of terror and the swarming sounds of the virus, but at the least we are experiencing music more typical of the horror genre. Panic ensues when we meet the "Face Hugger" as aleatoric strings screech in the highest range available to them and bows saw away underneath, repeatedly attacking and suppressing the captain's resistance. Following this is the most unique and intensely beautiful musical moment in the film, the "Chest Burster". This is hands down the most compelling cue of the new score. Shimmering strings are sustained in the upper register while warm tones breath life into the newborn xenomorph. This made a huge departure from any previous chest burster we have experienced as it recontextualized our classic reaction of agony and revulsion into near adoration. The gentle tempo and simple melody allows space for the viewer to take in the devastating horror as David greets his child like a blessed parent, consoled by its survival at the death of its mother. The final track of any distinction is "Lonely Perfection", offering a final moment of compassion to David. A recorder sounds in a minor key- the same instrument used earlier by the android - before the strings turn sour, telegraphing his attack on Walter. Though there are a few moments of legitimate contribution it is easy to recognize that the borrowed music was the best part of the score. If you were to interpret Kurzel's composition as a well written homage to Goldsmith's material it may be treated as a success. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Kurzel's score was made of bland dissonance fueled with pumping, churning, humming, hissing, and other ambient features that were both predictable and boring despite their attempting to build tension. The major culprits of the score include "Command Override", "Cargo Lift", "Bring It To My Turf", "Terraforming Bay" and the previously discussed "Med Bay", comprising most of the action sequences. Kurzel never let the music tell us anything we did not already know in these scenes. This was not only an issue with dynamic or rhythmic features but also with the harmonic progression, or lack thereof. It is a problem many composers face that they trap themselves by discouraging character within the music. The music takes no interest and no responsibility for what is happening onscreen, it simply perpetuates itself. This demonstrates a lack of creativity and results in purposeless repetition. Complacency is the enemy, and it seems likely that the nepotism involved in Kurzel's history of working with his brother, director Justin Kurzel, has served him all the poorer in this regard. Kurzel's shortcomings aside, it is the director who ultimately makes the call as to what is and is not included in the final product. It is one of Scott's greatest weaknesses as a director that he cannot recognize the difference between a capable and a mediocre composer, nor the difference between an impactful and an inept score. In Alien his decision to undermine the score arguably robbed the film of greater success, whereas his decision to let Kurzel run unchecked in Alien: Covenant likely damaged the film more than it helped. It makes one wonder if Kurzel's score would not have been better treated with grand periods of silence in place of its predecessor.