Alien: Covenant is the music world equivalent of a classic rock band wanting to play new material on the tour and its fans only wanting to hear the hits.
As Ridley Scott’s sequel to his Prometheus from 2012 and prequel to his Alien from 1979, the director’s third endeavor in the franchise is a film at odds with itself; a hybrid of creativity (expanding the Alien mythology of Prometheus) and commerciality (much more of the alien from Alien) that will neither fully satisfy either ideology nor alienate them (awful pun intended).
Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper. A 20th Century Fox release playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, Bowling Green, Mall of Monroe, and Sundance Kid Drive-in. Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 122 minutes.
Critic's rating: ★★★
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Billy Crudup.
Despite the dual nature of what the filmmaker has proffered, Alien: Covenant delivers the scares, thrills, tension, and science-fiction awe to make it one of the better entries in the series of eight films, including the two soul-sucking Alien v Predator cash-grab spin-offs.
TRAILER: Alien: Covenant
It also has a habit of repeating some of those mistakes that dragged down previous Alien films, in particular Alien 3 and its loose treatment of carryover storylines, characters, and ideas.
And speaking of carryover ... after an opening flashback to characters from Prometheus and its themes of gods and creation, Alien: Covenant jumps to the same deep space setting of Alien, as a massive ship, the Covenant, rockets toward a new world to colonize.
The deja vu continues as Scott peers into the bowels of the craft, almost voyeuristically, to wander the Covenant’s still hallways and rooms while its crew of nearly two dozen and thousands of passengers are cocooned in deep-sleep chambers.
But someone is awake on the ship: the Android Walter (Michael Fassbender), an upgraded model of the original David, who doomed the crew of the spaceship Prometheus (and features heavily into the plot of Alien: Covenant). When a space crisis threatens the ship, Walter wakes the sleepy crew to save the mission and themselves, but not without a significant casualty.
As the crew mourns their loss, they intercept an unmistakably human message from an unknown planet.
The Covenant’s captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the decision that the message is worth investigating — perhaps this world would make a better home for this colony, he reasons — against the advice of his second-in-command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston).
Other crew members including Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Lope (Demián Bichir) go along with the captain’s plan.
At first, his hunch is correct. Oram and his crew landing party find a vibrant Eden-like world of forests, grass, lakes, mountains, and blue skies, when it’s not stormy. They also find no animal life. Just as mysterious is a crashed and abandoned alien spacecraft where the message is originating.
Alien: Covenant’s first half-hour unfolds much like Prometheus. And then an alien shows up, after bursting from the chest of an unfortunate crewman, and all hell breaks loose as the film returns to its original roots as a science-fiction horror film.
The large crew size means a lot of shared scenes in the film’s early going; really, no one other than Walter and Oram stands out until the number of humans has been reduced significantly. Even Daniels, the latest in Scott’s long line of strong female leads, lacks the memorable charisma of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and depth of Shaw.
Things pick up, though, when the android David, a survivor of the crashed alien ship, shows up to save what’s left of the frightened landing party. With a hurricane-like storm quickly approaching, David leads the crew to the safety of his home in the ruins of a civilization, leading to more questions. What was that alien? How did David end up on this planet? And where is his fellow Prometheus survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace)?
Those invested in the
Prometheus story and interested in where it might lead will likely be disappointed in the answers Alien: Covenant provides. Prometheus wasn’t a smashing success with critics or fans, and Alien: Covenant is an attempt to move on, as Scott not always willfully works to get back in their good graces.
Scott’s initial impulse to expand the alien mythology, though, was more interesting and certainly less predictable than to watch another hapless space crew fight for their survival with a creature we've now learned was a biological agent of the Engineers, those giant white-skinned humanoids who created humanity.
The Engineers were an intriguing twist to the Alien story; particularly the juxtaposition it created for Shaw as a deeply religious archaeologist whose discovery of humanity’s creators contradicted her own beliefs. Alien: Covenant, though, drops such thoughtful exploration. Oram, for example, is mentioned as someone of faith — a rarity for this time in humanity’s future — though the implications of his beliefs never amounts to anything significant.
And yet Alien: Covenant is rife with Old Testament references: David and Walter as Cain and Able, for example, and a Sodom and Gomorrah-like destruction from the skies. As with the Old Testament, Alien: Covenant ends with a to-be-continued note.
Scott isn’t finished with Alien yet, he said in a recent interview, with Alien: Awakening coming soon. As the Alien movies have shown, a xenomorph — even one that’s good but not great — is impossible to keep down.
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.