About a third of the way through Ridley Scott’s latest addition to the now-creaking Alien saga, Daniels (Alien: Covenant’s Ripley, or what passes nowadays) says, in as close to a mea culpa as we’re going to get out of Scott, “So little of this makes any sense.” Indeed. Fortunately, the monsters are terrifying and the action tense enough that, hopefully, the vague sense of bafflement and boredom that is sure to arise in you during the middle third of this movie will vanish by the end like a xenomorph by an open airlock.
Covenant is a long-range generation ship en route to Origae-6, a hopefully-inhabitable planet. Onboard are 2000 colonists, a freezer full of human embryos, an obligatory synthetic android called Walter (Michael Fassbender), and a crew of fifteen whose in-flight entertainment is about to perk up considerably. After a solar storm damages the mothership and flambés the captain alive in his stasis pod, everyone loses their enthusiasm for cryo-sleep, and they decide to investigate a suspiciously hospitable-looking nearby planet that isn’t on any of the charts, yet happens to be emitting a country-music-tinged distress tone. The planet turns out to be creepy synthetic David’s destination after leaving LV-223 in Prometheus, and the android (also Fassbender) is there to welcome the crew of the Covenant, along with some newly modified xenomorphs (a white one! a super skinny one! a gross one!)
Creation has been a motif of the Alien franchise ever since Ripley cooked the Queen’s eggs, and Covenant beats us over the head with it almost as vigorously as Prometheus did. Echoing zeitgeist fears, artificial intelligence is calling time on humanity’s position atop the food chain. We’ve had our chance, reckons David, who is grooming his “beautiful” aliens to succeed us — after eating us all first, of course. In what must be a galling twist for the misanthropic android, he can only communicate his distaste for humans via allegorical recitations of classical music, romantic English poetry, and improvisational recorder — which he does for an interminably long portion of the movie while the crew are doing their utmost to speed along their own annihilation by dozily separating themselves, poking about in slimy tunnels, and getting undressed.
The point of all the cod philosophizing seems to be to bridge the tone and storyline of Prometheus to the events of Alien, which, remember, are still far in the future according to the present timeline. This is justified, and Scott pulls it all together more tidily here than in the oddly profound Prometheus. Unfortunately, David and Walter’s prolonged exchanges undercut the character development of the rest of the crew, who are already hamstrung by a less-than-punchy script, mushy motivations, and vague plotting. It’s a real head-scratcher that the director of Alien — a movie with such natural dialogue and economical pacing — could take over two hours here to deliver a story and set of characters about a quarter as memorable, with the sole exceptions being the synthetics and maybe Tennesse (Danny McBride), a fairly stock, rule-breaking, whiskey-sipping hillbilly type.
Fassbender’s performance is outstanding, shifting between calculating malice and detached benevolence, all the time retaining the essential uncanny gait and mannerisms of the not-quite-human synthetics. Not the least of his talents is the ability to sound great while delivering lines that are objectively balderdash. Katherine Waterston is fine as the bereaved go-getter, Daniels. She’s tough, vulnerable, and wily: it’s not her fault that her character’s narrative is a bit flat. The other actors do a game job with limited material, and there are some great bits of bug-eyed freaking-out, particularly by Carmen Ejogo and Amy Seimetz.
And crucially, Alien: Covenant excels in the important business of creeping the bejesus out of us with the most viscerally repulsive xenomorphs yet. While purists argue that Alien is the scariest movie because its monster is shrouded in darkness, this film’s effects are so perfectly executed and downright horrifying that I found myself recoiling from the screen. The various spacecraft shown in action are also beautifully designed and rendered in such a way that they feel tangible and weighty. The set-piece scenes are frequently spectacular, if a little unoriginal.
Dan’s rating (7 / 10)
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Dan O’Bannon (based on characters created by), Ronald Shusett (based on characters created by), Jack Paglen (story by), Michael Green (story by), John Logan (screenplay) and Dante Harper (screenplay)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz
Release Date: May 19, 2017
Runtime: 2 hrs. 2 mins.
MPAA Rating: R