Film Review: Alien: Covenant

Crew of a colonizing spaceship is lured to a planet where a deadly breed of killers awaits. Sequel to Prometheus is a return to form for director Ridley Scott.
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The Alien franchise has had its ups and downs since director Ridley Scott's groundbreaking 1979 film. Alien: Covenant is a return to roots, a chance for Scott to both clear up loose ends and set the stage for several more movies.

Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel to Scott's controversial Prometheus, philosophical musings disguised as a sci-fi film. In 2104, ten years after that movie, the Covenant spaceship is headed to colonize a distant planet when an onboard accident kills its captain. An intercepted radio transmission is all it takes to convince the surviving crew to explore a previously hidden planet nearby.

Because this is a one-way expedition, many of the crew members are married. New captain Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith a bit too defensive about his religious beliefs. (He should have heeded scriptural warnings about taking the easy path.) His partner Karine (Carmen Ejogo) accompanies him down to the surface of the planet. So does the just-widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston), distraught over her ruined dreams of a new home to be built by her husband (James Franco in a seconds-long cameo).

Sentient androids are fixtures in the franchise. Michael Fassbender plays two: David, the icy manipulator from Prometheus, and his upgrade version, Walter. Special effects allow the two to interact plausibly, and Fassbender has fun with accents and hairstyles. Just don't expect the stunt to add much depth to the storyline.

While you're at it, don't get attached to the largely anonymous crew. Few will survive, another expected feature of the franchise. In fact, you'll find bits and pieces of just about all the Alien movies here, including balky communications equipment, hidden agendas, and many different permutations of the monster.

Alien: Covenant is like a greatest-hits compilation, except the favorite bits have been rerecorded with "better" technology. Doors still don't close in time, crew members undergo epic meltdowns, medical bays become bloody deathtraps, and a fierce Waterston battles in her underwear just like Sigourney Weaver did some 40 years ago.

Scott wisely dropped most of the noodling that weighed down Prometheus, but he's replaced it with horror-movie tropes that feel lazy. Crew members wander into the lab of a very clearly mad scientist. Instead of blowing it up or radioing for help or at least turning around and running for safety, they decide to explore the unlighted stairway leading to what looks like a dungeon below.

Knowing what is about to happen—the oozing embryo pod, the face-hugger, the body-as-incubator—may be part of the fun for Alien fans. But in Alien: Covenant, it's too easy to stay a beat, several beats, ahead of the movie. And aside from an ostensibly “shocking” twist, at the end there’s no further reveal, just the chance to play out the same storyline in a future episode.

Other filmmakers may have caught up with many of Scott's innovations, but they can't duplicate the director's style, his framing and impeccable lighting and unobtrusive camera moves. And few directors are as ambitious. Alien Covenant takes its religion and philosophy seriously, by questioning what love means to gods, for example. But not everyone will be happy to have the primal fear behind the franchise, the implacable malevolence of the unknown, explained away by something as silly as ambition.

Moviegoers today shouldn't expect Scott to be able to recapture the shock of the original Alien. The fact that he has fashioned such a lean and gripping entry is noteworthy. But even fans may be surprised by how much Alien: Covenant lifts from Aliens, the first sequel. So far, no one beats James Cameron at this game.

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