*** out of ****
(for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity)
Released: May 19, 2017
Runtime: 122 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby
Welcome to Plan B.
After the ambitious Prometheus received much more of a mixed reaction than anticipated, director Ridley Scott listened to the fans of the Alien franchise and ditched the complex arc he’d planned for subsequent prequel-sequels. Now, the events leading up to the the 1979 original have become streamlined and familiar, rooted squarely in hard-R Xenomorph terror gore.
The most fascinating virtue of Prometheus (a smart, ballsy movie that gets better with each viewing) is that it wasn’t simply an origin story set earlier on the same linear timeline. Instead, it revealed (a.k.a. blew my mind) that the whole Alien narrative was merely just a single tangent splintering off from a much bigger mythology. But fans weren’t interested in the Engineers (terrestrial god-like giants), plus they were left cold by the prospect of humans meeting their creator in deep space.
Bottom line, Ridley wanted to try something new, the public wanted him to repeat himself, and the public won. The subsequent follow-up is a fan-pandering course correction: Ridley has gone back to the tangent.
If Prometheus suffered from too much ambition, then Alien: Covenant is diminished by not quite enough. The result gives people less to complain about but also less to be intrigued by. Still, as visionary thrill machines go this is as good as any, especially as it holds on to its thought-provoking remnants by grafting them into the synthetic android David and his newer model “brother” Walter (both played by Michael Fassbender).
It’s the year 2104, ten years after the events of Prometheus (and fifteen prior to Alien), and like any good sequel it explains enough about its previous film to allow you to go in cold and not get lost. Another colony ship named “Covenant” is on course for an Earth-like planet that can support human life, allowing our species to save itself (Earth’s days are numbered, apparently). Alas, tragedy happens, plans change, and an alternate planet is chosen. Horror ensues.
Most of the first hour plays as setup while the second is a protracted payoff, which is to say Alien: Covenant is a good movie that gets better as it goes along, finally reaching its peak in the last act. Fans get exactly what they came for, all set to formulaic beats, but thankfully Ridley is still too invested to just go through the motions.
He not only keeps the proceedings smart and visuals stunning, but Scott’s also stubborn enough to not let go of the themes that motivated the franchise resurrection to begin with, namely: one, Creation develops its identity through how it’s treated by its Creator (or how it perceives to be treated), and two, the horrors that result from a Creator who isn’t loving but Darwinian.
Other than the return of Fassbender’s David, the cast is a clean slate. Gone are the Engineers and Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw (although their fates remain integral), and in their place is a new crew of sitting ducks waiting to be gratuitously snuffed out one-by-one by each new Xenomorph incarnation. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) picks up the Strong Female torch and runs with it, serving as a sensitive-yet-resolute and gritty predecessor for the Sigourney Weaver Ripley to come.
Danny McBride brings his fun swagger but leaves his go-to comedy fallbacks behind, making for a solid serious turn, and Billy Crudup does the most he can with an intriguing character (a Captain whose religious faith makes him feel marginalized by his fellow scientists) that the script barely allows him to explore.
And Fassbender? I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say his turns as David and Walter – with their opposing ideals in conflict – are what eventually elevate this beyond a rudimentary genre exercise.
Even as much of this could be dubbed Alien: Redundant, Sir Ridley still proves he’s a maestro of claustrophobic suspense, spectacular action set pieces, and ominous sci-fi grandeur, all fueled by the ferocious viscera of blood-and-guts. Alien: Covenant takes a low-risk, easy reward approach that is sure to satisfy, yet still wrestles with just enough ideas to give sophisticated viewers something more.