ALIEN COVENANT is a mixed bag. As a horror movie, it is unimpeachable, adding an extra self-refractive layer of pleasure to an audience that knows exactly what is lurking there in the giant deserted spaceship that our intrepid space colonists discover. As a vehicle for advancing the meta-story of the Alien franchise, it is far less satisfying. Yes, there’s another visit with Mr. Weyland (Guy Pierce), founder of the evil corporation, Weyland Industries, courtesy of a preface of a flashback that finds the ailing inventor belittling David’s android status. Yes, there’s the incomparable pleasure of seeing the android David (Michael Fassbender) make a pass at the android Walter, who has the same face and form. But the larger themes of solving the mystery of human genesis, working out theologies for the 22nd century, and delving into the pitfalls of seeking perfection, are given the most perfunctory of passes. One jumps out of one seat, but one comes away unedified.
COVENANT ties up several loose ends from the previous installment in the series, PROMETHEUS, but not before we get to know the crew of the Covenant spaceship itself, starting with Walter, who has an American accent, rather than David’s plummy British one, and whose several upgrades since David’s manufacture have, among other things, allowed him to form a non-professional attachment to Daniels (Katherine Waterston). She and the rest of the crew, as well as the 2000 colonists and assorted embryos, are in suspended animation as their ship makes the journey to a carefully selected planet where, all hope, they will thrive. Alas, a random solar flare forces Walter to wake up the crew to make repairs, during which the most colorful member of said crew, Tennessee (Danny McBride), gets some aggressive static on his headset. It’s revealed to be a pop song from the 20th century, and Oram (Billy Crudup), the new captain after a sleep pod malfunctions flamboyantly killing the missions original leader, decides to switch course and find out why John Denver is singing from a planet where no human has ever been. Daniels protests, though it might have a little to do with subconscious resentment of Oram, what with her being the widow of the dead captain (James Franco in the videos and snapshots). All the crew members are pair-bonded, we should note, except Walter. It should add to the emotional stakes, and yet, somehow, it doesn’t. Only Waterston, with her limpid eyes and her ability to radiate emotions like a sun about to supernova, shocks us out of the limbic sense of suspense as, inevitably, the titular monster begins to take out the crew members in ways familiar and strange.
Of course, they go to the beckoning planet.
And when they get there, it’s not just the terrestrial wheat growing there that’s odd. There’s also the complete absence of animal life of any kind. The exploratory party, further of course, finds the deserted spaceship, whence the song emanates, crashed on a mountainside. They also find traces of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who disappeared along with the Prometheus craft, and enormous statues of a life form that they will soon come to know all too well when a storm prevents them from returning to the Covenant, and all but knocks out communication. Oh, and, David, who has spent the last 10 years composing music and mourning Elizabeth, among other things
There is a certain piquancy to having the first crew member fall victim to the alien menace when he takes a smoking break, as though to reinforce that the practice is evil. One also notes the homage to the late John Hurt as another crew member meets his end in the same way that Hurt did in the original ALIEN, right down to the gently twitching limbs. All in all, amid the dashes of philosophy, and Daniels finding her inner Ripley, the impetus of the film becomes watching the crew members become alien fodder in various ways, and suffering the pangs of almost guilty pleasure in watching Fassbender’s arch performance. Not quite hammy, but within whiffing distance, as both David and Walter, subtly different, but both imperious, yet interested, in the surrounding humans, even if they have come to different conclusions about how best to serve them.
It’s also a gorgeous film to look at. From the mathematical precision of solar sails unfurling around the Covenant, to a vista of charred corpses in a dead city that stretches to the horizon in an evocation of the dead of Pompeii, to those pesky aliens leaping about with insatiably vicious intention. They are still terrifying on a primal level, and the evolutionary speciation on view has done nothing to lessen that. The sickly white one, glistening with something unwholesome, is just as scary standing still as David attempts to bond with it, as the more traditional dark metallic one scampering about the Covenant (because, of course it gets back to the ship), jaws dripping the blood of its victims. Ridley Scott’s direction is sleek and deliberate. There is nothing showy, but the sense of menace is omnipresent, even when we know exactly what is going to happen when a character bends a curious face over an oversized egg. It’s just as effective in the effects-laden action sequences, that blend that ci-mentioned deliberation with vibrant kinetic energy.
ALIEN COVENANT is a bridge between PROMETHEUS and the third in the Alien prequel trilogy. A slight offering of rude awakenings and muddled allegories, it has one character proclaim that we didn’t come here to be safe, and then does exactly that.