The ‘Alien’ franchise may have been shepherded by director Ridley Scott way back in 1979, but it certainly has taken on a life of its’ own, complete with a complex fictional xeno-biological mythology. Scott explored the universe of his original film through 2012’s prequel ‘Prometheus,’ prompting a decidedly divisive response from fans who weren’t really sure they wanted to gain a better understanding of the ‘Engineers,’ the alien race represented by the mummified pilot of the derelict ship that Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character) fellow crew members fatefully stumbled upon. Unfazed by the backlash, and determined to continue his vision of the time period leading up to ‘Alien,’ Scott returns with this summer’s ‘Alien: Covenant,’ a gorgeously shot, gallantly acted, and oftentimes maddeningly written, action-packed fright-fest.
Taking place ten years after the events of ‘Prometheus,’ a new crew aboard a spacecraft dubbed ‘Covenant’ is introduced. This crew is made up of all couples, traveling with over two-thousand citizen colonists and frozen embryos en route to a habitable planet to set up the first human off-Earth colony. They are roughly awakened from cryo-sleep by synthetic crew member Walter (another brilliant turn by Michael Fassbender playing an updated version of David, the synthezoid introduced in ‘Prometheus’) after a radiation flare damages the solar energy gathering sail and causes an accident where the captain (an uncredited James Franco!) flash burns in his cryo-tube. His horrified wife Daniels (a resolute Katherine Waterston, of ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Fantastic Beasts’ fame) and the rest of the crew (including a surprisingly subdued and convincing Danny McBride as Tennessee) have little time to grieve, responding to Billy Crudup’s newly appointed Captain Oram’s orders to make repairs and investigate a very human transmission emanating from a nearby Earth-like planet.
The build-up to, and subsequent initial exploration of the planet, are very slow and deliberate, but once the action ratchets up on the surface below, the film becomes a relenting, gory, if flawed, shocker. Typically, like in Scott’s original ‘Alien’, this method of plodding story-telling allows for character build and tension ratcheting, but due to a drab and exposition-heavy screenplay, the talented actors have trouble gaining audience sympathy or in many cases, recognition. Perhaps the problem is that the crew are not given clear characteristics beyond grieving wife and naysayer (Daniels), conflicted man-of-faith / untested leader (Oram), easy living but opinionated mechanic (Tennessee), or just one of the countless other crew members who have a few lines of dialogue yet zero development. Or perhaps it is because, like this year’s ‘Life’, the crew members make the most absurd choices (landing on an uncharted planet without any protection, going off on their own just to create schlocky horror-movie cliché kills, etc.).
Once the well-staged action begins, involving some incredibly detailed and grotesquely beautiful creature design, the movie takes an unexpected, and interesting turn. Without revealing too much, ideas and themes explored in this film’s predecessor, ‘Prometheus,’ are expanded here in equal parts captivating science fiction wonder at the nature of artificial life and the perfection of biological weaponry, as well as frustrating and awkward liberties with the continuity of the original film series. ‘Alien: Covenant,’ is a sci-fi horror movie with some big ideas that looks as good as anything Ridley Scott has directed, but as with some of his other past and recent works, it’s a spectacle that is lacking and confounding almost as much as it is compelling . . .
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Written By: John Logan & Dante Harper; story by Jack Paglen & Michael Green
Running Time: 122 min.
* * ½ (out of four stars) -OR- B-