When founding director Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise five years ago with a prequel called Prometheus, he delivered a movie of sleek, dark beauty. What he didn’t deliver was much in the way of actual Aliens, those drooly horrors who first made the world’s acquaintance 38 years ago. Prometheus focused more on the Engineers, our shadowy interstellar forebears, and on deep thoughts about gods and creations. Longtime franchise fans were not entirely happy with this picture.
Now, in Alien: Covenant, the sixth entry in the series, Scott gets back down to business. Note the reinstatement of that key word in the title. (Prometheus was originally called Alien: Engineers, but this was decided to be insufficiently subtle.) Not only are there more of the chompy black Xenomorphs in this film (along with their icky precursors), there’s also a whole new breed of Alien: the fast-moving, flesh-ripping, corpse-colored Neomorphs. In addition, there are tiny black spores that hover in swarms, awaiting a chance to buzz into a human ear or up a nostril, with predictably ghastly results. Finally, there’s a scary double dose of Michael Fassbender, too. We’ll get to that.
Some things never change in the Alien universe. Here we once again have a space ship cruising among the stars, its crew quietly tucked away in their hyper-sleep pods. (There are really more crew members than can easily be kept up with; most notable among them are Danny McBride, Amy Seimetz, Demián Bichir, and Carmen Ejogo.) This vessel, the Covenant, is en route to a terraforming planet many years away, where it will deposit its now-dozing payload of 2000 fresh new colonists. But then the Covenant gets rocked by solar flares, damaging the ship and snuffing a few of its passengers (including the captain, played, for mere moments, by James Franco, whose presence in every movie is now a standard Hollywood green-light requirement). The awakened crew quickly notices a signal beaming in from a nearby planet, a place that seems even more suitable for human habitation than the faraway orb to which they’re headed. Quicker than you can say whatever you do don’t go there, the ship’s dim new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to do just that.
Once the Covenant arrives at its suspiciously ideal destination (breathable air, edible vegetation), a scouting party sets out to reconnoiter. This group includes the good-guy android Walter (Fassbender) and the skeptical Daniels (Katherine Waterston, stepping into the old Sigourney Weaver slot). They encounter many surprises, among them a familiar horseshoe-shaped space ship and a city full of gruesome horrors. There’s a ferocious Neomorph attack, in the midst of which David, the creepy android from Prometheus (Fassbender again), suddenly turns up in a monkish cloak to lead them all away. At another point, two members of the expedition are felled by a mysterious affliction and are dragged back to a waiting shuttle where, inevitably, some idiot allows one of them to reenter. All hell breaks loose, etc.
Most of us have seen a lot of Alien action by this point the telescoping jaws rolling out, the doomed victims crouched in claustrophobic terror. The movie is a little underwhelming in its over-familiarity. Still, Ridley Scott, now nearly 80, is a master film craftsman, and he and his writers (John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen, and Michael Green) manage to make all the customary creature mayhem feel hair-raisingly fresh. There’s a perfectly framed long shot of a naked man and woman fooling around in one of the ship’s showers, with a very large Alien tentacle slowly rising up between their legs; and a peerlessly eerie shot in which we see one of the repulsive Neomorphs hunkered on the chest of a corpse, feasting.
But Scott is just as intent upon the series’ long-rehearsed philosophical theme of deities and their creations, and he addresses it here in the byplay between Fassbender’s two androids, the benevolent Walter and the poisonous David. Their similarities are many, but misleading. (In one amusingly homophile moment, we see David teaching Walter how to play a flute, and telling him, “I’ll do the fingering.”) Walter is actually an improved version of David. (“There have been a few updates since your day,” Walter says.) And David, we clearly see, is infected with hubris. He says that his creator, the grasping techno-industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in an opening cameo) was “unworthy of his creation.” Now, David is pursuing a shadowy agenda of his own devising, and we only slowly come to realize how monstrous it is. “No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams,” he complains. Well, nobody human.
Alien: Covenant is playing at the Rocky Top 10 in Crossville and in theaters nationwide starting today (Friday, May 19, 2017)