'Alien: Covenant' review: Recapturing 'some of the excitement, awe, and horror' of 1979 original
Before we get to Alien: Covenant, a rant about its predecessor, Prometheus. The problem with Ridley Scott's 2012 return to the Alien universe is that the more we learned about the skeletal, seething, phallic, vicious xenomorphs, the looser their hold on our cinematic subconscious. Much of the effectiveness of Scott's 1979 franchise starter lies in its cruel randomness; the tragedy of a horrible death being the result of bumping into the wrong stranger on the wrong street on the wrong night.
Jettisoning such primal simplicity, Prometheus suggested a farfetched connection between the aliens and mankind. The result was a muddled attempt at expanding the Alien universe so it could address no less than the origins of humanity. It ended with archaeologist and lone human survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the head of David the Android (Michael Fassbender) in tow, escaping planet LV-223 and vowing to discover why the Engineers wanted to destroy mankind.
And yet, I rescind my above criticisms. Without Prometheus, we would not have Alien: Covenant, which recaptures some of the excitement, awe, and horror of the very first film. Acting as a course correction to the previous entry (written by Master of Confusion Damon Lindelof), Covenant advances the mythology established by Prometheus, but doesn't feel burdened by it.
Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper, working from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, have taken Prometheus and untangled it, straightened it out, and created a knockout thriller that dabbles in big ideas. If they don't have Aliens director James Cameron's knack for character shorthand, or if they fail to follow through on some of their loftier notions, fear not. The series, which had been listing for years, has regained its spark. Alien: Covenant is its most satisfying entry since Aliens.
'Oddly prescient' original & 'great' sci-fi/action sequel
Indeed, when you consider how poorly the franchise has been handled recently, it's no wonder the aliens are angry all the time. Scott's original is a masterpiece of elegant craftsmanship. It's also oddly prescient.
Before Alien, movie spaceships and their wide-eyed crews were immaculate, gleaming promises of mankind's sparkling future. Thanks to Alien and its crew of sweaty, manual laborers, our idea of space travel was recalibrated. Its suggestion that life amongst the stars would be grim, noisy, and akin to working on an oil rig was revelatory in science-fiction filmmaking.
Cameron's sequel was a different beast. A thousand xenomorphs is not as terrifying as one. Still, he managed to create one of the great sci-fi action movies; a platoon adventure that combined his two specialties: intense action and a powerful female lead. After Aliens, things went downhill.
Descent into money-grabbing fare
Alien 3, the troubled production that repped David Fincher's film directing debut, works best in the Assembly Cut available on Blu-ray. Alien: Resurrection is a curio, although Fox should be given credit for handing the series to French visualist Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which at least held the promise of something interesting.
Alien vs. Predator and its sequel are not considered canon, but they are considered terrible, enough of a money-grabbing insult to Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett's original ideas that the franchise was shelved until Prometheus five years later.
Android brothers David and Walter & the mystery of Creation
In Alien: Covenant, the linchpin character is not a xenomorph, but an android. Actually, two androids. The film opens in flashback, with David laying out the film's major thematic concern as he philosophizes about the nature of creation with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the man responsible for his existence. David is intrigued by the notion of a creation meeting its creator (similar to Elizabeth in Prometheus) and, one would be justified in assuming based on future events, displeased with his subordinate status.
Later, we're introduced to Walter, a newer model android, identical to David except for an American accent. Walter is stationed on the Covenant, a ship ferrying 2,000 colonists in a 7-year cryosleep to the planet Origae-6 where they'll create a new civilization.
Indeed, the movie is filled with references to creation; both the capitalized and non-capitalized versions. So it's a shame we're denied even a passing dialectic between science and religion, the latter best argued by Oram, a self-proclaimed man of faith (Billy Crudup, enjoying a welcome resurgence). Oram is a conflicted, fearful representation of religious thought … for about 15 minutes, after which the topic is dropped to make room for the bloodletting.
When a catastrophe aboard the ship kills the captain (blink and you'll miss him, James Franco), Oram is put in charge. Once the damage is repaired, he agonizes before deciding to divert the Covenant to follow a distress call coming from a nearby planet. Not on board with this idea is the ship's terraforming expert, Daniels (Katherine Waterston, good but she's no Sigourney Weaver). Then again, the distress call is a playback of John Denver's 1971 hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Only an emergency message from Anne Murray would be harder to resist.
Ridley Scott still got it
At this point, it must be noted that Ridley Scott will turn 80 this year and the old man can still pull the strings. Before the mayhem begins in earnest, he manufactures a very slow build that starts on the ship and continues on the planet, which contains breathable air; rich, green foliage; and majestic mountains (exteriors were shot in New Zealand).
Tellingly, it's the grunt who spits and pees in the bushes, the Ugly Earthling as it were, who becomes the first victim and gets the party started. The resulting sequence with exploding ships, exploding people, and a xenomorph attacking in a darkened field, is sensational and worth the protracted build up.
Michael Fassbender & Original Sin: 'Alien: Covenant' unlike franchise movies of decades past
Soon Orem, Daniels, Walter, and the others happen upon David, who has been marooned on the planet since the events of Prometheus. The interplay between Walter and David is the heart of the story, not only for Michael Fassbender's delicious dual performance, but for its religious and pop cultural allusions.
David and Walter suggest Cain and Abel: one brother wicked, the other blessed by God. One of them even reminds us of Roy Batty, the stigmatic replicant from Scott's 1982 classic Blade Runner, who pursued his creator, then killed him. There's a compelling scene where the more human David tries to bring the servile Walter down to his level by teaching him to play the flute. David even suggests, possibly as Walter's original sin, that one does the blowing while the other does the fingering.
When you cross into that kind of territory, you're even more convinced that Alien: Covenant, like Prometheus, is not the Alien many fans grew up with. Maybe that's because its aging director is becoming more preoccupied with meeting his creator. Maybe it's because he wants to reclaim the series from the wasteland from which it's been languishing. Whatever the motivation, if these are the Alien films we're getting now, at least they're starting to make sense.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Dir.: Ridley Scott.
Scr.: John Logan. Dante Harper.
From a story by Michael Green & Jack Paglen.
Based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett.
Cast: Michael Fassbender. Katherine Waterston. Billy Crudup. Danny McBride. Demián Bichir. Nathaniel Dean. Alexander England.
Benjamin Rigby. Carmen Ejogo. Jussie Smollett. Uli Latukefu. Callie Hernandez. Amy Seimetz. Tess Haubrich. Andrew Crawford. Goran D. Kleut.
Cameos: Guy Pearce. James Franco. Noomi Rapace.
Alien: Covenant trailer: 20th Century Fox.
Alien: Covenant cast info via the IMDb.
Michael Fassbender and xenomorph Alien: Covenant images: 20th Century Fox.