Film Review: The Android’s the Thing, in “Alien: Covenant,” for Better and for Worse

Film Poster: “Alien: Covenant”

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.

The original Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) masterfully blended science fiction and horror, taking the conventions of monster movies and setting them on a lonely spacecraft in a galaxy far, far away. It also worked brilliantly as a psychological thriller, since much of the plot centered around poor lost souls trying to desperately to figure out what the hell was happening to them. The second film in the series, Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), remains, for me, one of the best-ever sequels, adding engrossing new details to the story in a different genre altogether, that of the shoot-em-up action variety. To top it all off, we got, in both, a kick-ass heroine in the form of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who shed copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears as she battled – and defeated – creatures far more physically powerful than she. The climactic fight at the end of Cameron’s contribution – let’s call it the duel of the exoskeletons, since Ripley took refuge inside a robotic cargo loader – remains one of my favorite on-screen combats of all time.

Then along came Alien³ (David Fincher, 1992) and Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997), each helmed by a competent director, neither worth much compared to their predecessors. And then, in 2012, Ridley Scott returned to the fold, with Prometheus, the first, and presumably the only (Scott says he has 6 more Alien films in him, ready to go), film in the series to avoid the very name of what it sells in its title. Compared to movies #3 and #4, Prometheus was a sharply observed, engrossing enough blend of metaphysics, action, and thriller elements, though one couldn’t help but feel disappointed that it all ultimately came down to the by-now tired clichés of violent, otherworldly predators ripping apart human flesh. It’s too bad, because the set-up of that film, in which we were given a tantalizing glimpse of a potential origin story for our own species, raised the dramatic stakes in a way that were not met by what followed. Still, at least we had not one, but two powerful female characters, in good gal Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and baddie Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road). And there was Michael Fassbender (Macbeth).

Michael Fassbender as David in “Alien: Covenant.” Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

He played David, an android with questionable motivations (as they so often have in this series). We meet him again, at the start of this new film, in deep conversation with his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, Results), whose search for the meaning of life (aka, where we come from) fueled Prometheus’ quest (as in, he funded it). I love Fassbender, but right away we can tell he’s being asked to telegraph David’s dissatisfaction with his role as helpmate. “I’m better than you,” he seems to glare at Weyland. Indeed, that will prove the kicker. If you remember, he and Shaw, having defeated all comers in the previous film, took off for parts semi-known, continuing their mission. Beginning with this flashback to before the start of Prometheus, Scott announces what will be David’s outsize role in the drama to follow.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels in “Alien: Covenant.” Photo Credit: Mark Rogers.

But then we see Fassbender right away, on a new ship (named “Covenant,” just as “Prometheus” was the name of the last vessel), with a new crew in hypersleep. Wait, this is not David, it turns out, but Walter, a new model fashioned from the same template, but with some adjustments, since David displayed too much independence of thought. This will turn out to be the understatement of the universe, once we find David again, but in the meantime, let’s discover our new characters. It’s a colonization expedition, with thousands of bodies carefully packed away, ready for a new home. As Walter does his rounds, a sudden flare from a nearby star damages the ship, forcing the crew to wake up, though they lose their captain (an uncredited James Franco) in the resultant fire. The remaining team includes Billy Crudup (20th Century Women), Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Danny McBride (This Is the End), Carmen Ejogo (Selma), Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight), Callie Hernandez (Blair Witch) and others, with Crudup given the unenviable role of the new captain whom nobody wants. Making matters worse for him, he is a professed “man of faith” among nonbelievers.

Whatever that means. Crudup acts with his usual fine intensity, but nothing is ever made of this detail. Which, as in Prometheus, is the main problem here: so much setup, so little related payoff. Based on the template of some of the previous films, we can guess what will happen. A signal from an unknown planet alerts the crew to the presence of possible human life, and even though the source’s coordinates lie outside their planned trajectory, they go off course, landing on a surprisingly Earth-like planet where all fauna seems to have died (though the flora still flourishes, somehow). It’s paradise, until it’s not. For a while, the sheer mystery of the proceedings carry us forward. Scott is good at mise-en-scène, and once the first attacks begin, we’re very much on the edge of our seat, even though we kind of know how things will go. Still, part of the appeal of this and Prometheus is the slow explanation of how the deadly aliens came to be, and Scott and company take pains to design interesting differences between these creatures and those of before. That part is all good.

“Alien: Covenant”: Cool designs, lots of blood. Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Unfortunately, what is far less successful is the film’s attempts to weave transcendental musings on the nature of existence and the hubris of playing god into what ultimately boils down to a high-production-value slasher pic (complete, I kid you not, with a bloody, naked shower scene). As he did in Prometheus, Scott comes so close to something quite meaningful, yet chooses, instead, to go for the cheap thrills. Now, some of those are great fun, and may well be what audiences want, but given the elaborate investment in David’s character, it seems a shame to go for the easiest dividend. Thanks to the talented cast – Waterston, especially – and well-choreographed action sequences, there is still great entertainment value here. There’s also a lot of wasted opportunity.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice."
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