FILM REVIEW – ALIEN: COVENANT. With Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity. 122 minutes.
The six “Alien” movies (let’s not count those silly “Aliens vs. Predator” outings) all tell the same story: Space is just another dirty job. The people/corporations/governments financing the missions can’t be trusted. And the aliens they encounter will be absolutely relentless. As we go through the ritualized story, it’s the variations and nuances we should focus on, even as we’re getting our thrills from the latest appearance of the fearsome “face hugger” or “chest burster.”
ALIEN: COVENANT takes place several years after the events of “Prometheus” (2012). After a cryptic prologue that will become perfectly clear late in the film, we’re aboard the Covenant, a ship bringing colonists to an Earth-like planet. Two things then happen in short order. A solar flare of some sort causes damage to the ship including the death of the captain who, like the rest of the crew, is in suspended animation. And when the crew is awakened to deal with the emergency, they discover an Earth-like planet nearby sending signals that indicate intelligent life on the planet.
The acting commander of the ship (Billy Crudup) decides this new planet is worth exploring. As we expect, things start to go wrong. To say much more would give away too much of the variations of this version of the story. As usual we have an android, Walter (Michael Fassbinder), a more advanced model of David in “Prometheus.” In keeping with the theme of space exploration being a job rather than a calling, we see the crew go down to the planet and violate all sorts of common sense rules. They don’t test the atmosphere. We see a soldier smoking a cigar and tossing the butt away without a thought about how that might contaminate the alien environment. And, of course, they split up rather than stay together, making them easier to pick off.
The film follows on the idea from “Prometheus” that whomever created the monsters we know from previous films may have been responsible for seeding life on Earth along with the suggestion that they may have developed second thoughts about it. What becomes the issue for “Covenant” is not so much meeting our creators as what it means to be a creator in the first place. In the case of the androids in these two films, what does it mean to be a sentient creature when your life is in service to the humans who have created you? By film’s end–including the expected climactic battle and an unexpected plot twist–“Alien: Covenant” sets us up for the original “Alien” (1979), and so we have come full circle. (Reportedly, though, more films are planned.)
The large ensemble cast doesn’t allow for much in the way of standout performances, although Crudup does well as the self-effacing Oram who finds himself thrust into the role of commander without the full allegiance of the ship’s crew. Fassbender, playing David in the prologue and Walter on the ship, gets the the most complicated role.
The original “Alien” was a shocker for showing us horrors (thanks to H. R. Giger’s creature designs) we had never seen. The follow up “Aliens” capitalized on Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (the one character in both movies) as a kick-ass female action heroine. At this point viewers expecting this series to break new ground will be disappointed. “Alien: Covenant” can’t surprise us as the early films did. Instead, it plays in the margins, providing variations on a theme. For those who get how the franchise works, this film provides both the shocks and the thought-provoking ideas we’ve come to expect.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.