“Alien: Covenant” is a well intended effort to breathe new life into a series approaching 40-something middle age. It’s a sequel to a prequel, never a graceful story form, but here it’s aimed at eliminating narrative missteps that have dogged other episodes of the nightmarish science fiction saga.
Ridley Scott’s gruesome masterpiece, a claustrophobic, cynical “10 Little Indians” in a spaceship, enjoyed a smashing launch in 1979. Seven years later, James Cameron’s “Aliens,” a revisionist war-horror reboot adding a squad of space Marines to the mix, amped up the action without losing the story’s gist. The series then spent three decades stumbling out of sequence and into a half-dozen alternate universe story lines that satisfied approximately zero fans. “Alien vs. Predator”? Please. Scott’s own 2012 prequel “Prometheus” was idiocy in a visually striking style.
Scott’s newest, “Covenant,” is aimed at syncing with the brand’s chest-bursting glory days. It does and it doesn’t, giving us a stylish, oddly bookish monster movie told in the form of a macabre theological revenge story.
Tech tycoon Peter Weyland (uncredited Guy Pearce), whose mystery-shrouded corporation has been a cornerstone of the franchise, reappears in a flashback opening. He is holding a philosophical discussion with David (Michael Fassbinder), a new synthetic servant with shadowy secrets going on behind his eerily expressive eyes.
Alert viewers may recall that in “Prometheus” David was assigned to space exploration for the origins of life after Weyland told a TED Talk audience that with the new ability to create cybernetic individuals indistinguishable from us, “We are the gods now.” In “Covenant,” David is all glassy-eyed dispassion about his maker’s pretensions to greatness. “You seek your creator. I am looking at mine,” he tells Weyland in a well mannered, morally ambiguous monotone. “You will die. I will not.”
Soon we’re years ahead, in 2104, 10 years after the main events of “Prometheus” and in familiar territory. A space cruiser carries thousands of would-be colonists and human embryos in cryo-sleep toward a habitable planet. They receive care and protection by the latest android upgrade, Walter (Fassbender again).
Still, life in space is vulnerable. When a solar flare fries the ship’s hibernating captain (James Franco in a 10-second cameo), the chain of command and morale of the crew begin coming apart. Stepping into the lead are Billy Crudup’s Oram, a religious man whose faith will be severely tested, and his second in command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston playing a “space gardener” and Ellen Ripley lite).
Rather than spend years traveling to their destination, the crew votes to drop a landing party including Walter on a promising nearby world that could host their pilgrims.
The primeval space is presented with the kind of graphic grandeur that Scott can do so well. Entirely free of animal sounds, it must be an ideal site for humans to land their ark, right? The Eden-like landscape fits neatly into the film’s pondering of creation and God’s existence. In the words of one crew member, “It’s too good to be true.”
It is. Before you can say “doomed expedition,” paradise is quickly lost. Having survived a spaceship crash there, David is on hand to lead the visitors into a city filled with the corpses of Engineers (the bald, pale creators of earthly life in “Prometheus”). Then bad microbes and flesh-piercing beasties appear, annihilating the human explorers faster than redshirts on “Star Trek.” Rescue attempts fail, efforts to seal away dangerous creatures hit the skids and hope goes down swinging amid screaming, running, pandemonium and gore.
The movie has a surprisingly academic tone for a pessimistic fever dream. Before the blood and bone fragments start spurting, it moves at a rather glacial pace, ruminating on Michelangelo’s statue of David, “Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla” from Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” Each work looks in wonder at ruined kingdoms and fallen giants, themes that fit neatly into “Covenant’s” gloom-and-doom tone. Bonus points go to the unspoken allusion to Mary Shelley, whose “Frankenstein” underpins the film from beginning to end.
Fassbender is petrifying playing twin variants of the pieced-together creature, two cybernetic beings identical in appearance and entirely different in their programming. His ability to subtly imply invisible schemes is more interesting than the bland human characters and more sinister than the film’s menagerie of CGI ogres.
“Alien: Covenant” sets up the stage for yet another sequel — Scott has threatened to make three more — but I hope he ends it here. It’s much less good than his original effort, far better than his other prequel. It’s time to give it a rest.
★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.