Latest Alien can’t decide whether to get philosophical or homicidal
*** out of 5 | 123 min. | R
If you’re befuddled by what the Alien movie franchise has become, get in line. What began nearly 40 years ago as a creepy, extraterrestrial slasher movie with a memorable tag-line (“In space, no one can hear you scream”) and a double-jawed, acid-blooded antagonist, kept finding new incarnations. James Cameron turned it into the shoot-’em-up action of Aliens; Joss Whedon wrote a weird farewell to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien Resurrection; and the whole thing degenerated into two Alien vs. Predator movies.
By the time 2012’s Prometheus rolled around, it was worth asking whether any movie in the franchise told an audience anything more about this Alien universe. Oh, Xenomorph, where art thou?
Alien: Covenant finds director Ridley Scott returning to many of the Big Ideas swirling around in Prometheus, but it’s increasingly confusing as to why he’s packaging those ideas in this particular world. While this movie is instantly more recognizable as an Alien movie than Prometheus was, its themes clang against the delivery so discordantly that it can be heard even in the vacuum of space.
Set in 2105, Covenant serves as more or less a direct follow-up to Prometheus, beginning with a vessel on a multi-year journey to colonize a distant planet. The crew is awakened early and discover a previously unknown planet with an Earth-like atmosphere nearby. When they investigate they find… well, let’s just say it doesn’t take long before things are bursting out of people in vivid ways.
The reason for these events involves the fate of the ship seen heading off into the unknown at the end of Prometheus. A prologue reunites android David (Michael Fassbender) with his creator many years before the Prometheus events, engaged in a discussion about creators and their creations. Covenant continues the existential musings of Prometheus, investigating the impulse to be godlike both through creation and destruction, in fascinating ways. Even the title of this new film hints at the theological shift, turning the ship into a kind of Noah’s ark with paired-off crew members and addressing the responsibilities of creator and created: What do we owe to God? What does God owe to us?
That’s heady material, but the script doesn’t feel nearly as serious about it as Prometheus did. Of all the post-1979 Alien installments, this one feels like the most determined to mimic the original formula: landing party, face-huggers, tough female protagonist (Katherine Waterston as second-in-command Daniels), ineffectual captain (Billy Crudup), questions of quarantine, and enigmatic android.
Scott gets creatively grotesque in staging the emergences of the aliens, and delivers some moments of genuinely terrified people trying to wrap their heads around the horror of their situation. For the finale, Scott shifts hard toward Aliens, as two great action sequences find Daniels and the Covenant’s pilot (Danny McBride) fighting off a Xenomorph, including using a big mechanical claw. There’s no confusion this is an Alien movie.
Instead, the confusion rests in why the Big Ideas are jammed uncomfortably into it. An attempt by Scott to sneak musings on mortality into a familiar franchise wrapper? Ambitious though it may be, the elements never pull together, and reminds us that the original served up its own fascinating ideas—about dehumanization and domination—without underlining them. Like the monster at its center, this franchise keeps changing shape, but that doesn’t mean it’s an improvement.