The actors in Ridley Scott’s gruesome, philosophical new space horror movie Alien: Covenant do lots of screaming, running, shooting and bleeding out thanks to the various creatures that stalk and shred the hell out of them. That alone will seem like good news for fans of the original Alien, Scott’s game-changing celluloid Skinner box—and seriously, who isn’t a fan? Trouble is, compared to commanding, idiosyncratic actors like Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Ian Holm, most of the members of Alien: Covenant play sketched-in, anonymous characters given little chance to make their mark. You find yourself more impressed by Scott’s staging, Chris Seagers’ meticulous production design and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography than by the sometimes ludicrous specifics of the characters’ final curtains. But make no mistake: Scott’s back-to-basics scare show is a beautifully made, occasionally stunning sequel to the visually masterful but exposition-heavy Prometheus.
Covenant opens well, with an unsettling scene set in massive, Kubrickian white room in which scientist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) talks to his “son”—the unflappable android played by Michael Fassbender—and asks his creation to play whatever he’d like on the piano (he chooses Wagner) and to choose a name for himself (the room features a replica of Michelangelo’s David, so David it is). It’s one hell of a grabby opening. In fact, the weighty questions that Prometheus struggled over so tediously (Why are we here? Why must we die? Are humans obsolete?) are stated so simply and forcefully in this quiet scene that it feels like the Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner is back. But from then on, little else devised by Scott or screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper (from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) can touch it.
Set in 2104, 10 years after Prometheus and 18 years before the start of the first Alien, Covenant opens aboard the golden-winged eponymous ship, bound for distant planet Origae 6. We meet Walter (Fassbender again), David’s less humanist, more technologically advanced successor, who supervises the vessel and attends the cryo-hibernating crew, 2,000-plus passengers and some embryos, all of them with seven long years left to go before they reach their new home. Blowback from a solar flare prematurely awakens the crew, which includes the pragmatic Daniels (Katherine Waterston—good, but lacking the presence needed for the Ripley/Elizabeth Shaw-esque role), the devout and tediously by-the-books Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) and his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride, in good form) and his can-do missus (Amy Seimetz). There’s also a gay couple, two security guys played by Demian Bichir and Nathaniel Dean, but their relationship is way toned down from the “Last Supper” prologue Fox released last February.
When they intercept what sounds like a human voice singing the John Denver ditty “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” apparently from a nearby planet, Oram reroutes the ship so that they can zero in on the source. Just as Daniels predicts, they suffer a near-fatal rough landing. Despite the planet’s beauties—waterfalls, mountains, mist-shrouded lakes, acres of wheat—grim portents abound. Some team members debark to find the source of the ghostly voice and, when they do, their ears and nostrils get invaded by spore-like DNA nastiness. Uh-oh. That assures us we can set our watches—dead ahead, nightmarish, acid-dripping whatnots will explode out of chests, backs, mouths or other available orifices. Carnage ensues regularly and, sure, Sir Ridley keeps the action clipping along, but not fast enough to disguise how repetitive and un-scary things become.
The crew stalks through the hostile planet’s necropolis of terrifying caverns, and it all feels straight out of Alien 3. Daniels’ frantic run through the ship’s endless airlocks and corridors feels distressingly like a less thrilling replay of Aliens. Between actual Alien movies, Alien v Predator spinoffs and Alien wannabes, we’ve been here way too many times before. Even the xenomorphs—few of which we actually get a good look at—feel like obligatory add-ons, things Scott wishes he could do without.
It is Fassbender, in dual roles, who is the real focus of the movie, and he is the best he’s been in years—perverse, haunted, magnetic, touching and unique. A scene in which David teaches his mirror image Walter to play a recorder, while purring caressingly, “I’ll do the fingering,” is a nervy, cheeky, erotic instant classic. Scott has already promised two more Alien movies. But without Fassbender’s riveting presence, there’s no escaping the sensation that Alien: Covenant, meant to be a bridge back to the first Alien, too often feels like a bridge to nowhere.