2012’s “Prometheus” provoked an interesting range of responses. The “Alien” prequel riled up a segment of the franchise faithfuls who were anxious for Ridley Scott’s return to the terrifying acid-for-blood xenomorphs he created. Many lukewarm fans found themselves drawn to Scott’s slow-moving meditative philosophizing. Others were caught in the middle, unable to come down on either side.
For the sequel it’s clear the producers were hungry for the Ridley Scott from 1979 who gave us the smothering, frightening sci-fi/horror original. New writers Josh Logan and Dante Harper make sure we get that. But Scott doesn’t hand over the entire vision. He’s still interested in thematic exploration and mythologizing. “Alien: Covenant” ends up being a peculiar and semi-fascinating hybrid of both.
As mentioned “Covenant” is the second film in the prequel series. It begins with a short prologue featuring Guy Pearce’s business mogul with a god complex Peter Weyland and a newly activated android who takes the name David (Michael Fassbender reprising his role). It’s a gorgeous flashback sequence that introduces creation, an idea that plays prominently into the rest of the film.
Roughly ten years after the events of “Prometheus” we hop aboard the Covenant, a ship on a colonization mission to a distant earth-like planet on the far side of the galaxy. It’s precious cargo – 1,000 human embryos and 2,000 colonists all in stasis. The ship is hit by a (science junkies help me out here) neutrino burst which forces the the android Walter (Fassbender in a dual role) to wake the crew early. The vessel takes damage and there are several casualties including the ship’s captain.
While making repairs the crew picks up a mysteriously familiar radio signal tracked to a nearby uncharted but seemingly habitable planet. Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), the insecure acting leader, decides to investigate against the objections of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the original captain’s widow and Oram’s second in command. To this point you could call “Covenant” a methodical slow-burn which I loved. After a beautifully shot dropship landing, the expedition team of scientists and military make their way to the planet’s surface. This sets up the film’s shift from patient and ponderous to an all-out “Alien” movie.
To no one’s surprise the team encounters the xenomorphs and even a new form of terror called neomorphs. They are a spore-born and more feral version of their counterparts. And of course that leads to a series of gory and obligatory facehugs, chest bursts, tail slashes – the usual alien carnage. I’ll happily admit I found parts of it intense and exciting. Problem is none of the victims are fleshed out enough for us to care. I think back to Scott’s original “Alien” and even James Cameron’s “Aliens”. I can tell you the names of most of those characters and even put a face to them. Aside from Walter, Daniels, Oram, and Danny McBride’s Tennessee (he’s the one with the cowboy hat) none of the crew offer anything other than potential alien fodder. Such a missed opportunity.
From there the movie doesn’t completely settle for a traditional final act. There is one story thread that runs throughout the crew culling that feeds Scott’s hunger for mythology and origin. It’s a great angle that introduces the story’s true antagonist. It also gives Fassbender the room to shrewdly expand his characters. Waterston is good but Fassbender steals the show. It’s a tricky duel performance that brings subtle, unique nuances to both David and the updated model Walter.
Other story angles offer promise but are completely dropped. Take the ship full of husbands and wives and the 1,000 human embryos in cold storage. A lot of fun ideas there begging to be explored. And then there are these out-of-the-blue mentions of Oram’s faith. Again they tease an interesting deeper story but there isn’t much to take away from what little we get. “I saw the devil once as a child.” – the most random of Oram’s quotes that we never get back to.
“Covenant” maneuvers through its ups and downs to land an ending that leaves me genuinely excited for the next chapter. And despite missing some opportunities there is still plenty that Scott and company get right. Perhaps “Prometheus” was too big of a departure for some die-hard fans. “Covenant” tries to lure them back with good action and effects while still giving time to Scott’s philosophical ruminations and mythology building. A lot of that works. It’s the in-between stuff that misses the mark.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS