If you enjoyed Michael Fassbender’s David, the “synthetic” (i.e., android) who had a supporting role in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the 2012 prequel to Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien, then you’ll be happy to hear that David returns in Scott’s latest foray into the franchise—and he’s joined by Walter, a later-model synthetic, also played by Fassbender. They’re the best things in the film.
The actual alien component, however, once again takes a back seat in Alien: Covenant. No, not like in Prometheus, where the classic “xenomorphs,” those exoskeletal beasties based on the late Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s nightmarish designs, never once appeared. Anyone who’s seen the trailers for this movie is aware that not only does one appear, but so too do the “facehuggers,” the scurrying little buggers that leap out of toddler-sized eggs to implant the xenomorph embryos inside the throats of unsuspecting human hosts. In other words, the chest-bursting body horrors are back (and then some)—only it’s surprising how perfunctory this film’s xenomorph feels once it begins stalking what’s left of our interstellar crew.
The 15 members of that crew—along with 2,000 sleeping colonists and hundreds of frozen human embryos—have embarked on a multi-year trip through space inside a vessel dubbed the Covenant, headed for a relatively Earth-like planet they’ve named Origae-6. Walter is tasked with maintaining the ship’s operations while the humans slumber. But a “neutrino burst” (how very Star Trek) sends a shock wave that rocks the Covenant, causing a potentially catastrophic event that forces Walter to wake the crew seven years ahead of schedule. At the end of the chaos, there are casualties: 47 colonists, 16 embryos—and one captain, Branson (James Franco, whose character is burned to a crisp inside his cryopod before he’s spoken a single line of dialogue).
One thing that differentiates this film’s crew from the others who’ve appeared in the Alien saga is that our latest group of heroes-cum-victims is composed of couples. And it’s our Ripley surrogate Daniels (Katherine Waterston, sporting a Ripley-like bob) who has lost her husband during the accident. The Covenant’s second-in-command, Oram (Billy Crudup), the only religious member of the crew, uncomfortably steps into the captain’s shoes, fearful that he won’t command respect. This fear is put to the test when the ship’s pilot, Tennessee (comic dynamo Danny McBride, a real standout playing against type), intercepts a nearby audio transmission of a female voice, unmistakably singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Needless to say, this is an odd thing to hear in deep space, and further investigation locates the source: a seemingly life-sustaining planet that was completely missed during their surveys. It’s much more appealing than Origae-6, which is still seven years off and would require them to re-enter their potentially crematory cryopods.
A quick show of hands among the crew—including Tennessee’s wife Faris (Amy Seimetz), weapons specialist Lope (Demián Bichir), his partner Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), Oram’s wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo), Upworth (Callie Hernandez), her husband Ricks (Jussie Smollett) and grunt Ledward (Benjamin Rigby)—results in a new course being set. The lone dissenter is Daniels. “It’s too good to be true,” she tells Oram, who’s quick to overrule her.
Things swiftly go south with help from a few insanely stupid decisions (the landing party exploring this mysterious Eden without wearing any protective suits is nevertheless another nice nod to ’60s-era Star Trek). Hallett and Ledward unknowingly become infested by seemingly intelligent, unseen spores, and before any chests can burst, we’ll see a couple of other areas on these men’s bodies ripped asunder by nasty little critters as a familiar cycle begins anew, underlined by Jed Kurzel’s musical score, which recycles Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien and Marc Streitenfeld’s Prometheus cues.
But then a seeming savior arrives, and it’s here, in the film’s second act, that the Alien model makes a delightful diversion. The hooded figure who’s intermittently saved the anxious crew and offered them shelter is none other than David, a survivor of the starship Prometheus, which went missing 10 years before. This bit of exposition is provided to us by the plain-spoken, American-accented Walter, who’s a bit stunned by his synthetic predecessor; David’s English accent, regal manner and love of Wagner operas seem downright alien to him. And lest you think David’s appearance constitute a spoiler, be aware that Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper introduce the character during the film’s prologue, set shortly after David’s “birth,” in a scene that finds him philosophically questioning his “father,” Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), about nothing less than the nature of his existence and his place in a post-human universe.
In short, this film ends up sharing as much in common with Scott’s 1982 science-fiction masterpiece Blade Runner as it does with Alien, a surprising development that makes the third act’s rote familiarity and sadly predictable climax go down easier.
Alien: Covenant ***
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Amy Seimetz, Demián Bichir, Nathaniel Dean, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Benjamin Rigby, James Franco, Noomi Rapace and Guy Pearce. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper, based on a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green and characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.