Movie Review: “Alien: Covenant”

Katherine Waterson, Michael Fassbender, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo
Ridley Scott

Fans of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” can rest easy, because the director’s latest addition to the franchise contains much of the same bite of his classic 1979 film. “Alien: Covenant” is a vicious and thoughtful, albeit unwieldy and sometimes frustrating, piece of science fiction that provides Scott with an epic canvas on which to paint his terrifying vision, all while continuing the ideas that were first introduced in “Prometheus” and the rest of the series.

Set 11 years after the events of “Prometheus” and 17 years before the original “Alien,” the story follows the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship with thousands aboard waiting to wake up to their new home. On the way to the ship’s destination, first mate turned captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) receives a transmission from an unknown planet. Despite protests from crew member Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterson), Oram decides to take a trip to the nearby planet to see if it’s habitable. Unfortunately, it just so happens to be home to some deadly Xenomorphs ready to rip through Oram’s crew, which consists of Covenant pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), his wife Maggie (Amy Seimetz), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir), Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo) and dutiful android Walter (Michael Fassbender). Along the way, Walter meets a familiar face when he crosses paths with David (Fassbender), the curious android with a god-sized ego from “Prometheus.”

Co-writers John Logan and Dante Harper’s screenplay answers more questions about the expanded universe than its predecessor, for better or worse. Intially, the movie provides answers to questions that aren’t of much interest, most notably regarding the Xenomorphs. “Alien: Covenant” doesn’t demystify the horrifying creatures, but what it does tell us about them can sometimes comes across as redundant in the bigger picture.

The questions regarding artificial intelligence and our relationship to our creations and creators is more compelling than the question of how the facehuggers were created. David is clearly of great interest to Scott. There are some beautiful, almost dreamlike scenes between him and Walter, two androids who are one and the same but couldn’t function more differently. When David sees Walter following orders blindly, he shows more empathy for his brother than a lot of humans have for one another in the “Alien” universe. Fassbender gives two entirely present and distinct performances as the androids. Not for a second does “Alien: Covenant” have Fassbender acting alongside himself; it’s always David and Walter viewing everything differently from the same set of eyes.

The actor’s performance is at times beautiful and frightening, which is also an apt description for Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s work. In “Prometheus,” a character remarked that a pile of bodies was almost like a painting, and that’s how the two artists frequently visualize ghastly sights. David as a hidden figure in a cloak walking among a sea of bodies is unforgettable and grand, as is a lot of “Alien: Covenant.” There’s not one set or environment in this film that’s forgettable or lacking a sense of dread and unease. Scott knows how to unnerve an audience with atmosphere and also by making “Covenant’s” characters more human than they were in “Prometheus.”

A few side characters don’t leave much of an impression in “Alien: Covenant,” so when they die, their death scenes lack any real punch, but that’s not true for the core ensemble. There’s a particularly intense scene involving a backburster, Maggie and Karine where the two actresses give remarkable performances filled with tangible fear and emotion. When everything begins to go wrong, their reactions are almost as heart-wrenching as they are terrifying. The raw fear they convey is genuine, which is what makes one of the film’s most horrific scenes unsettling rather than the blood or disgust.

The logic of “Alien: Covenant” may raise questions, but the emotional logic is rock solid. What these characters feel – mostly pain and terror – helps return the series back to its roots while still taking it in a different direction. Scott’s film benefits greatly from a striking new lead, as well. Daniels is a character who questions authority and takes charge without hesitation but still has plenty of fear and shows compassion. The ship’s crew isn’t overshadowed by the grand ideas at play – which left me wanting another viewing to take it all in – and the gruesome Xenomorph action. “Alien: Covenant” sometimes loses momentum when it tries to answer underwhelming questions, but it’s also one of the most ambitious, chilling and thought-provoking big summer movies in recent memory.