“Alien: Covenant” is a cheap, obvious horror prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien.” It fits into his canon of violent science fiction entries, but this film lessens the legacy of the franchise. Of course, let’s face it, the fleecing of the mythology occurred in 2004 with the release of something called “AVP: Alien vs. Predator.” “Alien” was never meant to be Shakespeare.
Following up on Scott’s ambitious 2012 film “Prometheus,” “Covenant” follows a group of colonists, also referred to a terra-formers (or is it “formars?”), on a deep space mission to inhabit a planet. We’re dumped into their world with little explanation, but given our familiarity with the franchise, we are expected to immediately understand how things work. Thousands of colonists rest in state of suspended animation as the ship silently and ominously drifts to its ultimate destination.
The day-to-day maintenance is performed both by the ship’s computer, or Mother (voiced here by Lorelei King) from previous films, and a human-like android named Walter (Michael Fassbender in a dual role). The masterstroke of “Prometheus,” if there was one, was the creation of David (also played by Fassbender), an intuitive and very curious construct of Weyland Industries. In an extended prologue, we get the Frankenstein introduction to this character as Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) debates ethics with his creation. Thankfully, these dalliances into weightier questions give way to the familiar horror chaos that is “Covenant’s” selling point.
When something happens to the ship, the main crew are pulled out of deep sleep to effectuate repairs. This leads them to divert from their established course, which naturally is not a good idea.
The crew is played by an impressive and eclectic grouping of actors. While Billy Crudup takes center stage in the captain’s position, and Danny McBride gets to share his knowledge of John Denver’s musical catalogue, the star of the show is clearly Katherine Waterston. By slipping into a Ripley type role, we get the inevitable retread of certain beats of the first film with understandably less effective results. Still, Fassbender manages to be creepy and heroic by playing two androids with slightly different programming.
“Covenant” works best as a straight up horror film set in the vacuum of space and on a distant and dangerous planet. But Scott and his team want it to be a cut above. This means that we get large passages of exposition where characters ruminate on the virtues and interpretations of Shelley and Byron and the meaning of all things. It’s very uneven, especially when the script attempts to balance the heady, intellectual stuff along side schlock. And I mean true schlock, just watch the trailer for that teased shower scene.
The killings come in fast and furious bursts and some new creatures are introduced that are effective. But it all adds up to very little. Clearly, Scott wants to make a better and important film, but he is forced to also make a cheesy, entertaining one at the same time. Such a thing is difficult to pull off.
Viewers who are excitedly awaiting the long-gestating sequel to “Blade Runner” should note that even that film, which has seen various cuts and revisions since its theatrical release, was considered a box office failure initially (having opened the week after “ET”). Getting the right mix of story, characters, meaning, and thrills and chills is hard, elusive, and a thing of magic. Unfortunately, there is little magic in “Alien: Covenant.”