There’s life in the old bugger yet. And, as always, plenty of death. After the Alien series looked as though it had hit the rocks creatively (not for the first time) with the last entry, Prometheus, five years ago, savvy old master Ridley Scott has resuscitated it, and then some, with Alien: Covenant, the most satisfying entry in the six-films-and-counting franchise since the first two.
Gripping through its full two hours and spiked with some real surprises, this beautifully made sci-fi thriller will immeasurably boost fan interest in the run of prequels which Scott has recently said will consist of at least two more films until the action catches up to the 1979 original. This Fox release is a lock for major early summer box-office worldwide.
Is there a director who has ever been artistically committed to a franchise as long as Scott has to the Alien series? None comes to mind (Steven Spielberg made his first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in 1981, two years after Alien was released). It’s a matter of record that Scott will turn 80 later this year, and Clint Eastwood will be 87 when he starts his new film; from the evidence on the screen, 80 may well be the new 50 where some top helmers are concerned, especially those who, like Scott and Eastwood, make a new film almost every year.
It also helped to recruit a couple of very good writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, to dig the series out of its hole. No matter that these aliens have been around far longer than most of the viewers who will see this film opening weekend have been alive; this entry feels vital, freshly thought out and keen to keep us on our toes right up to the concluding scene, which leaves the audience with such a great reveal that it makes you want to see the next installment tomorrow.
The elegantly spare opening, in which a “synthetic,” Walter (Michael Fassbender), engages his “father” (an uncredited Guy Pearce) in a pointedly philosophical conversation, simply and effectively frames the thrust of the film’s central interest in human life’s origins and its prospects for survival. Casual viewers may assume that Walter is the same character Fassbender played in Prometheus. But, no, Walter, who sports an American, not British, accent, is an updated version of that all-purpose butler, factotum and technical wizard — a far friendlier iteration of the know-it-all computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And as in 2001, Alien: Covenant involves a long outer space voyage during which the 2,000 human passengers, along with 1,140 embryos, will linger in a deep-freeze sleep for several years while the humanoid plays watchdog. The giant ship, called Covenant, is headed for a very distant planet, Origae-6, which is considered a promising new home for humanity to settle. For this reason, not only the slumbering immigrants, but the crew, too, are composed of prospective parents meant to propagate and establish a new homeland for homo sapiens.
This couples-only orientation lends a fresh feel to this group of space travelers, and definitely cranks up the emotional distress quotient as partners start splitting open and giving birth to the wrong kind of offspring. When a space storm hits and damages the ship’s giant wind sails, the first to perish is the ship’s captain (James Franco, seen ever-so-briefly), which devastates his mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston), assigned to oversee terraforming on humankind’s new planet.
This accident promotes second-in-command Christopher (Billy Crudup) to run the show, but he’s portrayed from the outset as uncertain and lacking in confidence; more than that, he’s a “person of faith,” which puts him at great philosophical odds with most of the others. Unfortunately, once this element is introduced, the writers don’t do much with it, so it feels like a missed opportunity to engage in some pithy religion vs. science debate. Worse, the character’s overriding weakness as a man won’t go over too well with faith-based audiences.
Not only that, but when the crew discovers a nearby “hidden planet” that seems potentially compatible to human life, it’s Christopher who makes the fateful decision to land there rather than to continue with their seven-year-long voyage. Farris (Amy Seimetz), the flier wife of the Covenant’s main pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), goes down for a peek and it looks pretty darn good, just like New Zealand, in fact, where half the world wants to move to right now.
But as inviting as are the beautiful landscapes, mountains and lakes, there’s trouble lurking in the magnificent flora and fauna and, given the particulars of this bloody franchise, it doesn’t take long for humans to fall ill and start bursting with nasty and ferocious critters they never imagined could spring from their innards. This is not the sort of propagation the earthlings had in mind when they set off.
In a brilliant stroke, the voyagers also encounter David, Walter’s double, the very same “synthetic” who co-starred in Prometheus. Distinguishable from his supposedly new and improved relative by virtue of his long hair and British accent, this lone survivor of the previous voyage, who lives among the ruins of a great civilization wiped out by the aliens, gives Fassbender the delicious opportunity of a double performance. The actor makes the most of it, subtly delineating two nearly identical characters as they enact a contest for dominance, the details of which touch in clear but unpretentious ways on the notion of playing God. What goes down between the two remains uncertain right up to the fabulously diabolical twist ending.
Scott and the writers have achieved an outstanding balance in Alien: Covenant among numerous different elements: Intelligent speculation and textbook sci-fi presumptions, startlingly inventive action and audience-pleasing old standbys, philosophical considerations and inescapable genre conventions, intense visual splendor and gore at its most grisly. The drama flows gorgeously and, unlike in many other franchises in which entries keep getting longer every time out, this one is served up without an ounce of fat. It provides all the tension and action the mainstream audience could want, along with a good deal more.
Stylistically, the film is a thing of cool beauty, with superb effects and a lovely score. Creatively, it’s a major reset on a level with the series’ best.
Production companies: Scott Free Productions, Brandywine Productions
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Benjamin Rigby, James Franco
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: John Logan, Dante Harper, story by Jack Paglen, Michael Green, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Producers: David Gerber, Walter Hill, Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Chris Seagers
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Music: Jed Kurzel
Visual effects supervisor: Charley Henley
Special effects supervisor: Neil Corbould
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Rated R, 122 minutes