Alien: Covenant *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper and Jack Paglen and Michael Green based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (David / Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), Demián Bichir (Lope), Carmen Ejogo (Karine), Jussie Smollett (Ricks), Callie Hernandez (Upworth), Amy Seimetz (Faris), Nathaniel Dean (Hallett), James Franco (Branson), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw).
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) remains the best film in the franchise – a pretty much perfect horror film that set an impossibly high standard for anything to compete with. When James Cameron made Aliens (1986) – he was smart to make more an action movie than a horror film out of it – it allowed him more room to make his film different than Scott’s. When Scott returned to the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus, he made a horror film to be sure – but it was one filled with ideas – some better than others – about mankind’s creation. I liked that film more than most – I dug the fact that in a film of that size, Scott was daring to try to do something other than repeat himself – address some bigger ideas. Yes, the characters do some incredibly, incredibly stupid thing – characters in this series have always been doing stupid things, but Prometheus pushed that to its breaking point – but I did like Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw as a successor for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and loved Michael Fassbender as the curious robot David. And on a technical level, the film was a big, bold, beautiful monster – sure, the “Engineers looked a little funny – but so much else was great, and the alien abortion sequence is one of the best in the franchise. In short, I’ll take some big ideas – even if they’re big, dumb ideas – along with the special effects over a film that doesn’t have any ideas at all.
It took five years to get a sequel to Prometheus – and I think Alien Covenant is an even better film than its predecessor was. There are still ideas here – but Scott tones them down a bit, plays up some of the horrific set pieces, and turns Fassbender’ s David (the only real returning character from the previous film) into the series’ best, non-Alien villain – a Frankenstein’s monster who becomes Dr. Frankenstein himself. Yes, once again, the characters do some almost inconceivably dumb things (keeping your fucking helmets on people! And do not look into the writhing, squishy egg David asks you to) – and the film introduces an interesting idea about faith, and then complete abandons it – but these are flaws the movie can deal with, because so much else works so well.
The film is about another giant spaceship – the Covenant – which has 2,000 colonists aboard, heading to a far off planet that they will eventually call their own. The only one not in hyper sleep is Walter (Michael Fassbender) – a slightly newer model than David (who we see in the films first scene, talking to his creator – so we know he’ll come back). Things go wrong, of course, the crew is woken up – the Captain is killed, etc. Drawn to a nearby planet by a rogue signal (a John Denver song) they put on hold the rest of their journey (another seven years of hyper sleep await them) – and decide to explore. It, of course, is not a good idea. The planet seems deserted – but of course it isn’t. David is there – and he’s got some friends.
Undeniably the best new character in the film is Daniels (Katherine Waterson – who in the span of just a few years has become one of my favorite actresses, following Inherent Vice and Queen of Earth). She was married to the Captain who died (many of the crew are married couples – which makes sense given they aren’t on a single mission, but are out to colonize a new planet) – so she’s already dealing with her grief when they land on the planet – and things start to go wrong. Most of the other crew members are there as alien fodder – you know the drill – although I would have liked to see them do more with Billy Crudup as the second in command who becomes Captain – and says that as a man of faith, they didn’t trust him to lead the mission. Also, Danny McBride acquits himself nicely in a more dramatic role, Upstream Color’s brilliant Amy Seimetz probably made some money as his wife (and she’s pretty good) an Carmen Ejogo is mainly wasted as Crudup’s wife. The star of the movie is Fassbender however, doing a dual role as David, who barely tries to cover his ulterior motives, and Walter – who is newer model, but also less evolved (he says the robots of David’s time creeped people out because they were too real). Fassbender, playing the embodiment of evil for the second time this year (following his role as Satan in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song) is having a blast with his dual role – especially when David and Walter interact with each other, and David teaches Walter how to improve his fingering.
The film doesn’t rise to the level of perfection of the first two films in the series. Like everything that has come after that point, Alien Covenant is an imperfect monster. But this one is scary, and fun – and has a hell of an ending, even if you see it coming from a mile off. In short, it’s about as good as a movie like this, in 2017, can be expected to be.