Few blockbusters of recent years have been as divisive as Ridley Scott's Prometheus, an Alien prequel that demonstrated far more interest in serving up philosophical sci-fi than in generating white-knuckle terror. To be sure, there were plenty of other reasons for the mixed reaction: the film is visually stunning and thematically ambitious, but filled with poorly-drawn characters who make spectacularly dumb decisions. Still, the lack of xenomorph action seemed to the biggest sticking point for many fans of the series, which explains why the trailers for Alien: Covenant (which was initially supposed to be “Prometheus 2”) place such a heavy emphasis on the presence of the highly-evolved killing machine.
Even so, Alien: Covenant is neither the “giving the people what they want” compromise nor the soft reboot of the series it appeared to be. Yes, there is more full-blown horror here, the xenomorph is featured prominently, the gore quotient has been upped considerably and the narrative connections to Alien are stronger. However, Scott has seemingly only delivered this material in order to permit himself to make the strangest, most weirdly personal film of the series: it feels like a grand summation of the thematic and visual obsessions of his whole career.
The film is set ten years after Prometheus, and follows the crew of the large colony ship Covenant as they make their way to Origae-6 (a planet that seems capable of supporting human life and giving humanity a chance at a fresh start). Given the nature of the mission, the passengers and crew are comprised of couples. Alas, the mission is temporarily derailed when a neutrino burst hits the ship, killing dozens of people onboard and forcing the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, sporting a sturdy American accent) to awaken the crew from cryosleep.
While the ship is being repaired, the crew intercepts a mysterious signal: a human voice singing a John Denver song. They're more than seven years away from Origae-6, so where could the the signal be coming from? They trace it to a planet that seems to be even better-equipped for human colonization, so Captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup, Watchmen) decides to head down to the surface for an exploratory mission. Terraforming expert Dany Branson (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) strongly objects, insisting that they should stick to the original mission. They know nothing about this new place. Who knows what dangers could be waiting for them down there? Turns out her concerns are valid: the planet they've found is the same planet that was featured in Prometheus.
I'll remain vague on where things go from there, aside from noting that this is the point where the android David (Fassbender again, using his Peter O'Toole accent) – the most fascinating, complicated character in Prometheus – enters the picture. Fassbender more or less walked away with the previous film, and his work here is even more remarkable: he finds such different notes to play in the two androids, and the contrasts he finds in the scenes they have together are fascinating (I can think of few instances where an actor has generated such strong chemistry with himself). The blatantly sexual imagery that has always played a role in this series takes a slyly hilarious new form in one of the David/Walter scenes, as the former teaches the latter to play the flute: “I'll do the fingering,” David purrs as he places the instrument in Walter's mouth.
There are an abundance of human characters, and as in Prometheus, they're a mixed bag (with a slightly better hit-to-miss ratio this time around). Waterston is the obvious Ripley stand-in, playing the tough, resilient (but emotionally vulnerable) woman who seems to have more common sense than... well, pretty much everyone. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) is appealing in a dramatic role as a cowboy hat-sporting pilot, Billy Crudup does some really nice work as the in-over-his-head captain (he's just been promoted to the role, as the previous captain – who happened to be Waterston's husband – died when the neutrino burst hit the ship) and Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) delivers a spectacular freak-out in a minor role.
However, none of the humans are Scott's central focus... nor, for that matter, is the xenomorph. Scott's fascination with David was evident in Prometheus (there were so many loving close-ups of Fassbender's perpetually inquisitive face), but Covenant makes it clear that this new incarnation of the series belongs to the androids. Indeed, as a number of other critics have pointed out, there are moments when the film seems to feel much closer in spirit to Blade Runner than to Alien. Walter is an updated version of the David android, and has superior programming in many ways, but he lacks David's free will (a reality David notes with a trace of pity in his voice). So what does an android with free will do to pass the time while stranded on a lonely, dangerous planet? Well... suffice it to say that the film also takes a bit of inspiration from Island of Lost Souls.
As in Prometheus, Scott's thematic ambitions are practically Biblical (or at least Miltonian). The title may be an allusion to the story of Noah, a tale that has echoes both in the central premise of the story (a space ark created for those tasked with repopulating a new world) and in a flashback sequence of mass destruction which is accompanied by a dramatic reading of Shelley's “Ozymandias” (effective, though not as effective as it was when it was used during the final season of Breaking Bad). Scott has crafted a lofty tale of the conflicts between gods, men and monsters, and one of David's lines from the previous film lurks in the background of this one: “Doesn't everyone want their parents dead?” Not all of the film's ideas are explored as fully as they might have been (the film makes a point of underlining one character's religious beliefs, and then pretty much drops the matter), but it's aiming far higher than movies this large are usually permitted to.
As the for the xenomorph material... it's fine. Good, even, particularly during the feverish closing stretch. But the creature doesn't generate the terror it once did, and that's partially because Scott's attention has drifted elsewhere. (It's also partially due to the fact that the CGI doesn't look entirely convincing.) The xenomorph's status has been reduced: it is no longer the central symbol of terror, but merely a violent extension of a very different sort of existential horror. This is, in many ways, the bleakest film of the franchise... even moreso than Fincher's Alien3. However, the film's nihilistic thematic framework (occasionally reminiscent of Scott's The Counselor, penned by Cormac McCarthy) makes the dumb, doomed characters less of a problem than usual. We are not simply witnessing idiots stumbling their way to death for the sake of the plot, but being given a chilly, distant, god's-eye view of tragic inevitability (a notion emphasized by the climax, which one character quietly observes via video monitor). Now I understand why Scott seems determined to spend the rest of his career making Alien movies: he's found a way to transform this iconic franchise into a vehicle for all of the big questions he wants to ask.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2017