When the original "Alien" was released - almost 40 years ago! - it cleared the sci-fi decks and cut through the space opera fare that had begun to proliferate in the late 70s as genre filmmakers raced to clone the magic of "Star Wars." Instead of an optimistically bright vision of the future, director Ridley Scott presented a grungy slice of 22nd century life with his dark sci-fi horror tale.
The film that started the franchise is set on an interstellar long-haul cargo ship whose crew has no idea that they're in for anything more than a routine trek home to earth. "Alien" is primarily a creepy, claustrophobic chase through this ship as the crew are picked off one by one by the uber-aggressive alien they've unwittingly brought onboard. That this alien encounter was in fact the ship's primary mission, engineered by the shadowy Weyland-Yutani corporation back on earth, was a third act reveal that seemed at the time secondary to the visceral horror of the film's now-famous "chestbursting" scene, and the deadly efficiency of the titular invader.
"Alien: Covenant," a prequel to the original film, opens with a prologue set in a wide, antiseptically white chamber that's the aesthetic antithesis of the dark, oppressive settings of its progenitor. Viewers may recall eccentric billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, "Genius") and his android creation David (Michael Fassbender, "X-Men: Apocalypse") from 2012's "Prometheus" (also an "Alien" prequel). Here their philosophical conversation foregrounds a theme that has run through much of the "Alien" series: parents and offspring, creators and creations, and the origins of life.
Flash forward to another interstellar craft, the Covenant; it's on a colonizing mission, headed for a remote planet with most onboard in hypersleep for the long voyage. Android Walter (Mr. Fassbender, in a dual role) peacefully tends to the ship's functions, and all is well until a routine recharging process goes awry. Roused from sleep, the crew deals with the emergency and picks up a mysterious transmission seeming to emanate from a nearby earthlike planet. Neophyte captain Oram (Billy Crudup, "20th Century Women") wants to check it out as a possible colony site.
Others argue for staying their course, primarily Branson (Katherine Waterston, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them") who fears that the new planet, with its welcoming geography and habitable atmosphere, is too good to be true. But soon an exploratory landing party is planetside, trudging through swampy undergrowth and checking out the local flora and fauna without the benefit of protective gear. It's the first of a batch of foolish character decisions that pushes "Covenant's" plot forward, and inevitably the crew member who settles down for a smoke break next to a mysterious plant winds up breathing in a few unfriendly spores.
Meanwhile others from the crew have tracked the mystery signal to a crashed ship, and it's here that viewers unfamiliar with the "Alien" franchise, and recent entry "Prometheus" in particular, may start to feel lost. But loyal fans will piece together the ship's origins, and will know what everybody's in for as alien creatures suddenly burst from spore-infected crew members and go on the attack. Those fans may also question the crew's quick decision to blindly trust the mysterious man who shows up offering rescue, even though he looks an awful lot like their ship's android, Walter...
"Covenant" covers a lot of ground, presenting the immediate story of the alien attack against the unfolding and updating of franchise mythology, and it is a lot to take in. But it is this mythology that sets this series apart. Absent the intriguing images of the giant pilot in the crashed ship that tugged at the imagination of viewers 40 years ago, "Alien" might have been a standalone scarefest, remembered for its strong female lead and aforementioned chest-eruption, but without staying power. With "Prometheus" and now "Covenant", it feels like we're finally getting to the story that "Alien" really set out to tell.
"Covenant" is certain to be remembered for a powerhouse performance by Mr. Fassbender - well, two performances, actually: one as Walter, earnest and efficient, and the other as the poised, perfidious David. The film sets them apart by appearance and accent, but even without that Mr. Fassbender ably differentiates the two, imbuing David with an arch humor to mask his ingrained contempt for the humans he was built to serve. Walter, meanwhile, explains that he was developed without the capacity to feel and learn because too many human qualities in an android made people nervous.
"Covenant" doesn't explicitly address the concept of the uncanny valley but it's certainly exploring it with the Walter/David dichotomy. Watching Mr. Fassbender share the screen with himself is a treat, and the scenes where David and Walter discuss their maker, immortality, and the creative impulse, culminating in a quotation from Shelley's "Ozymandias", really highlight the nuances of the actor's work here.
But "Covenant" isn't all pondering and philosophy, not by a long shot. There's plenty of action, and because this is an "Alien" film after all, you know that someone's going to end up in some cramped space, locked in a life-or-death struggle with yes, an alien. Ms. Waterston holds her own as Branson and proactively fends off the inevitable comparisons to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the original films. She's more of a thinker, and the loss of her husband early in the film gives Branson a mournful edge that the actress wields effectively. But when it's time to kick ass she's front and center, pairing up with Danny McBride's Tennessee against an alien in a shipboard battle that's familiar enough to comfortably anchor this chapter in franchise tradition, and just fresh enough to keep audiences guessing.
Bottom line: "Covenant" is a must-see for "Alien" aficionados, and casual viewers can keep up with some prompting but may find the myth-heavy passages confounding. There are gorgeous visuals to check out, particularly an elegant early sequence that shows the Covenant unfurling a shimmering set of golden sails to aid in its recharging process, and alien architecture that provides continuity while expanding upon HR Giger's iconic original vision. And everyone can take away some important lessons from "Covenant", starting with this one: when a mysterious android shows you a creepy alien plant and says "It's perfectly safe, I assure you," you might want to think twice before taking a closer look.
|Movie title||Alien: Covenant|
|Summary||Casual viewers may be confounded, but "Alien" aficionados will cheer "Covenant's" mix of franchise mythology and ass-kicking action.|