Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) set a high-water mark for its fusion of horror and science fiction. After that, both Scott and the eventual franchise went their separate ways. Scott’s sense of style reached new heights in Blade Runner (1982) and James Cameron made Aliens (1986) distinctive by transforming it into an action extravaganza.
When Scott returned to the series, he appeared determined to make Prometheus (2012) in his own image, only tangentially related to what the sequels had wrought. Watching it again in that light, it’s a perfectly fine action exercise that’s more attuned to his 2010 Robin Hood than anything else, a sturdy and churning machine that wants to ask the big questions in life but doesn’t know how to formulate them properly.
As sequels to prequels go, Alien: Covenant is more like Hannibal (2001) than anything else, a movie that is not intended to build suspense or develop terror. Rather, at its core — the often-nonsensical action sequences — it’s a juicy, handsomely-mounted, expertly-made B-movie, which then allows for belabored philosophical examination of the ideas behind horror tropes to be laid on top.
Though Scott repeats certain motifs that have been present in his other films, and though the screenplay — credited to John Logan and Dante Harper, based on a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green — pays homage to other films in the Alien series, Alien: Covenant veers into its own territory by pairing up all the crew members into relationships. The crew’s mission is to transport hundreds of deep-sleeping people to a planet that has been determined to be suitable for a new human colony. Evidently all the sleeping future colonialists have been paired up, so why not the relatively few crew members, too?
The answer to that question is answered in the rash and usually foolish decisions made by those crew members when their spouses are placed in danger. They have no qualms or second thoughts about placing their own personal feelings above anyone else, which makes them spectacularly unqualified for a mission of this sort. As with Prometheus, the crew members are also spectacularly unqualified as explorers, prone to making stupid decisions as though they have never received any survival training at all back on Earth.
Still, I very much enjoyed the ride because I made a split-second choice to go with the idiocies on display. Very bad decisions make it much easier to watch bodies being torn apart because those bodies are not attached to believable human personalities; it’s more like a video game aesthetic in which style and movement is paramount.
When it comes down to it, Scott is extremely talented at composing action sequences. They may not make much sense and they may not always be easy to track, but they flow into the narrative stream in inevitable fashion, an essential element that doesn’t ever slow things down.
What slows things down are the philosophical musings about man and the nature of his survival and the ramifications of things he has made. Mostly, this is left up to Michael Fassbender to argue about with himself as he embodies two different artificial creatures, one that is more independent than the other.
Katherine Waterston is playing a strong character who should be the lead of the movie, but very often she must give ground to Billy Crudup, a conflicted soul who is thrust into the captaincy and proves why he wasn’t selected as leader in the first place. It’s a good performance, though, matched by Danny McBride, who is surprisingly competent in a serious role. Other very good actors, such as Demian Bichir and Amy Seimetz, enjoy only limited screen time, which is a disappointment, though Callie Hernandez makes a positive impression in one of the supporting roles.
Alien: Covenant could lead to one or two more prequels, but it’s fine for what it is. As is often the case, keeping expectations in check is advised.
The film is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.