It goes without saying that Prometheus is not a perfect movie. Underwritten, overthought, and lacking in a certain human element, it had plenty of flaws to go around. But that effort also contained a spark of ambition and a fearlessness that comes with a franchise boldly charting its own enigmatic path. Unafraid to depart from what we’d seen before, Ridley Scott really did reach for the stars, where he was aided by intriguing character creations in Noomi Rapace’s Shaw and Michael Fassbender’s David. Well, at least Alien: Covenant keeps David.
Five years later and with a sheepish grin on its face, Scott’s Alien: Covenant arrives in the mea culpa position, determined to apologize for its predecessor’s sins as well as its virtues. For here is a pretty-looking and aesthetically dazzling picture that dryly remakes the original 1979 classic with all the perfunctory effort of a master being commissioned to trace the lines of a previous work.
You missed infectious eggs with a probing disposition? Here are spores that are much more to the point. Nostalgic for the days of chest-bursters? This comes with spine-splitters and mouth-monsters! Desperate to see yet another scene involving a xenomorph and an airlock? Well, let’s just say this one is almost as nice… except it really isn’t.
Alien: Covenant is the lazy franchise redo one imagines the studio thinks audiences craved the last time around, but I doubt anyone wanted something this boring.
Set about a decade after the events of Prometheus, Covenant picks up when the crew of the titular spacecraft are awakened early from cryo-sleep. Not supposed to rise until they reach their destination in another seven-plus years, a transmission of a strange woman singing John Denver tunes has scrambled their machines. For the record, this colonization mission holds 2,000 souls aboard (the passengers are all still asleep) with the aim of being the first intergalactic Pilgrims to find a planetary Plymouth Rock. Somehow though, you just know things are going to play out a lot closer to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
The only characters of consequence on the ship are the vaguely Ripley-esque Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the self-doubting Capt. Oram (Billy Crudup), and their cyborg Walter (Michael Fassbender). The latter is especially fun because he gets to pull double duty as the very utilitarian Walt and the lovably sinister David. As the only real major recurring element from Prometheus, David returns as a castaway on a barren and empty world from which the singing transmission hails. Oram takes the initiative to investigate said signal and see if this much closer planet is habitable for the colony against Daniels’ practical objections.
Any guess how that works out for the space colonists? Within 15 minutes of being on this planet, the body horror starts, the blood lets, and eventually there is more than one xenomorph running around. But again, it has David, so that’s something fun.
Alien: Covenant is a curious paradox of a film. On the one hand, it features breathtaking cinematography and a canny eye for composition by Scott and director of photography Dariusz Wolski; on the other, this distant paradise is haunted by the tangible presence of disinterest from its creators, as if an artist was simply amusing himself by playing with the colors in the margins. Because as a film, the narrative B-movie beats and excessive amounts of gore would not be out of place in one of the dreaded Alien vs. Predator movies from the early 2000s.
Of course, there are some improvements in Covenant over its predecessor. For starters, the screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper is a lot less Damon Lindelof-y, and as such the dialogue usually has a naturalism and flow to it that is welcome. Also Logan’s penchant for injecting a poet’s heart into his characters only deepens the amusing wrinkles of the Peter O’Toole-quoting robot from last time. But functionally the story still suffers from a cast of underdeveloped red shirts who frequently forego motivation or logic in order to ensure their grotesque demises.
In the background, Danny McBride provides a bit of fun as the ship’s pilot, but he is hardly better utilized than Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, and Callie Hernandez, who perform the conventions one exactly expects from an Alien retread. And that is what Covenant is. Technically, it does follow up on the threads dangling at the end of Prometheus about a Christian scientist going to meet our secular alien makers, but the answers are thin and glossed over, because the biggest idea Covenant appears ready to tackle is what happens when a computer-generated xenomorph jumps a couple during shower time.
Other than a few appropriately bizarre scenes of Fassbender on Fassbender action when Walter and David meet, Scott’s occasionally playful interests are kept safely locked away, even with all the sexual organ-shaped beasties running around and wreaking havoc. However, he rather defiantly gets the chance to ignore the rules for xenomorphs that James Cameron established in Aliens, electing to go back to his own much more twisted implications from 1979.
Unfortunately, that sole risk barely works because Covenant is no Alien or Aliens. It’s not even Prometheus. Instead of looking to the franchise’s future, it is hopelessly stuck in its past, reworking old tensions with a few new jumps and blood splatters that quizzically stay bloodless. It might end with a set-up for another sequel, but that threat is merely the closest it comes to a genuine scare.
Alien: Covenant opens in theaters on Friday, May 19.