It’s been nearly 40 years since a little red alien burst out of John Hurt’s chest (talk about name, scene synergy) in “Alien,” shocking audiences and critics with an audacious and terrifying sequence that still holds up today.
“Alien: Covenant” (directed by Ridley Scott) is the sixth movie in the Alien series. It’s a sequel to “Prometheus,” which is the fifth movie overall, but the first movie in a series of prequels to the original Alien series which began in 1979.
The first two movies (“Alien” and “Aliens”) are respectively, a horror masterpiece and an action classic (the second directed by James Cameron). The rest of the movies are, to put kindly, a mixed bag, mostly earning harsh critical reviews and fan derision for a variety of ailments such as plot confusion, obtuse characterizations, unwelcome studio interference and, in the case of “Prometheus,” not enough sightings of the eponymous alien.
“Covenant” does its best to amend these issues. It’s almost as if Ridley Scott focus grouped or Gallup polled this movie into existence, grabbing all the best elements of the classics and stitching them together into an “Alien” movie highlight reel. He starts by jettisoning the heavy-handed existential meanderings of “Prometheus” (farewell, script writer Damon Lindelof of “Lost” fame) and replaces them with all the good bits from the first two classics.
For the cerebral set, there are still some Westworldian philosophical musings on artificial intelligence, specifically man’s relationship to his creations. Lit nerds will also enjoy the dashes of Milton and Shelley sprinkled about. Eye candy addicts will love Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography coupled with the signature production design (Chris Seagers) inspired by H.R. Giger.
It all works well.
Here is a sequel that upon viewing actually makes the preceding movie in the series look a lot better. More recently, this happened when another sci-fi movie series from a galaxy far, far away “awakened” and helped erase the offending acrid taste of some its preceding installments. The first Alien movie’s tagline was “In space, no one can hear you scream;” this one should have been “In movie six, everyone can see you redeem.”
The alien violence is ramped up. Sure, if you’ve seen one alien bloodily shred its way out of someone’s chest cavity, you’ve probably seen them all. But there seems to be a sharper edge to the violent proceedings in “Covenant.” Maybe it’s the advances in movie technology that have increased the intensity.
Also, the action is quick hitting and effective, if not derivative. There are a handful of scenes that borrow heavily from the previous movies but still to good effect. It’s not easy filmmaking to be able to create worry and concern for the characters when we all know essentially what’s going to happen.
A ship holding a couple thousand colonists is headed to a habitable planet many light years away. A space anomaly causing danger to the ship awakens the crew early from hypersleep. They fix their technical issues but, before they resume their long sleep and journey, they discover a planet close by that seems to have the same life-sustaining attributes as their original destination, except they don’t have to travel seven more years to get there.
So they send a landing party to explore its viability as a new home (the first domino to topple in a long succession of dumb decision-making, but forgivable considering the genre). This planet just happens to house a certain species of creature that makes this all possible, as well as links us up to the previous movie allowing for alien hijinks to ensue.
Of course, you can’t really complain about boneheaded moves and massive coincidences coming from a sci-fi horror movie. You wouldn’t go to a “Fast and the Furious” movie and bemoan the explosive car chase scenes or watch “Game of Thrones” and be shocked by gratuitous nudity.
Katherine Waterston and Michael Fassbender (both recently from “Steve Jobs”) lead an excellent, diverse ensemble cast. Waterson competently plays the archetypally vigorous Ridley Scott female lead, while Fassbender doubles down (in more ways than one) on his excellent role as a sentient android. Fassbender was clearly the best thing about “Prometheus,” and he again has the chewiest role in “Covenant.” There is one scene in the second act which would earn him the Kiss of the Year award for 2017 if there were such a thing.
Along with making “Covenant” more accessible to the mainstream, Scott also does his best to clarify some of the perplexing plot points of “Prometheus” for the benefit of fans who know that there is a such a thing as Alien Day and that it’s on April 26. These Alien-philes who recognize terms such as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, Engineers and Xenomorphs will love this film and the universe it lives in.
Everyone else, you know what you’re getting into.