Directed by Ridley Scott
Opens May 19
For all of its grave, absurd self-seriousness and delusions of profundity, Prometheus (2012) was a welcome return to familiar territory for its director, and it supplied pleasures that had little to do with recalling the classic Alien (1979), still Ridley Scott’s best movie. These included a free-time-killing Michael Fassbender as a “synthetic” (android), happily bicycling around the title starship tossing basketballs into hoops and listening to the great orchestral works. There was also the sheer beauty of the verdant, watery moon on which the crew lands, shot in New Zealand and elsewhere and surely cooked in post for maximal surreal lushness, and not least an appalling self-surgery performed by a sinisterly pregnant Noomi Rapace. Prometheus hinted that Scott’s Alien prequels might be worthwhile after all (the divisive but never dull presence of Damon Lindelof on the writing team may have helped), but the thrill of this new take on Alien that Prometheus promised is entirely drained from Alien: Covenant, which aims for being little more than Prometheus: Again—Fassbender is back in a big way, which is welcome, but none of the scenery, plot turns, bit players or “themes” add anything new to the recipe, and the shameless sequel setup at the end offers scant hope that the sigh-inducing third installment will bother with reinvention either.
Covenant’s best scene is its first as the credits roll, with Fassbender’s David padding around a barren white room sort of like the neoclassical bedroom from the end of 2001, with a mountainous view outside a giant window wall, lobbing innocent big questions at his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, who was smothered in grotesque Nothing but Trouble-esque old man makeup in Prometheus). The dialogue is pseudo-deep, setting the tone for the rest of the screenplay (David: “So who created you?” Peter: “Ah, the question of the ages.”). Peter then begins to passive-aggressively boss David around. From there, it’s back to space, with Fassbender as another droid (now with gruffer American accent), Walter, trying to save the colony ship Covenant from a collision fire that kills the captain (seen in brief video footage, he is, for some reason, James Franco). The accident leads to the discovery of a life-supporting other planet that the now Billy Crudup-helmed crew rashly decides will be just as good for colonizing as their original destination. Turns out, though, it’s the deadly moon from Prometheus, so with dispiriting speed, the film rapidly descends into creature feature gore. This is the Alien Way, and it’s foolish to pretend that the Alien and Aliens high-water marks were much more than (artfully executed, atmospheric) slasher films. But Covenant’s rush to send Neomorphs and facehuggers slicing through the crew, which includes an appealing Jennifer Jason Leigh-recalling turn by Katherine Waterston and an underused Danny McBride as this installment’s irreverent pilot (bantering about a colleague’s “sweet tits”) after the Bill Paxton style, indicates a lack of imagination more worthy of the non-canon Alien vs. Predator (2004).
There’s some hot Fassbender on Fassbender action as David (who lives on this planet in a cavernous castle filled with albino “Engineers” corpses) gives Walter flute lessons (“I’ll do the fingering”) then later kisses him on the mouth. It seems David has developed a God complex similar to his own creator’s, and he spends his time developing better aliens by incubating them inside human bodies. His turn towards rogue genetic engineering makes Covenant resemble Island of Lost Souls/Dr. Moreau more than 2001 or even Alien. But outside of Fassbender’s clear enjoyment of his dual role interplay, the movie settles in for nothing more than a series of escalating eviscerations and slightly bigger Xenomorphs to go with the groaner cherry-picked quoting of Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias”.