Ridley Scott has grown bored of the “Alien” formula. He’s told the tale of scrappy heroine trapped on a spaceship with a relentless, vicious extraterrestrial. He did it divinely. And he doesn’t want to repeat Ripley’s adventure, nor let anyone else into his sandbox to give her another. (Sorry, Neill Blomkamp!) Still, Scott knows what audiences demand from this horror-rich sci-fi franchise. So with “Alien: Covenant” he offers a compromise. Yes, there are scares, exhilaration, and a resilient heroine (Katherine Waterston) running around a spaceship, hunted by a ferocious beast from beyond the stars. But there’s also ponderous discussions of God and purpose, a new mind-bending mythos, and some deeply strange flourishes.
Named for the colony spaceship at its center, “Alien: Covenant” follows a crew responsible for safely transporting more than 2,000 cryogenically frozen people to a far-flung planet where they will build a new world. But when the ship takes damage, the crew gambles on an uncharted planet, setting down to see whether this could be their new home. Within hours of exploring this uncharted terrain, they trip across some hostile locals (who may seem familiar to “Alien” fans), as well as David (Michael Fassbender), the synthetic of “Prometheus.” As to how this film fits into the “Alien” chronology: It’s a sequel to “Prometheus,” but a prequel to the 1979 classic that launched the franchise.
Within this premise, there are plenty of opportunities for the Covenant crew to face off against a whole new world of aliens, some that lunge like rabid chimpanzees, others that circle like jungle cats. But Scott’s heart doesn’t seem in it when it comes to kill scenes. Most of them happen so fast that it’s impossible to tell who was slain, or even how. To Scott’s credit, he offers lots and lots of gore, and not just blood, but the kind of repellent body horror that’s been a key component of the franchise since the first chestburster erupted onto the scene. But all this feels requisite, and not passionate, as Scott spends far more time dealing with David than he does the entirety of the Covenant crew, or even the aliens.
The film begins not with the crew, but with a flashback to a formative and long, long conversation between David and his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce). Then, “Alien: Covenant” leaps decades into the future, where a more modern synthetic named Walter (also Fassbender, but with a deep-throated American accent) patrols the titular ship. The crew is introduced in the frenzy of the emergency. It’s a sloppy presentation that not only fails to define them, but also makes it unclear how many of them there even are. What’s clear is that the crew is entirely made up of married couples, which could have led to some interesting moments. However, instead it works as a ruthless shorthand to increase the emotional stakes when a character dies, cutting to their grief-stricken widow or widower. Basically, the Covenant crew doesn’t come off as people as much as fresh meat.
There are exceptions in both instances, action and character. Through a tender conversation about a log cabin, Daniels (Waterston) swiftly comes into shape as tender but tough. While Walter is specifically designed to be less emotional and “idiosyncratic” than his predecessor, Fassbender creates a restrained yet affecting performance as a robot who’s learning to love. And to his credit, Danny McBride brings verve and good ol’ boy recklessness as the cowboy hat-wearing Tennessee. He might be little more than a stereotype, but most of the crew doesn’t even achieve that before being ripped to bits.
Amid the splashes of blood and slashes of violence, there are flashes of thrilling action to be had in “Alien: Covenant,” but the most exciting is the first appearance of an alien. When a deadly virus infects one of the crew, his body quickly shrivels, and then explodes as a ghastly new nightmare leaps out of his spine. Here, Scott comes alive, playing out the terror with riveting close-ups of his screaming actors, and spooling out tension with harrowing chases, gut-churning cries for help, and fast-evolving killing machine. For fans of the “Alien” franchise, this sequence alone might be worth the cost of admission. Just be warned that “Alien: Covenant” is about 40 percent “Alien,” 50 percent “Prometheus” and 10 percent absolutely bonkers.
While Daniels is the hero of the movie, David is its focus. Scott clearly relished what Fassbender did in “Prometheus” with his Peter O’Toole-loving robot, and so has created for the darkly charming actor a showcase. Playing dueling robots with very different ideas about their missions, Fassbender dominates the film, and strides about like he knows this and loves it. As Walter, he is stoic, stiff, but with a glint of wit, and a whiff of sentiment. As David, he’s delicious. Bounding onto the scene as a savior when the Covenant crew seems lambs ripe for slaughter, David appears barefoot but in a long cloak with a face-obscuring hood. As he scrambles through fields, down rocks, and through horrific ruins that look like Pompeii, he has a looseness of limb that’s elegant and almost playful. It swings the movie’s tone from morose to nearly jovial, like we’re following Frodo on a jaunty adventure!
When he pulls back his hood, that’s another treat. David’s dyed-blond hair has grown past his chin. His roots dark and long, he looks like Iggy Pop. I gasped in dismay when he trimmed it short to match his robo-brother Walter. Their bizarre bonding, ripe with unexpected sexual tension and innuendo around learning to play a flute (“I’ll do the fingering”), is a jarring joy. It’s alien in a different manner. It’s weird and fun and unpredictable (for the most part). But as David gambols, pontificates, and shamelessly flirts with his guests, it feels less and less like an “Alien” movie. And maybe that’s OK.
“Alien: Covenant” is probably not the movie you were expecting. Yes, there’s body-horror and action, nightmare-inducing monsters, and a kick-ass heroine. But then there’s so much more. Some of it is tedious, halfhearted pontification about the power of faith. Some of it is intriguing backstory, knitting “Prometheus’s” tale more tightly with “Alien.” And the rest is just so damn weird that I can’t help but be impressed! Scott has moved past what audiences want, and onto a new terrain that demands you watch the promo clips to get a full picture of his picture. He’s working outside of the box with a defiant moxie that is both vexing and compelling. Which all means this movie is uneven and odd. But still, it’s an oddly good time.
Opening May 19, director Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant” stars Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England and Benjamin Rigby.