Well, at least now it’s all sorted out. When the director Ridley Scott released Prometheus in 2012, he was strangely reticent on the question of whether it was a prequel to the famed Alien franchise, maintaining only that “the keen fan will recognize strands of Alien’s DNA.” It was a silly claim then—Prometheus was obviously a prequel to Alien—and now even that odd little bit of obfuscation has been laid to rest. That’s because Scott’s latest, Alien: Covenant, is quite explicitly both a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to Alien, so by the transitive property—you get the idea.
More important perhaps than this bit of cinematic genealogy, however, is the fact that Alien: Covenant is actually pretty darn good. Not Alien good or Aliens good—that would have been far too much to hope for—but better than any of the intervening installments. And it succeeds in large part by observing the simplest of formulas: Focus on the aliens, skip the metaphysics. As such, it avoids the central flaw of its overwrought but under-baked predecessor, Prometheus. (On this, my colleague David Sims and I disagree.)
The year is 2104, 11 years after the events of Prometheus, and we find ourselves, as we so often do, on a starship in the midst of a long journey. This is the Covenant, a colony ship bearing 2,000 frozen souls and 1,140 embryos on a terraforming mission to a planet called Origae-6. Along the way, however, a “neutrino burst” damages the ship and the android on call, Walter (Michael Fassbender), wakes the crew up early. (Yes, this is almost exactly the premise of last year’s Passengers; no, there’s no meet-cute between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.)
The captain (played in posthumous footage by James Franco) is killed by a malfunction in his sleeping pod, leaving his first mate, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), in command. While repairing the damage to the ship, the pilot, Tennessee (a pleasantly if uncharacteristically subdued Danny McBride), detects a signal from a nearby planet. Could that be a recording of John Denver’s “Country Roads”? Remarkably, it could. Given that this world appears even more suitable for colonization than the ship’s original destination, the crew decides to reroute and find out what’s going on.
The landing party that descends to the planet’s surface soon discovers, however, that all is not as it seems. Suffice to say that this is the home world of the Engineers, the towering race that seeded Earth with human beings millions of years earlier, and toward which the survivors of Prometheus—Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the android David (who like Walter, the subsequent model, is also played by Fassbender)—had charted their course at the end of the previous film. And that’s, as the saying goes, all I have to say about that.
Well, maybe not all. Without revealing any details of what takes place planetside, I can say that all the customary Alien ingredients are very much in evidence. Because of the planet’s “hell of a strong ionosphere” the landing party is soon able to make only intermittent contact with their ship above. One of the members of said landing party—and the movie’s principal protagonist—is “Dany” Branson (Katherine Waterston), a tough lady very much in the Ellen Ripley-Elizabeth Shaw mode. David the android does some creepy and mysterious android things, only now there are, with Walter, essentially two of him. And speaking for myself, I don’t think you can have too many Michael Fassbenders in a movie.
Finally, there are enough slimy, bitey, body-burst-y aliens for even the most committed aficionado. I confess I am not certain of the precise taxonomical distinctions between Neomorphs, Xenomorphs, Protomorphs, and facehuggers. But rest assured that multiple species make appearances and all are decidedly unfriendly.
These ingredients were present in Prometheus, too, of course. But where that movie clogged itself up with dull, windy philosophizing about the nature of God and origins of humankind, Alien: Covenant keeps such tedious tangents to a minimum. Like Elizabeth Shaw before him, Acting Captain Oram is repeatedly noted to be a practicing Christian. But once this detail has been announced, the movie does virtually nothing whatsoever with it—which is, again, to my mind a good thing.
Thanks to the overall simplification of the storyline, the characters’ motivations are more direct (principally, to stay alive) and the plot twists more keenly honed. Even the culminating revelation, which one can see coming from a mile way, is satisfyingly wicked.
It’s true that for those tired of the Alien franchise, Scott has relatively little new to offer. But for those who still take pleasure in its customary mood, set design, and abrupt spasms of body horror, there is plenty to enjoy. This may not be a movie that reinvents the wheel. But it’s one that knows how to make it roll.
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