Well, at least it’s not as bad as “Prometheus.” A decidedly low bar, but I like to say something nice upfront.
“Alien Covenant,” the prequel-sequel to the dreadful 2012 film, attempts to right some of the serious wrongs of its predecessor, this time by putting action back front and center, and thankfully removing much of the philosophical malarkey that hamstrung “Prometheus” — what with its giant space “Engineers” that created earthlings eons ago, only to leave a map to their weapons lab on a distant planet, whose dangers slowly consumed the crew of the eponymous deep-sea ship. Only two survived that adventure, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the android David (Michael Fassbender), who set off on the horseshoe-shaped ship of the Engineers in search of … something as the closing credits rolled.
“Covenant” opens with a prologue that is in fact the film’s best scene, a languid but actually smartly written sequence in which David chats with his creator, Peter Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce, who appeared in “Prometheus” behind much old man makeup). If Weyland created him, David ponders aloud, then who in fact created Weyland — or all of mankind?
It’s a well-acted and directed scene, subtle and expertly paced, but Ridley Scott, director of “Prometheus” as well as the original 1979 “Alien,” immediately abandons any pretense toward actual intelligent sci-fi as the opening credits then roll on a slow reveal of the title letters against a star field background, a yawning homage to the curtain-raiser of “Alien.”
Here we find the spaceship Covenant, on a colonization voyage to a planet with a dozen or so crew and 2,000 hibernating colonists on board. All are in cryosleep on the Covenant save for the android Walter, also played by Mr. Fassbender, showing, I guess, that androids come in only one model in this exo-future. But unlike David, who is infused with Mr. Fassbender’s native British timbres, Walter speaks pure ‘merican, a schism that will come in handy later in the plot.
Disaster strikes with seven years left in the voyage as the Covenant is hit by some kind of space energy burst or something, necessitating Walter’s emergency awakening of the crew in order to right the ship.
Repairs made, the Covenant picks up — and I couldn’t make this up if I tried — a faint message of an earthling singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” from a distant planet. Even in the 22nd century, apparently, John Denver is part of music history curricula much as we now study Mozart and Beethoven.
Against the advise of 2nd officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), new to the big chair after the space storm killed the Covenant’s former skipper, decides to deviate from their present course and investigate the source of the transmission.
The preview has long informed you the planet in question at first seems to be a paradise, but oh wait but. Thus is set up the old saw of things going bump in the night starting to pick off our interchangeable cliched characters one by one, with the first to go committing the cardinal move sin of opting to relieve himself in the bushes, alone, with an “I’ll be right back,” thus ensuring he will be anything but.
I’ll cease hence with plot descriptors in order to comment on what is the overall problem with Mr. Scott’s prequels to the original “Alien.” While “Covenant” attempts to be a cross between the haunted house ethos of “Alien” and the big-gun action of 1986’s “Aliens,” it fails on both fronts because it lacks the modulated existential dread of the former and the sharply defined characters of the latter. “Covenant“‘s crew are as forgettable as the disposable monster meat dramatis personae of “Prometheus.” For the first hour we’re left wanting the titular beast to show up to do what is does best, but we then feel nothing as the cast successively succumbs to its fierce claws, spiky tail and infamous mouth-within-a-mouth.
After 40 years and seven films, there’s nothing the aliens can do that we don’t already see coming. Much like vampires and zombies, their scary tricks are known to us well ahead in advance, thereby requiring the filmmakers to rely on dark passageways and jump screams to get a rise out of audiences.
The script, by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story treatment by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, falls into the same trap of “Prometheus” in trying to flesh out the supposed “backstory” of the alien species itself. Rather than having the “Alien” terror be absolute and incontrovertible, it must be “explained” to us how the monsters came to be, and why.
It’s a story that frankly doesn’t need to be told, and is part of Hollywood’s recent fascination with filling in the blanks of past blockbusters in an effort to squeeze out any remaining bit of mystery. See also: “Rogue One,” the 2011 remake-but-not version of “The Thing,” “X-Men: First Class” and others.
I’m personally of the opinion that not everything requires an explanation. We need not understand the “why” if we already know the “how.” In fact, I wouldn’t put it past decision-makers to soon make “Jaws: Year Zero,” in which the young great white tearfully watches his mommy get hooked by a salty ship captain off the New England coastline, after which Jaws is seen in training montage pumping iron, maybe being coached by a grizzled hammerhead missing one horn and then picking fights with other sharks to bulk up his courage so that, one day, dammit, he will mete out revenge upon humankind.
But whatever. “Covenant” picks up the mission of its predecessor to flesh out the “Alien” mythos even more so than “Prometheus,” and tries — but fails — to take up the mantle of “2001” in arguing that artificial beings may be more human than human. A third film is planned.
That Mr. Scott, now 79, feels compelled to return to his greatest tales of yore is either depressing or disappointing given the results. He’ll try again later this year with the sequel to “Blade Runner” (a film unloved by myself, but a sentiment not much shared, I realize), for which he serves as executive producer.
Because it tries to be all things, “Covenant” ultimately misses being straight-up horror, decent sci-fi or full-on action pic. The sight of the empty corridors of the Nostromo in “Alien,” with Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score beneath as Mr. Scott’s camera dollies in the moments leading up to Sigourney Weaver et al. awakening to face the horror, carries more dread than anything in “Covenant.” In “Alien” Mr. Scott took his time, with bloodletting waiting an hour-plus into the running time, and the process by which the parasite becomes a soldier alien slowed to a manageable level. Without explanation, “Covenant” speeds up the parasite-to-chest burst sequence to about five minutes of screen time.
If the film has any redeeming quality, it is Mr. Fassbender. As in “Prometheus,” his talents rise admirably about the lackluster material, and his gifts as an actor shine even in the most risible of scripts. And “Covenant” may in fact be the first time in film history that an actor gets to try and seduce, well, himself. It’s the biggest effect in the movie, and it’s the only trick in film that even earns half a smirk.
Now playing at District area cinemas. If you must see it, do so at the Dolby Cinema at Georgetown’s AMC 14, where every scream is magnified but every line of dialogue sounds more pained.
Rated R. Contains a poor modern excuse for movie sex, bursting body fluids, severed heads and android self-love.