Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Benjamin Rigby, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
"In space, no one can hear you quote Lord Byron."
As ludicrous as that faux-pull quote sounds, there's a slight streak of goofiness to Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant which ultimately proves to be its most successful element. Literary references to not only Byron but Shelley abound (cementing the Gothic horror influences), as well as recitations of "Ozymandias", delivered mostly by Michael Fassbender in a dual role as a pair of mismatched androids. If all of this sounds like a thematic continuation of 2012's Prometheus; a film which boldly took the franchise into more cerebral territory, then the most effective moments here are the ones which lean into that strain of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Where Scott misfires is his attempts at de-mythologizing the iconic xenomorphs, first introduced in 1979's Alien, as well as doling out a greatest hits demo reel of the past five films in the franchise without any notable variations.
Taking place 10 years after the events of Prometheus, Alien: Covenant concerns a crew aboard a ship set for a distant planet with hopes of colonization. Following a solar flare accident which kills the vessel's captain while he's locked in a state of cryostasis, the surviving members scramble to formulate a game plan. Upon receiving a cryptic message from a nearby planet, the crew, (led by Billy Crudup's newly minted leader) decide to investigate the transmission rather than return to their sleeping pods. What follows is basically a retread of Alien which occasionally sidesteps its predictable narrative structure for philosophical detours concerning the creation of mankind and artificial intelligence. Scott handles these detours, which involve Fassbender's resident android Walter coming face to face with his nearly identical model David (also Fassbender), who survived the events of Prometheus, with a curiosity which reveals the filmmaker's real interest in this material. On the other hand, Scott seems decidedly less enthused by the film's shock tactics; revealed in the rather uninspired way nondescript characters get infected, are quarantined, and then convulse as squiggly monsters erupt violently out of their bodies. The horror-set pieces here feel muddled and strained, with rubbery CGI lacking the depth and tactility of the original film's practical effects. Meanwhile, Scott's ill-advised decision to explain where the beings originated retroactively makes the primordial simplicity of their actions in the earlier films less scary. What once felt visceral and disorienting now feels rote, with Scott even indulging in a laughably idiotic coitus interruption sequence inside a shower which plays like something out of a Wayans Brothers spoof.
The best thing about Alien: Covenant has nothing to do with the aliens but rather, the way in which it delves into the philosophical battle of wits between Walter and David. Fassbender gives a masterful performance in a dual role, and the most intriguing scenes involve him essentially acting opposite himself. Those who cringed at the heady nonsense of Prometheus will likely have a field day with the scene where Walter and David alternately play the flute while discussing machine's desire to play God, but such moments are infinitely more entertaining than anything involving the indestructible alien life forms wrecking havoc. Whenever Fassbender is onscreen, the film pulses with an ambiguous sense of menace. However, Scott too often darts away to supposedly give fans more of what they want; including an incomprehensible action set-piece atop an escaping ship where Katherine Waterston's mousy Ripley clone does battle with a grasshopper-like xenomorph. The way the creature burrows its head into a window like a Jurassic World-esque velociraptor saps the genuine terror from H.R. Giger's original designs, making them look frail and small where they once felt towering and nightmarish.
Had Alien: Covenant honed in on the idea of David's self-actualization as more than simply a slasher movie plot device, the film could have attained the kind of poetic nihilism encapsulated by the android Ash's famous dying words from Alien. Instead, Scott wastes a talented cast and some compelling notions concerning David being the inverse of the xenomorph for watered-down jump scares and bloody carnage. Sure, this is what one expects from an Alien movie, but the suspense beats here feel perfunctory; like a bored technician checking off the appropriate boxes on an exam.
The idea that an android regards the xenomorphs with something approaching admiration is a tantalizing concept, but Alien: Covenant doesn't trust the audience enough to follow through on the paradoxical consequences of such a concept. Alas, only Byron, Shelley and Fassbender keep Scott's attempt at reclaiming his beloved franchise from disappearing completely up its own chest-bursting exoskeleton.