If Rogue One, with its prominent resistance motif, was the perfect SF franchise movie for 2016, the bleak Alien: Covenant might be the one that’s most apt for this dispiriting year.
Ridley Scott’s genius with the original Alien was to mix that decade’s dystopian science fiction sensibility with a classic horror setup, enlivened by Sigourney Weaver as one of the most iconic action heroes in cinema history and suffused with H.R. Giger’s visionary biomech aesthetic. Wind it all tight as a drum, add an eerily beautiful Jerry Goldsmith score, and you have the makings of a franchise that’s now six films and four decades strong.
Like George Miller’s Mad Max series, the Alien series maintains a consistent premise while also reinventing itself from film to film, with references and characters — rather than plot lines — providing continuity. As with both Mad Max and Terminator, Alien went from a gritty and strange first installment to a polished blockbuster sequel, followed by oddball later installments leading to a 21st century reboot.
Though time marches on, and dead spacefarers are replaced by fresh meat, the Alien characters’ outlook remains basically stuck. They think they’re in a late-20th-century SF movie where aliens are friends and robots are cute, but they get sucker-punched every time because they’re actually in movies that hark back to the early days of science fiction, when aliens came to slay and artificial beings inevitably rose up to mash their makers.
The android in the original Alien was a fairly sympathetic bloke, leading the Prometheus audience to expect that Michael Fassbender’s David would be too — especially since that 2012 movie marked Scott’s return to the franchise as a director. Nope. David turned out to be a mad scientist, developing a dark affinity for the rapidly-evolving biological weapons invented by the faraway Engineers.
That prequel served as an origin story for the toothy nightmares that made their way onto the Nostromo, but it didn’t go so far as to explain how they were deposited into the pods encountered by Kane and his colleagues. Covenant fills in some of that connective tissue. With Scott again at the helm, it’s similar to Prometheus in being a world-building epic rather than a claustrophobic monster movie, but it’s more compact and less varied than its predecessor.
We meet a new cast of actors — once again including Fassbender, playing a later and simpler model of David. With a shipful of colonists in stasis, they’re off to settle a new world. They’re rudely interrupted, though, when a random cosmic blast damages their ship and takes some casualties. Newly promoted Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to check out a transmission coming from a nearby planet, which might just prove a suitable alternate site for the colony.
That there are going to be Aliens on the planet is a given. What you might not see coming is that Scott (working from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, and a screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper) has a couple more tropes coming for us: the ruined temple, and the mad genius. The mad genius turns out to be David, who of course is much more interested in the Covenant crew’s alternate version of himself than in any of the humans who come calling. Eventually, we learn what happened to David and the sole surviving Prometheus crew member — and needless to say, it ain’t pretty.
While Scott has handed directing duties to Denis Villeneuve for this year’s Blade Runner 2049, the funny thing is that the legendary filmmaker is over here in his Alien universe exploring the same angst that wracked Rutger Hauer’s replicant in the original Blade Runner (with just as much inky rain). The Alien androids are so similar to the artificial humans of Blade Runner that Covenant amounts to a de facto crossover movie. If you prick them, do they not bleed? Actually, they do — as we’ve known since 1979.
The last Alien installment was divisive, but I was firmly on the pro-Prometheus side, and I’m also bullish on Covenant. It’s less visually spectacular than Prometheus, though, and the characters are less distinctive: Stephen Stills’s squeezebox makes a better accessory for a flinty pilot than does a generic cowboy hat, we miss Charlize Theron’s icy administrator, and Katherine Waterston doesn’t get anything nearly as eye-popping as Noomi Rapace’s alien c-section in Prometheus.
Still, few filmmakers have Scott’s facility at creating fantasy epics that create a distinctive ambience, explore meaningful ideas, and get you to tensely grip your date’s forearm as a carnivorous extraterrestrial claws its way into a soaring spaceship. When Scott cues the Wagner, he’s truly earned that fucked-up grandeur.