The alien in the Alien franchise was first described as a “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” In the nearly 40 years since then, filmmakers have explored and reshaped this malevolent creature, contorting its abilities to whatever the plot required. The franchise took a backslide with the undercooked Prometheus, but Alien: Covenant is a welcome return to form for director Ridley Scott and the franchise. It shares the basic exoskeleton that we’ve come to expect from these films, and the philosophizing is almost intriguing enough to improve upon the lofty ambitions of Prometheus. Almost.
On the way toward Origae-6, a site for mankind’s first human colony, the spaceship Covenant has a fire onboard. This is an intense sequence, setting a mournful, chaotic tone for what’s to follow. Daniels (Katherine Waterston) loses her husband, the ship’s captain, so the new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), assumes control. Soft-spoken and religious, he sees providence in the incident’s wake: The ship intercepts a nearby message of human origin, and its source is a planet that looks more hospitable than Origae-6. He sets a new course, and indeed the planet is too good to be true. Shortly after arriving, several Covenant crewmembers are infected with the same virus from Prometheus. It turns out the message is from a Prometheus survivor, and that ship’s android David (Michael Fassbender) lives in solitude on the new planet. David offers shelter to the frightened Covenant crew, hiding the planet’s secrets along the way.
Scott is nearly 80 years old, and if anything, he has only become more ambitious with age. There is a sequence where miscommunication among the crew leads to utter chaos, and Scott ably juggles multiple locations so the imperfect information leads to suspense, not confusion. The sequence is ghastly fun, with more body horror and slippery blood than any previous Alien film. Scott’s immersive production design is also on full display—nearly every shot in Alien: Covenant, no matter how gruesome, is immaculately composed—but there is also a rigorous theological curiosity underneath all the mayhem.
Michael Fassbender gets top billing here because he plays two roles: In addition to David, he plays Walter, the Covenant’s resident android. The chemistry between David and Walter is uncanny and subversive. David is sophisticated and idiosyncratic (Walter calls him “too human”), while Walter has less imagination and is more dependable. The script, co-written by John Logan and Dante Harper, supplies David with barely-concealed contempt. David is a misanthrope, perceiving himself as a God, and Walter disappoints him. This plays out with homoerotic subtext, leading to laughs alongside a query of what it means to create. To David, creation and destruction are complementary processes, suggesting that Scott has a cynical idea of God’s nature. That all this happens inside an Alien film is remarkable.
One of the best things about Alien and Aliens is the plausibility of their dialogue. Nearly everyone in Alien talks like blue-collar truck drivers, while the marines of Aliens talk like seasoned grunts. Prometheus was a lapse, insofar as scientists behaved like incurious dullards, so Alien: Covenant goes forward by taking what made the early films great. Characters make stupid mistakes, yet Logan and Harper create credible situations where mistakes would actually happen. The acting elevates the material beyond the requisite screams of terror. Danny McBride plays Tennessee, the Covenant pilot, and here he dials down his comic persona in favor of gnawing unease. With a similar haircut and rank on the spaceship, Waterston is convincing as Daniels, aka the de facto Ripley. Daniels veers from grief to ruthless competence, and the transition works because, like Ripley, her hatred for the alien is in her bones.
There are lots of surprises in Alien: Covenant, namely in terms of how the crew is killed. Actually, the word “surprise” is not quite correct. Scott knows his audience is familiar with all the beats and tropes of the franchise, so part of the fun is the anticipation of the inevitable. No one deserves extra credit for figuring out what happens, since Scott and his screenwriters shrewdly develop themes and situations alongside the ever-escalating sense of horror. Alien jump-started Scott’s career, and after so many years, he now infuses the franchise with a welcome dose of gallows humor. The implication of the film’s final minutes are downright wicked, even haunting, and may serve as nightmare fuel for years to come.
Alien: Covenant opens Friday in theaters everywhere