Alien: Covenant, the first Ridley Scott-directed film with Alien in the title since 1979, is a functional skeleton designed plainly and unapologetically to fill in existence-justifying story gaps between Prometheus, the previous Scott-helmed Alien prequel, and the original Alien (1979). Lost in the process is Alien’s characteristic slow, anxious terror, and in its place stands a belabored brand of pseudo-philosophy exploring questions best described as THC-induced.
Katherine Waterston stars as Dany Branson, a terraforming expert aboard the colony ship called Covenant, hauling thousands of unconscious humans and embryos. She works alongside the android Walter (Michael Fassbender), Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), and Tennessee (Danny McBride) in search of a staked-out habitable planet. This plan goes awry, and upon receiving a foreign radio transmission, Branson and crew spot a miraculously welcoming yet unknown globe. They land to investigate, and shortly thereafter things go more awry as crewmembers fall horribly ill, and, as the film’s title would suggest, they become host to body-bursting aliens. The thinning crew then encounters the mysterious David (Michael Fassbender), the previous model of Walter featured in Prometheus, designed with a more creative, and therefore more sinister, personality.
On the science-fiction front, Covenant is serviceable. Uninterested in uncovering new takes on the Alien brand of fantasy tech, the film dutifully mimics the space aesthetic the mother film established, that of a damp, vacuous ship sailing through cold black. Taking its cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), the original Alien bent Kubrick’s practical depiction of cosmonautic travel by sapping it of color and cleanliness, documenting a sensuously grimy and anxious trans-planetary travel. Covenant, while retaining the basic cookie cutter look of its parent film, lends nothing new to this treatment of space, and instead lifts the kind of quick boiler-plate ‘wonder’ contemporary space films like Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) lacquer on to any initial reveal of vaguely non-homogenous space gear. Lost, sadly, is the inaugural Alien’s particular slow, haunting treatment of decaying technology, a choice essential to Alien’s unique form of terror. Rather, Covenant moves quickly through its spatial coverage, rendering opportunities to elevate the blood pressure of its audience moot.
In place of Covenant’s shoved-aside moments of potential tension are long sequences dedicated to the insistence that Covenant is a really smart film. References to Michelangelo and Wagner bookend long sequences with the Fassbender bots exploring the essence of humanity, while lazily shoved in character beats hope to tie together its ambitious themes (egregious laziness involving Oram comes to mind). Granted, in between these laughable dalliances with “adult thoughts” are a handful of visually stunning action sequences filtered deftly through a remarkably flawless cast (Waterston and Fassbender especially stand out). The gore of xenomorphs oozing out of bodies and eviscerating bursting veins is in brief spurts satisfying and thrilling, but these upticks in audience EKG are too sparsely spaced to qualify Covenant as anything more than base-line attention keeping.