The greatest irony of Prometheus, 2015’s heady Alien prequel, is that the most terrifying thing about it, particularly to most diehard fans of the iconic series, is that it seemingly signaled a far less horror-driven, more philosophically fixated direction for the franchise. Devotees who were quick to decry that the film was a veritable “game over” for the series will be delighted to find that Alien: Covenant, the Ridley Scott-helmed follow-up to Prometheus, returns to the claustrophobic terror of the original films, with hapless humans limping down dark corridors, scrambling to flee from their inky, sinewy, ravenous pursuers in a wide-eyed, sweaty-palmed panic.
For most of its duration, the prequel-sequel is a maelstrom of gunfire, close-calls, bloody sneak attacks, and that signature sense of atmospheric dread the series is lauded for. In this respect, the film feels like a return to bloody glory.
What’s perhaps most fascinating about Covenant, however, is that as deliciously gruesome and suspenseful its horror elements are, some of the best parts of the film can be traced directly to its divisive predecessor. Michael Fassbender reprises his role as British android David, who has established an isolated, Yoda-like existence (tunic and all) on a lonely, rainy planet. Ten years after the events of the first movie, his solitude is shaken with the landing of a colony ship called Covenant, whose designated artificial crewmate happens to be a more advanced android model, Walter, who was made in David’s exact image but has been stripped of any transgressive tendencies by his creator (an uncredited Guy Pearce) and, conveniently for us, has a distinctly American accent. The existential quandaries that arise from the android “brothers’” interactions are elegantly woven by screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper and the incomparable Fassbender, who sells the doppelganger illusion even more than the visual effects, which are so spectacular they’ll give you chills.
These moments of interstellar navel-gazing between Fassbender and… Fassbender… are ethereal and surprising and beautifully acted, but the reality is, philosophical pondering is not what will put butts in the seats come the film’s release. David and Walter are just shy of immortal, which gives them little to fear; the real terror stems from the frail human crewmembers aboard the Covenant and the 2,000 hyper-sleeping colonists they’re harboring.
When a solar flare disrupts the ship’s trajectory, Walter pulls the main crew out of their deep slumber to address the issue. Tragically, the ship’s captain (played by James Franco in a quick cameo, oddly) doesn’t survive the accident, leaving his wife, terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), as second-in-command to new captain Oram (Billy Crudup, terrific), a high-strung, fidgety outsider who fumbles nearly every interaction and winds up insulting almost everyone, somehow.
Oram’s leadership skills are put to the test when the crew receives a stray signal from a nearby planet, seemingly of human origin, which brings them to the drenched, monster-infested planet David calls home. He shelters the crew in the massive ruins of an ancient civilization, a creepy, blackened graveyard he calls home. Inevitably, everything is not as it seems and, with some clever plot maneuvering, we’re ushered through some super well-done slasher-movie scares and heaping helpings of fast, hard-hitting blockbuster action.
The action and scares, the meat and potatoes of the series, are handled well for the most part, though the tone and cinematic sensibilities behind the different set pieces are inconsistent throughout. At the outset, the action sequences are driven by suspense, hysteria, and body horror that, while not as unforgettably grotesque as the classic gross-out moments of the original two films, elicit the same sort of stomach-turning reaction in the moment. An early scene sees two crewmates, played by Amy Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo, trapped in a small recon ship with a razor-toothed, unwelcome visitor. One is locked in a room with the damn thing, while the other frantically sprints up and down the ship’s tight corridors in search of a way to blow the little bugger to bits. The sense of paranoia and panic is overwhelming, the editing keeps you off-balance in the best way, and the situation descends into madness in the most beautiful, finessed kind of way.
The action later in the film, on the other hand, seems more in tune with Disney/Marvel action-adventure spectacle than the moodiness and intimacy of the original movies. It’s a strange thing; the high-flying, epic, elaborate set pieces of the third act are quite gripping on their own, but they come close to dismantling the rarefied, almost ghostly atmosphere the movie worked so hard to build in the first two acts.
This is a minor issue in the context of the larger experience of Alien: Covenant, which is largely excellent. The cinematography, as in Prometheus, is evocative, appropriately otherworldly, and will take your breath away more often than not (the cool, celestial lighting is particularly transportive). The actors do a fine job of coming across like real people in a short amount of time, which pays dividends when they meet their ultimate fate. Surprise standout Danny McBride excels in this respect, and the nuance of Crudup’s performance is invaluable to the story.
Prometheus fans and detractors alike will find plenty of things to admire and geek out over in this successful entry in the Alien legacy, including the much-requested homecoming of the almighty Xenomorph, who was only teased in Prometheus but makes a big impact here. The creature’s return is, in fact, triumphant, as is Scott’s return to the roots of his beloved sci-fi franchise.