It’s been about a decade since filmmaker Ridley Scott made the unguarded comment about making an Alien prequel. He was reflecting on Alien, only his second movie in a career marked with milestones, and thinking aloud what a prequel would be like. He imagined a focus on the Alien planet, going back to that mysterious spaceship and explaining where the enormous Space Jockey had come from.
Long after Scott had nothing left to prove (with films ranging from Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), he helmed the highly debated and extraordinary Prometheus. Now, he gives us Alien: Covenant, which is both Prometheus II and a prequel to Alien. To cut to the chase, everything that was wonderful and frustrating about Prometheus is in this new movie and, without question, sci-fi fans will draw a heavy line in the sand over whether they love or loathe it.
Set a decade after the events of the last movie, a distress call sends the crew of the spaceship Covenant on an exploratory rescue mission. Led by a man of faith (Billy Crudup), a heartbroken scientist (Katherine Waterston) and the android Walter (Michael Fassbender), the crew finds themselves in terrible danger almost immediately after landing on the too-good-to-be-true planet. I won’t reveal anything else, though longtime Alien fans can expect facehuggers, xenomorphs and gore, oh my.
Scott was 38-years old when he made Alien and has been thinking about it for decades, while others (ranging from James Cameron to David Fincher) shaped the direction of the franchise without him. Now, at the age of 79, Scott is still at the top of his powers, can direct whatever movie he wants and hasn’t made an obvious, predictable action/horror/sci-fi cash grab. His new Alien movies are filled with mystery, ask ambitious questions they can’t quite answer and are maddeningly ambitious space operas. Scott’s twisted, intense Alien: Covenant is even colder than Prometheus and is at its strongest when it gets especially weird.
The Alien attack scenes are fierce and disturbing, though we’re always one step ahead of the movie when the monsters are on the prowl. Far better are the truly strange and eerie scenes where Fassbender’s character is the focus. Fassbender’s performance as David in Prometheus was wondrous and Oscar-worthy. He’s even better here, exuding precision of movement and understanding that, when playing a robot, less is more. Waterston makes a refreshing and authentic female lead and the supporting cast is engaging enough to elevate their roles above mere creature chow.
Alien: Covenant takes wild risks with its world-building, adding out-there additions to the established mythology, as well as Roman iconography, Greek legend, poetry and literary references. If Prometheus was a reconfiguring of Forbidden Planet, then this is Scott’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. Of course, his new film makes the same missteps as Prometheus, as the colonists make absurdly careless mistakes (like not wearing space suits as they explore an unknown planet).
Scott wisely sets an unhurried pace, limits the Alien scenes and isn’t afraid to go full tilt when things go really crazy. The best (and most likely to be the debated) scene is an odd flute lesson, in which two beings wordlessly size one another up. The worst moment is a stalk n’ slash with two lovers in a shower, a crass, strangely un-erotic bit that seems better suited for one of those awful AVP movies than this one.
Overall, I admire how Scott has made a risk-taking, elegant sci-fi shocker. He turns 80 this November and is already plotting another Alien installment. As long as he keeps making these courageously divisive revisionist Alien films, I’ll be there opening weekend.
Three and a Half Stars