Five years ago, director Ridley Scott returned to that dark, scream-free corner of the universe he introduced us to in 1979… kinda. Prometheus was a sideways prequel that bore the markings of an Alien movie and hinted at the origins of some of the sci-fi classic’s most lasting images. (Audiences met a space jockey, but not the space jockey.) But the movie, which starred Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, and the original screen Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace, was more interested in tackling big ideas, like “Where did we come from,” “Who is responsible for our creation,” and “If we meet those creators, will they turn out to be a race of black-eyed, bald giants who want to murder us?”
With Prometheus, Scott took big swings and engaged with philosophy on a hardcore sci-fi level — presumably because a tale about the foolishness of seeking answers to ultimate questions and the inevitability of death goes down a little easier with an alien abortion scene. But for all of its cosmic quandaries, Prometheus lacked some pretty basic understanding of how humans would behave when faced with a slithering space snake (actually, most people wouldn’t try to pet it) and what they’d do when a horseshoe-shaped ship is rolling toward them (turn left).
Half a decade later, Scott is back in the chest-bursting game, and for those who wondered if their complaints about a lack of Alien connections in Prometheus were heard, look no further than the title. Alien: Covenant is very much a sequel to the 2012 movie, but one that knows the crowd showed up to hear the hits.
The set-up is familiar and cozy, like reuniting with an old high school sweetheart (who has been secretly infected with a deadly pathogen). The spacecraft Covenant is headed to a distant planet carrying 2000 cyro-slumbering colonists with the hopes of establishing a settlement. The voyage hits its first snag when the ship’s computer, MUTHUR (the crowd roars!), is forced to wake the crew, which is made up entirely of married couples, for emergency repairs. The team — which includes Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, and Fassbender playing a different, slightly upgraded android from the one he played in Prometheus — fixes the problem, but there’s another issue: A rogue transmission. It’s a human voice, originating from a nearby planet with specifications that make it even better for colonizing.
Sounds too good to be true, right? So good that the crew would never jeopardize their human cargo to check it out? Super wrong.
From there, everything begins to go badly. Mistakes are made. Tension ratchet. And people die in disgusting ways that shouldn’t be spoiled. Alien: Covenant indulges in a spectacle that’s been missing from summer movies for the past decade or so. It grosses you out and then laughs at you while you puke (not literally). Described in a review, the visuals could be read as depressing, but in the dark of the theater with its “we’re in this s— together” shared experience, they’re a joy.
Gross-outs and gotchas are fun, but they wouldn’t amount to much if Covenant wasn’t so thoroughly well-crafted. The performances are believable, and for the most part, the humans act like humans (except when they’re devious robots). Waterston’s Daniels grounds the story. She’s as pouty and bummed out as any of us would be on a doomed space mission, but one hundred times as tough. McBride proves he isn’t just the funniest guy in any room. Fassbender is given the most to play with, but few actors could have delivered on the levels that he does. You almost feel spoiled watching this guy work. And at 79-years-old, Scott has put together visually stunning, fast-paced, and thrilling entertainment — the kind that freshman directors are expected to make straight out of Sundance these days, but rarely do. The confidence on screen here is the cinematic equivalent of the filmmaker rolling up his sleeves and saying that he’s got this.
And part of that confidence must come from knowing he’s made this movie before. Much like The Force Awakens did with the first Star Wars, Covenant succeeds by recreating what it feels like to watch Alien. The tropes it plays with are the ones the original created. Here, they’re reproduced so slickly that you remember why you fell in love in the first place. But a well-done retread is still a retread.
Covenant is an Alien movie made for 2017. It doesn’t have the original’s restraint or eerie quietness. There’s probably more footage of the xenomorph in the trailer for Covenant than in entire ’79 Alien. But the update also speeds things up. The movie understands that the audience knows exactly where the story is going, so it gets there quickly. It’s not going to slow down to give Crewmember #4’s demise some (or any) dramatic weight.
One leg up that Covenant has is Scott’s refusal to entirely jettison the biblical weirdness of Prometheus. There’s still plenty of vague discussion about creation, but the movie is essentially a compromise between the prior film’s fans and haters. Some of us [clears throat] will miss those big swings, but regardless of where you landed with Prometheus, there’s bound to be something to delight you in Covenant because, Scott — thankfully — still makes ’em like he used to. B+