Michael Fassbender delivers a crafty, Cronenbergian double performance in “Alien: Covenant” that almost makes the movie worth its weight. Almost.
A largely turgid, often thoroughly unpleasant affair, this sequel-to-the-prequel – a follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 2012 “Prometheus” – attempts to flesh out further just how the drooling, tentacled, face-sucking beastie of Scott’s game-changing 1979 film “Alien” came to be. Here, fans of the 1979 original and its sequels will be gratified by some familiar set pieces and visceral, bodyhorror callbacks, but they’ll have to slog through almost an hour of tiresome, workaday plotting to get to the gory stuff.
In many ways, what’s wrong with “Alien: Covenant” can be traced to the success of the very first film, which reinvented the sci-fi form and invested it with new dimensions of terror and suspense. By now, the beeping computer screens, cavernous spaceship architecture and offhand badinage that characterize “Covenant’s” scene-setting first section are old hat to any aficionado of the genre. Even the soothing voice of “Mother,” the onboard operating system, sounds like the great-granddaughter of Hal from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The visionary design elements for which Scott was rightfully venerated in his earlier work here are abandoned in the interest of a gargantuan but by-the-numbers sense of scale.
All by way of saying that the setup here is gratingly cliché: In 2104, a ship called the Covenant, carrying 15 crew members and 2,000 human passengers seeking to colonize a distant planet, is being tended to by a droid named Walter (Fassbender) when a neutrino burst brings down the power grid. After the crew’s captain is burned in his sleeping pod, his widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and the ship’s second-in-command, Oram (Billy Crudup), lead the remaining team on an improvised mission to explore what sounds like a radio transmission from a human on a faraway planet.
Really, what could go wrong? Plenty, as experienced viewers well know, which makes Scott’s attempts at setting up a soothingly routine atmosphere fall flat, leaving “Alien: Covenant” less suspenseful than grimly predictable and lethargic. Danny McBride plays a jocular pilot who we know is a cowboy because he wears an actual cowboy hat. Crudup’s character helpfully inserts the fact that he’s a “person of faith,” a tidbit that’s meant to dovetail with the film’s theme of man’s search for God, but that turns out to mean very little when he meets his ultimate fate.
Waterston, affecting an Amelia Earhart hairstyle and a thin-lipped, solemn demeanor, does her best to anticipate the strong heroine personified by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the first “Alien.” But she’s asked to do little more than warn the man in charge that veering from the original plan isn’t a good idea, then looking tearfully on as her warnings come disastrously to fruition.
While the human creatures of “Alien: Covenant” pay the price for their hubris, the droid Walter experiences his own existential quandary, by way of an encounter that calls not only for some clever camera work and staging, but also a finely calibrated performance. Fassbender acquits himself impressively as both the American-accented Walter (connoisseurs might detect a whiff of Keanu Reeves in the flat delivery) and as the James Mason-like David, But even he can’t overcome writing that, in at least one weirdly homoerotic sequence, drew derisive guffaws at a recent preview screening.
Scott seems to want to infuse “Alien: Covenant” with shades of classic gothic horror, especially when Daniels, Oram and their colleagues are led to a gigantic ossuary that resembles Frankenstein’s castle built on the ruins of Pompeii. This is that rare science-fiction film that references not just one Shelley but two, when Fassbender engages in an extemporaneous recitation of “Ozymandias.”
Fancy literary aspirations aside, “Alien: Covenant” ultimately comes down to the shocking effects that made the first film so memorable. Once the title character appears, the blood starts to flow – and spurt and gush and envelope the hissing, devil-tailed succubi that will eventually grow into the faceless wraiths of legend, lore and now seemingly endless pre-boots. Presumably, Scott is giving the audience what it wants, but purists may wonder whether simply rewatching “Alien” would have provided scarier, more genuine jolts.