“What do you believe in?”
This short exchange, along with the scene that follows it - the particulars of which I will not spoil - is the apotheosis of “Alien: Covenant,” a hair-raising masterstroke that marks another high point in the continuing sci-fi horror franchise and in director Ridley Scott’s long career. Structural and thematic brilliance aside, this exchange also calls to mind Scott’s body of work in the genre, as well as the current by-the-numbers mentality of the Hollywood prequel. Studios today see little point in embellishing these backstories, beyond bombastic visual effects, with something extra to chew on while the creation of an already established property takes place. Given his knack for exploring themes of creation through science fiction, Scott is without a doubt the most ideal filmmaker to tackle this kind of story, injecting this next chapter of the “Alien” genesis with a healthy dose of philosophical pondering. His passion for the series, and his uncanny ability to deliver audiences what they expect and what they might not expect at the same time fire on all cylinders in this indelible blockbuster.
In 2104, ten years after the disastrous events of “Prometheus,” the colony ship Covenant carries a crew of 15, some two-thousand colonists in cryosleep, and a thousand embryos as the ship travels to a habitable planet deep in the galaxy. Monitoring them is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an updated version of the android David, who went missing after the doomed Prometheus mission. After a horrible accident that results in a few casualties, including the ship’s captain (played by James Franco in a brief cameo), the awakened crew intercepts a mysterious transmission from a nearby planet, which appears to be more suitable for their colonization. Once the crew arrives, the planet appears to be a would-be paradise, but it quickly becomes apparent that this world is far more hostile than they ever imagined. Amidst this newfound horror, the crew encounters the long lost David, who it turns out has been more than busy in the years following his disappearance.
“Covenant” works on a number of levels, the most identifiable being its recycling of the signature tropes from Scott’s original masterpiece. There’s the ship, the blue-collar team, the strong female leader (played this time by Katherine Waterston), the eggs, the face hugger, the chest burster, the Xenomorph, the carnage, and the second ending that hits you just when you thought the terror had ceased. It really wouldn’t be an “Alien” film by Ridley Scott without these elements, but their familiarity is easy to forgive since Scott assembles them with a fresh breath of air. Other directors would have mistakenly shot these from different angles to appease modern sensibilities. This is not the copy-and-paste method of franchise filmmaking that is too often seen in the summer season; these beats hit, often harder than some might expect.
Scott also melds recycled imagery from “Prometheus” into the proceedings, amping up thematic implications brought on by David’s return. Fans will be pleased that a more narrow trajectory for the prequel series is made once the eerie android appears, though a number of questions made by the previous film remain unanswered. Nevertheless, “Covenant” expertly builds on the mildly fuzzy ambitions of “Prometheus,” aligning David as the series’ focal point, which should take the franchise in captivating directions. Fassbender’s dual performance as David and Walter is equally mesmerizing, and arguably more unsettling than the any Xenomorph seen here. One of the film’s greatest scenes is a quiet conversation between the two androids, which makes Sam Rockwell’s work in “Moon” look almost amateur by comparison, and proves Fassbender as the true gift of this prequel series.
This will either excite or puzzle fans depending on whether they are Pro or Conmetheus, but the truth is that David’s significance is wholly unexpected and innovative. The inevitable birth of the Xenomorph may feel tacked on to those expecting something closer to what they remember from the first film, and while the creation of the alien is not the endgame, it is not an afterthought either. Scott is less interested in the particulars of its creation than he is in creation itself, taking H.R. Giger’s beloved beast and making it both a plot device and a centerpiece. This big-brained approach enriches the Xenomorph mythology beyond mere backstory, and simultaneously elevates the film above just another creature feature.
Interestingly enough, this approach also hurts the film’s chances of achieving the visceral quality of the original, but there’s enough talent on both sides of the camera to heighten the intensity and atmosphere. Waterston does not quite live up to Sigourney Weaver’s legacy, but her performance is fierce, intuitive, and worthy of the series’ female lead slot. Fassbender and Fassbender aside, the real revelation is Danny McBride, who trades his sarcastic wit for remarkable sincerity as the ship’s hard-nosed chief pilot. The rest of the cast is exceptional, working harder than most actors who wind up playing alien fodder.
As expected, “Covenant” is as sumptuous to look at as any sci-fi outing made by Scott. Dariusz Wolski’s photography is crisp and painterly, with gorgeously composed wide shots that often resemble the work of John Martin. Production design takes the the hard-edged sci-fi aesthetic of “Prometheus” towards something a little more abstract, bringing the film closer to the horrific phantasmagoria of the original. There is also Jed Kurzel’s riveting score, which cleverly incorporates themes from both “Alien” and “Prometheus” to staggering effect. It is for these reasons, most importantly Scott’s impeccable grasp on the material, that “Alien: Covenant” is further proof of science fiction as a cinematic goldmine, and is yet another reason why Ridley Scott should continue working in the genre all the way to his grave. It may eventually stand alongside the first film.