What Ridley Scott’s new film Alien: Covenant sorely needs more than anything is another Ripley, or better yet, the original (Sigourney Weaver), who gave those old movies a pulse and a protagonist that we not only cared about but also who could take care of business. No human character comes close to matching her in this outing, and interestingly enough the androids Walter/David (played by an amazing Michael Fassbender) are actually the protagonists Scott cares about most – believe it or not!
While watching the last two Alien films, Mr. Scott has hinted at some kind of connection to origins of the human race as well as a possible future for it, but there is a sense of grim and utterly hopeless inevitability. David, the android from Prometheus who in that film liked to spike martinis with biological poison, views the human race as all weakness and eventual death; he has no respect for it and wants to undermine it. Despite his being created by human Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce), his disdain for the frailties of humans knows no bounds.
The ship Covenant is part cargo vessel and also Noah’s Ark for humans – 2000 colonists in cryo-sleep and drawers of frozen embryos. It is headed for a seemingly perfect planet Origae-6, where Daniels (a solid performance by Katherine Waterston) and husband and ship captain Branson (James Franco) plan to build a log cabin by a lake (wood and nails are part of the cargo). While the crew is also in cryo-sleep, Walter monitors the passengers in stasis and oversees the ship along with the main computer called Mother (an unseen voice that sounds like a Siri variant).
Covenant hits a space storm that damages it and causes the deaths of some colonists and Branson. A devastated Daniels hangs one building nail around her neck, which is sort of a nod to Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in Prometheus hanging a cross around her neck. In that film Shaw’s faith in spite of everything going wrong around her is a source of contention with android David, and this dynamic is echoed in this film as David eschews the notion of a higher power but worships “creation” and seeks answers that his own creator Weyland was unable to give him.
A distress signal from a previously uncharted planet catches the crew’s attention, and all readings seem to indicate it is a better candidate for colonization than Origae-6. Against Daniels protestations, new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides that the team will go investigate and try to help the person who has sent the distress call – incongruously John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” If that is not a clear sign that something’s wrong on that planet, I don’t know what is.
Needless to say, once the away team lands on the planet, the excrement quickly hits the fan. Without giving away too much (like the trailers do not do that already), the team encounters a variant of the “alien” Xenomorph that is fast and just as deadly as its cinematic cousin. When all seems lost along comes David, the android from Prometheus who along with Shaw survived the conflict of the first film and set out to find the Engineers – the humanoids that apparently used technology to create the human race and then didn’t like how it turned out.
The rest is spoiler territory, but Scott borrows much from the other films, especially the original Alien which still remains the best entry in the series – and fans will be happy to see the Xenomorph back in action. What is missing, as noted before, is the heart and soul that Ripley provided to those previous films. Waterston does her best here, and we do want to see her overcome in Ripley fashion, but Walter/David are really the story that Scott seems most interested in exploring at the expense the human characters.
We never really get to know the other crew members all that well, except for Danny McBride’s Tennessee (apparently Scott’s idea for comic relief which is sorely needed) and he does the best he can wearing a cowboy hat but has limited screen time, and as the other characters get picked off one by one, as is always the case in these films, we are really not very invested in any of them.
The interplay between the androids is the core of what Scott wants to highlight, and Fassbender has a delightful edge as David while his Walter has a subtle benevolence and obvious dedication to duty and cares for Daniels. Walter is intrigued by David’s “work” in the ten years spent on the planet, and he is not too shocked to discover that the Engineers designed the aliens to destroy their human creations or by how David, now taking their place as creator and caretaker, wants the aliens to flourish and eliminate the human race including this crew and their colonist and embryo cargo.
While Scott takes us down the road to get some answers, the film still leaves us with many more questions. One of the most glaring is how can this crew and Captain Oram be so careless when landing on a planet that has not been fully vetted as was the case of their original destination? Without being aware of indigenous organisms and the atmosphere, these people jump off the transport with no helmets or protection from anything airborne or on the ground. It seems too obvious but still is bothersome. Back here on earth we would wear more protection against mosquitoes and other pests, but they walk out of the ship onto an alien world with no precautions.
Many other decisions made by the characters can come under similar scrutiny – most notable is how anyone could look down into a big slimy egg that just opened and not expect something bad to happen. Oh, yes, of course, this is a prequel you will say, so they haven’t learned from Ripley and company’s experience yet. No matter – it stretches the credibility way too far in my point of view.
Overall, while I am not totally thrilled with Alien: Covenant, it is still an Alien film (Yes, I said that about the Star Wars prequels too), and so attention must be paid. I can say I enjoyed it enough but it didn’t blow me out of the theater the way Scott’s original did, but how could any sequel/prequel match that intensity?
One interesting thing is that the last preview before the film started was for Mr. Scott’s eagerly anticipated Blade Runner sequel – Blade Runner 2049. Happily, Harrison Ford is reprising his role as Rick Deckard, which bodes well for it because at least we can be confident about that film having its Ripley – the element that would have made Covenant a great film instead of just a good one.