Ridley Scott goes back to basics with “Alien: Covenant,” the latest installment of the franchise he initiated in 1979. One of several intervening sequels he is evidently preparing to his 2012 prequel “Prometheus,” all of them designed to lead back to the original “Alien,” it’s as much a sci-fi horror movie, pure and simple, as the first film was (and the more cerebral “Prometheus” was not). Since we’re much more jaded an audience than we were thirty-eight years ago, it can’t have the same visceral impact, even though it escalates the level of sheer violence. Nonetheless it’s a coolly effective entry in the series, delivering some real jolts along the way.
The script by John Logan and Dante Harper starts with a premise similar to that of 2016’s “Passengers.” The spaceship Covenant is carrying a contingent of freeze-dried humans to a distant planet for colonization. Along the way, however, it encounters a calamitous event that forces Walter (Michael Fassbender), the new, improved model of the robot created by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) that the actor played (as David) in “Prometheus,” to awaken the human crew for repairs. Unfortunately, Captain Branson (a cameo by the ubiquitous James Franco) dies in his malfunctioning stasis capsule, leaving his wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraformist, grieving and first mate Oram (Billy Crudup), a believer whose faith makes him suspect to the secularists on board, in charge of the mission. (Don’t expect any serious consideration of matters theological, though: the religious subtext gets no more profound than it did in “Frankenstein.”)
Among the other crew members are Oram’s wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo), a biologist; Tennessee (Danny McBride), the vessel’s chief pilot; his wife Maggie (Amy Seimetz); and security chief Lope (Demian Bichir). There are a few other, less prominent crew members, most of whom have functions not unlike those filled by the infamous “Star Trek” redshirts, who are fated not to last long during missions. In this case, keep a particularly close watch on Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) and Hallett (Nathaniel Dean)—provided you’re not the squeamish type, in which case you might want to put your hands over your eyes.
The Covenant’s course is altered, at Oram’s command, when the ship’s communications intercept a transmission from an unknown planet that appears to be of human origin. The decision, of course, proves to be a bad one. Members of an exploration team will encounter not only alien spores that can infect people with dreadful result, but David, the reconstituted robot from the Prometheus (also played by Fassbender). He offers the crew refuge from the planet’s ghastly storms, but proves to be a distinctly untrustworthy ally whom Walter comes to suspect is harboring mad scientist tendencies. He’s right, of course, and the human contingent is gradually whittled down until a single sympathetic survivor is left to escape. But there’s a concluding twist that will obviously serve as lead-in to the next installment, provided that box office revenues justify one.
As usual even with Scott’s worst pictures (the last two, “The Counselor” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” for example), “Covenant” is elegantly made, visually a mixture of the virtues of “Alien” and “Prometheus,” with a gleaming production design by Chris Seagers that has been lustrously shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and exceptional effects work from teams headed by Charley Henley and Neil Corbould. It also stages its shocks cannily, thanks to Scott and editor Pietro Scalia, even if one might sometimes think that less might have been more.
As to the performances, Fassbender clearly enjoys playing with himself, as it were, giving both David and Walter a controlled, slightly prissy exterior while managing to suggest the subtle differences between them. The moments in which the characters interact are especially well done, both by Fassbender and the technicians who make it look seamless. Among the others, Waterston gets the greatest opportunity to emote, and takes advantage of it, though Crudup does a nice job of showing the insecurity of a man thrust into a position of authority others don’t consider him up to. McBride brings a touch of humorous bravado to the enterprise, though no outright laughs, and everyone else does what is demanded of them, including in many instances following in the footsteps of the late John Hurt.
It’s difficult to make an old-fashioned, straightforward scare-fest today, when so many think that horror has to be presented with a tongue-in-cheek attitude simply because the audience has already seen so much. But Scott has tried, and—if the reaction of early viewers is any indication—he’s largely succeeded.