Alien: Covenant, the second of Ridley Scott's prequels to Alien (1979), the iconic sci-fi/horror hybrid that established him as a major filmmaker and began a franchise that now includes eight films, is a heady and commercially astute mixture of the loftier, more philosophical tone that defined Prometheus (2015), the first prequel, and the bloody-gory genre shocks that many viewers had been hoping for two years ago. Prometheus had been made under a shroud of secrecy, and until it opened Scott would neither confirm nor deny that it was, in fact, a prequel to Alien (a version of the famous, H.R. Giger-designed xenomorph did not make an appearance until the very end of the film). Alien: Covenant, on the other hand, wears its franchise membership openly, and one can't help but wonder if the word "Alien" was added to the title after all the controversy over Prometheus, since both films would otherwise bear single-word titles drawn from the name of a prominent spaceship.
Most of the narrative in Alien: Covenant takes place 10 years after the events in Prometheus, although it opens with a prologue in which the synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) first meets his creator, corporate tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), and they engage in a heady conversation about the nature of creation and creators, thus establishing up front that Alien: Convenant will not be just a straightforward genre exercise. A decade later (the year 2104, to be exact), the story picks up aboard the Covenant, a massive spaceship that is several years into a trip that will eventually bring more than 2,000 colonists to a new world named Origae-6.
The ship is damaged by a neutrino burst that kills the captain (James Franco, seen only photos and a video), leaving it under the command of Oram (Billy Crudup), who is not exactly a born leader. Other members of the crew include Tennessee (Danny McBride), the ship's cavalier pilot; Lope (Demin Bichir), the ship's head of security; and Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and the deceased captain's widow whose close-cropped hair and boyish name guarantees that she will essentially play the role of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley surrogate. Also on board is Walter, another synthetic (also played by Michael Fassbender) who is a much different creation from David. We learn this firsthand when a portion of the crew lands on a planet from which they have received a radio transmission (sound familiar?) and, after coming under assault by the eponymous aliens, are saved by David, who has been living there for the past 10 years. What David has been doing on that planet for a decade is key to the franchise's ever-evolving mythology, as it expands on both philosophical questions about the nature of creation and the specific genesis of the aliens themselves.
Screenwriters John Logan (Gladiator) and Dante Harper, working from a story by Jack Paglen (Transcendence) and Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049), do little to disguise the film's more derivative aspects, happily copping imagery, ideas, and plot devices from both Alien and James Cameron's militaristic sequel Aliens (1986). They include so many expected elements that, at times, the film feels like a laundry list of franchise greatest hits, although they also find some creative means of building on the expected (in addition to chest bursters, we also get a back burster and a throat burster). Scott's always sleek visual style is once again aided and abetted by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who has shot almost all of his films in recent years (Prometheus, The Counsellor, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and The Martian); Wolski certainly mimics the look that Scott and cinematographer Derek Vanlint created for Alien, but he also goes his own way, as well, especially in the hectic action sequences that, unfortunately, sometimes owe more debt to Michael Bay than Scott or Cameron.
Yet, even though parts of it feel overly derivative, as a whole Alien: Covenant is a rare breed of prequel that both delivers and builds out and away from the expected. One could certainly argue that there is no real purpose served here-Do we really want or need to know where the aliens came from? Like the Halloween's Michael Myers and Hannibal Lecter, are they not somehow diminished in being supplied an overly detailed backstory, thus robbing them of mystery?-but the film takes enough risks in embedding its genre thrills in a muscular philosophical core that it is hard to begrudge its existence and Scott's willingness to return to the franchise that made him famous and take it in a new(ish) direction.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 20th Century Fox
Overall Rating: (3)
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