How viewers feel about Ridley Scott’s latest addition to the “Alien” franchise may come down to how dedicated they are to exploring the background of this universe he created with the original in 1979. With “Prometheus” five years ago and now “Alien: Covenant” — both set in the years leading up to “Alien” — he’s filling in the blanks of this world’s origin story, laying the groundwork for all the “In space, no one can hear you scream” horrors to come.
The philosophical “Prometheus” was satisfying for those enthralled by Scott’s overarching vision, while those who just wanted man-vs.-monster madness were decidedly let down. “Alien: Covenant” splits the difference, stitching together the thoughtful with the terrifying for a film that mostly delivers the goods, even if it doesn’t quite possess the nerve-racking suspense of the first film nor the electric Earth mom-vs.-alien mom catharsis of James Cameron’s “Aliens.”
“Covenant” starts off in “Prometheus” mode with a scientist/inventor (Guy Pearce) having a debate with his creation — an android named Walter (Michael Fassbender) — about life, humanity and existence.
Then the film switches gears as we find that the “Covenant” in the title is the name of a ship carrying a crew of couples and 2,000 colonists in hypersleep, as well as 1,140 embryos, to a far-off planet, Origae-6, for colonization. Keeping a watch over everything is the only awake crew member, Walter, an updated version of David, the synthetic from “Prometheus.”
A near-catastrophic space storm forces the generally unflappable Walter to rouse the crew. The captain (James Franco, in what has to be the one of the shortest cameos ever) doesn’t even survive the process, forcing leadership upon a reluctant and religious Christopher (Billy Crudup). With the vessel damaged, he makes the decision to forgo the mission’s original destination and instead head to a closer planet that looks as if it might be hospitable to humans.
At first, it seems ruggedly perfect, in fact a lot like New Zealand without the sheep (“Alien: Covenant” indeed was filmed in New Zealand and Australia). But Christopher’s promised land turns out to be a hellish mirage, as it’s infested with the spores that take root inside a human host and, well, you can guess the rest.
But just as it seems as if “Alien: Covenant” is going to be a simple slaughterfest, Scott doubles back to the spirit of the film’s opening scene. David (also played by Fassbender) is still alive and living among the aliens. Why he’s there provides the film’s philosophical and emotional underpinning.
Along these lines, “Covenant” doesn’t fully explore Christopher’s religious beliefs and how they might conflict or align with David or Walter’s views as creatures created by man. That Christopher turns out to be man racked by both guilt and cowardice may not sit well with those who initially identify with him as a man of faith.
Yet “Alien: Covenant,” with a script by John Logan and Dante Harper, works as a simple exercise in horror. With Christopher not fully stepping up to the plate, it’s up to second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston) to become the de facto leader of a quickly shrinking crew, and Scott is expert at framing their struggle for survival in the most nerve-jangling terms.
This just goes to show that, for all of the philosophizing, what made “Alien” and “Aliens” so effective was the sheer dread of being under relentless attack by an unknowable, unstoppable force.
Fleshing out this universe is admirable and separates the franchise from its imitators. But it’s the red, raw meat of fear that feeds the entire enterprise and, this time, Scott serves plenty of it.
☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Danny McBride, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Rated: R (sci-fi violence, bloody images, language, sexuality/nudity)
Running time: 122 min.