Dir. Ridley Scott
*This review contains some spoilers.*
Is it possible for an Alien movie to still offer surprises? If you've been following the trajectory of these movies for the past few decades, you'd be forgiven for considering the series exhausted. And while I'm willing to admit that lowered expectations may influence my appraisal, it doesn't diminish the fact that Alien: Covenant is by far the best of the last thirty years. But not only that, it's a terrifically twisted horror movie that stands rather well on its own.
In fact, this movie is so good it can make you reassess your thoughts on Prometheus, the 2012 movie that marked the return of original Alien director, Ridley Scott, yet was perhaps too shy or too convoluted about its lineage. Covenant feels like Scott and the writers were out to make sure they made up for the mistakes of Prometheus, but it doing so they've made a movie that is not only a significant improvement - it's also a very natural tying-up (or continuation) of the story threads that Prometheus left frustratingly dangling.
What's really impressive though, and what makes Covenant so unexpectedly worthwhile, is that it tells a story that has genuine purpose. It might be a story that's very similar to countless Frankenstein homages and other mad scientist movies, but Scott executes it magnificently -- certainly better than Alien: Resurrection, which stumbled over some similar territory.
So what is going on here? Well, like the previous movie, Covenant is the name of a ship, which is this time filled with a colonization team that plans to terraform a planet called Origae-6, making it habitable for their cargo of two thousand hypersleeping people. Unlike previous Alien crews, everyone here is personally invested in the mission. Their journey is the culmination of exhaustive research and meticulous, big-picture thinking - they also have a thousand embryos to help ensure a bright, fertile future for the civilization they're trying to establish.
When we first step aboard the Covenant, its fifteen years after the events of Prometheus and the sleeping crew and chilled eggs are being tended to by Walter, the ship's token android, played by Michael Fassbender. Yes, even though this is a colonization mission, it's still being bankrolled by Weyland Enterprises and Walter is the latest updated version of Peter Weyland's most prized invention.
The movie actually starts off with an eerie prelude featuring Guy Pierce as Weyland, having a very existential conversation with David, the synthetic that ended up like the head of Alfredo Garcia at the end of Prometheus, agreeing to accompany Elizabeth Shaw on a road trip to the home plant of those very big, pale and hairless dudes known as the Engineers. Yes, we visit the Engineers again in Covenant, but if you weren't a fan of these guys complicating the Alien mythology, you'll be happy to know that things don't go very well for them here.
Really, things don't go well for anyone. The crew of the Covenant get rudely awaken by a very violent flare that tears a hole in their solar sails - a nice touch, as the sails give the Covenant even more of a Noah's Ark vibe. But it also causes some malfunctions that sets fire to the sleeping pod containing their captain, which puts some very unwanted pressure on Billy Crudup as the crew's new leader.
He's got some choices to make: As a few crew members venture out in space to fix the sails, their communication gear picks up a very human signal that gets traced back to a nearby planet. They're all supposed to be asleep with the better part of their journey to Origae-6 still ahead of them. But maybe there's a perfectly habitable planet right around the corner. Maybe they don't have to go back to sleep for another 10 years.
Of course, we all know they shouldn't go. But Covenant isn't interested in subverting the traditional elements of the horror movie - it's here to use them and play within the horror movie rules the majority of the Alien movies more or less honor the same horror movie set that goes back to, at least, Psycho. What the movie does well in these early goings is to establish some better than usual characters, making Billy Crudup's character a good Christian to help fuel his self-doubt and leadership anxieties, and making everyone in the crew someone's husband or wife. This way, when those people start turning into alien incubators, the reaction shots from their friends and family actually carry some weight.
The way we're introduced to the Covenant crew also makes it slightly less obvious as to who will be turned inside out first. But once a reconnaissance ship is sent out to track the signal on this mysterious planet, it isn't long before people the wonder of seeing water, trees and grains turns to the horror of chests bursting open and loved ones being lost. Yes, in these moments, dumb mistakes are being made - but again, these aren't highly trained soldiers or scientists. From the moment they wake up they're grieving civilians, in over their heads and trying to deal with a situation that no amount of protocols can prepare you for. In other words, as your life's work is crumbling before your eyes, some common sense is bound to go out the window.
It's not long before the crew tracks the signal down to a very familiar looking ship -- the one Elizabeth Shaw and David flew off in at the end of Prometheus. Indeed, it turns out that David and Shaw did find the Engineer's home planet and when they arrived David unleashed holy hell on the entire population, wiping the slate clean to play god in his own twisted way.
We spend a large portion of the film's second half down in some dank catacombs, where David has set up shop and where he reassures the rapidly dwindling number of Covenant crew that they are safe. As a storm begins to rage, some try desperately to contact the mother ship hovering above the clouds, while others begin to piece together David's ulterior motives for his new supply of human meat sacs.
Scott clearly loves the damp surfaces of these corridors, and the camerawork by his frequent collaborator, Dariusz Wolski, evokes an eerie primitiveness. This is the kind of cavernous place where you find an underground pond filled with albino reptiles that have those milky, blind eyes. Around every corner is another room containing evidence that adds a layer to the horror story of what David has been up to these past fifteen years.
Like a psychotic Michelangelo, David has been hard at work creating sketches of his dreams and inventions. Walter, the Covenant's synthetic, is tasked with finding out more about what David's been up to, which leads to a series of amazing Fassbender-on-Fassbender scenes -- including a very special one involving a flute that has me eager to see the movie again. Yes, seeing Fassbender's amazing control of his physicality and acting chops is worth the price of admission itself, but the reason it's so thrilling is that there's a great story here with a very satisfying reward.
It eventually becomes clear that Covenant intends to turn David into the grand architect behind the Xenomorph, and this is what he's been doing these past fifteen years -- speeding up the evolutionary process to make this most ideal creature of death. In true Alien fashion, by this point were down to our last survivors, including the very Ripleyesque Katherine Waterston. Covenant also carries on the tradition of having a couple different endings, with varying levels of effectiveness. In this case, I admired the roller-coaster effect of the first ending, which finds Waterston swinging around on a rope, trying to knock the Xenomorph off the ship while it tries to lift off and escape the pull of gravity. For a special effects set-piece it did have a remarkable sense of real weight to it all, even if it was a bit silly.
But there's nothing wrong with a bit of silliness, folks. There's no reason an Alien movie has to be a dour bummer. Alien 3 proved this perfectly well. Alien: Covenant is filled with laugh-out-loud hilarious bits that made it all the more enjoyable. Fassbender's David is proving himself to be one of the great cinematic villains, up there with Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lector.
Since I was too young to catch the first two entries in their initial run, this is the first time I've left the theater after an Alien movie feeling completely satisfied and genuinely thrilled by the experience.