The first third of Alien: Covenant is suitably gripping. The final third is wreathed in tension reminiscent of the film’s 1979 progenitor, Alien. The second third sandwiched in between these bookends is equally interminable and dumb, a garbage-level studio-prompted exercise in origin narrative, built to demystify intellectual property where mystification is a key factor in its success.
Whether Alien: Covenant’s finale is worth enduring its punishing midsection is up to you: If you like your post-Jeunet Alien films laden with pseudo-religious ponderings, then you’ll want to stick around when Covenant’s narrative stream syncs up with its 2012 predecessor, Prometheus. If not, consider taking an extended bathroom break as soon as Michael Fassbender joins the rest of Covenant’s cast to reprise his role from Prometheus, the amoral android, David, a character whose motivations make about as much sense now as they did five years ago (which is to say that they don’t make any sense whatsoever). As soon as Fassbender emerges from the shadows to meddle in the affairs of the title vessel and its crew, Covenant begins spurning the intelligence of its audience.
More’s the fool us: We’re the saps naive enough to buy tickets to a modern Alien film, aren’t we? But the reintroduction of David is a double-edged sword, both the best and worst of what the movie has to offer its viewers. What cuts us is the act of consolidation. Ridley Scott is a master filmmaker, but he lost his way in Prometheus, and stitching that film to the fabric of Alien: Covenant sets the latter on the same course as the former, and turns it into an exercise in neglectful franchise maintenance. The upside, naturally, is Fassbender, one of the great actors of the day, finding substance in a role where none exists. Much like the film itself, David lacks cogency, but Fassbender’s innate charisma is nothing if not persuasive. He’s at least capable of making us buy into the illusion Scott’s trying to sell us.
He also gets to make out with himself, playing double duty as David and as Walter, another android stationed aboard a spaceship bearing a couple thousand colonists toward their final destination, a faraway world called Origae-6. The plan is to terraform the planet and start up a new hub of human civilization, but as such plans do in Alien films, all goes awry in the wake of a devastating neutrino blast that forces Walter and the crew (including Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Demián Bichir, and a handful of others apparently undeserving of even the meager character development afforded the rest) to affect repairs and redirect the ship to the surface of an undiscovered planet coated in lush vegetation. The good news: It’s a perfect spot for their new colony! The bad news: It’s a breeding ground for everyone’s favorite enigmatic extraterrestrial monster! Queue everyone getting dead, with a profound attention on gore effects.
Alien: Covenant starts out mostly swimmingly, stumbling only on minor roadblocks as Scott guides his characters and the crowd into his film’s visual abattoir: The sheer volume of blood spilled here, CGI or not, can’t be overstated, so let’s be clear upfront that Alien: Covenant isn’t for the faint of heart (though the faint of heart probably aren’t lining up to see this sucker anyways). Put as vaguely as possible to avoid spoiling its gruesome pleasures, let’s just say that things go into things, and that things come out of things, and also that these things are things that should neither go into nor come out of other things. This is precisely the draw of Alien movies from a visceral standpoint, of course, and as long as Scott melds paranoiac body horror and gun-toting action without drawing attention to backstory, the film works. It even has subtext. (You think you know someone until they unexpectedly vomit bile in your face. If that’s not a metaphor for modern political dialogue, then what is?)
But some monsters demand creation tales, and others don’t. Knowing how Frankenstein’s cadaverous lab experiment came into being is an essential component in the gearwork of its mythos. Knowing where, exactly, the xenomorphs come from isn’t. In fact, knowing diffuses their iconography. What makes the alien scary is its unknowability: You’re scarcely aware of its presence until it’s too late, whether by the crack of your ribs as it bursts through your chest or the hiss of its double-jaws before it punches a hole in your face. You don’t have a clue what it is, but you know “it” is basically a walking, chitinous husk of acid with more sharp ends than the average house cat. You know that it wants to kill you, that your death is guaranteed, and that you won’t leave a pretty corpse.
Scott busies himself with the ruination of the xenomorph’s mystique for a significant chunk of Alien: Covenant’s two hours, but he occasionally distracts himself by getting to the core of what makes the best Alien films (Alien and Aliens, obviously) tick: They’re scary, taut, violent, and most of all intimate, because what fate is more intimate than serving as the fleshy host body for the gestating brood of the perfect killing machine? Sure, the deemphasis of the series’ Marxist interpretations in favor of bromidic philosophical mumblings is a turnoff, seeing as how each films’ literal struggles against xenomorphs tend to reflect figurative struggles against corporate enterprise. But Alien: Covenant doesn’t need to validate an abiding critical theory to be any good. It just needs to be riveting.
And maybe two thirds out of three in the riveting department ain’t bad, but oh lord, that other third. It’s as deflating as it is aggravating, a graceless stretch of narrative that undermines Alien: Covenant (and the rest of the Alien pictures, for that matter) on micro and macro planes: It treats its characters like twits and expects that we’ll accept their idiocy as a B-movie schlock dictate. (It doesn’t take a genius to intuit that sticking your face in a freshly hatched alien egg is a good way to die painfully.) But Alien: Covenant takes itself far too seriously to qualify as “schlock.” Instead, it’s high-minded, glossy opportunism, a blatant attempt at cashing in on pre-existing IP without acknowledging what makes that IP work in the first place. “We know who made David,” the film tells us, “but who made his makers? And who made the alien?” The best reply is one made in kind: Who cares?
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez
Release Date: May 19, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.