‘Alien: Covenant’ Review: God-Level Fassbender Saves Uneven Sequel
The title of Alien: Covenant directly refers to the spaceship carrying the film’s human characters, and indirectly refers to the film’s most pervasive theme: The tense relationship between gods and their creations. Students of the Old Testament learn about God’s covenant with Abraham, which promised the prophet the land of Israel in exchange for, among other things, his male descendants’ foreskin. Some gods work in mysterious ways; the ones in Alien: Covenant certainly do.
These gods include several of the Judeo-Christian kind, along with ancient extraterrestrials, robotics inventors, and even their artificially intelligent progeny. And then there’s the creator of everything we see onscreen, Ridley Scott — who, in calling this Prometheus sequel Alien: Covenant, has made a sort of covenant with the audience: To be less oblique in the connections to his original 1979 movie than he was in 2012’s Prometheus, and to include the actual face-hugging, chest-bursting, acid-bleeding xenomorph.
Scott delivers on his end of the bargain, barely, in a way that feels a little obligatory; a concession made to appease his congregation so he can also explore the stuff that really interests him. Those topics include religion and the nature of existence, along with the one holdover character from Prometheus, an android named David, played by Michael Fassbender. David’s choices in Alien: Covenant don’t always seem to fit with his previous actions in Prometheus. But then what god doesn’t behave inconsistently?
There are actually two Fassbenders in Alien: Covenant, both of them magnificent. The second is named Walter, the lone “synthetic” aboard a ship carrying 2,000 colonists to a distant planet. Their initial plan changes after the ship’s engine is damaged in a freak solar eruption, the first of many untimely storms in the film. (You might even call them acts of God.) In the ensuing chaos, the captain (a barely-seen James Franco) dies, leaving the survivors under the command of the God-fearing and deeply unconfident Oram (Billy Crudup). When the Covenant picks up a signal from a nearby uncharted planet, Oram diverts the ship to investigate.
This being an Alien movie, that turns out to be a terrible decision, the first of many Oram and the rest of the Covenant crew will make over the course of the next two hours. Only Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the captain’s widow, voices an objection. She’s also the only one who notices the obvious warning signs everywhere they look on this planet. (Note to readers: No matter what anyone tells you, never, under any circumstances, stick your exposed face in the opening of a throbbing alien egg.)
Once they make it to the surface, the Covenant landing party discovers a lush environment inexplicably covered in Earth vegetation. They also trample some ominous pods which release virulent microbes into the air, infecting those in the immediate vicinity with a kind of 1.0 version of the nasty xenomorphs that have become synonymous with the Alien series. These aliens lead to the crew’s initial encounter with David, who has been stranded on the planet in the 10 years that have passed since the events of Prometheus.
Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper (working from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) eventually explain how David got there and what he’s been up to in the interim, but they leave many questions unanswered, including the ones still lingering from the end of Prometheus about what the hell the Engineers (basically space gods who created life on Earth) were up to in the first place. In order to enjoy Alien: Covenant, one must be prepared to overlook some inconsistencies and accept a string of narrative coincidences and conveniences, like communicators that go dead at just the right time to prevent life-saving info from making it to the people who need it.
The reason to look past the movie’s issues is Fassbender. In a centerpiece sequence that is sure to perplex audiences expecting a more conventional thriller, David and Walter engage in what can only be described as robotic autoerotics. With undeniable tension hanging in the air, David teaches Walter to play the flute while flatly announcing “I’ll do the fingering.” (It’s Shame 2: Android Love!) Around the music lesson, the two discuss the nature of their respective existences, and what it means to be truly alive. The way Fassbender plays against himself is uncanny and seamless; it’s a far more impressive use of visual effects than the more bombastic action sequences that follow.
Scenes like the two Fassys and others (including a cold — and I mean very cold — open featuring David and his creator from Prometheus, Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland) are strange and surreal enough to keep Alien: Covenant entertaining, even when the third act devolves into standard blockbuster action fare. Waterston gets surprisingly little to do in the de facto Ripley role; she’s overshadowed by the two Fassbenders and by comedian Danny McBride, acquitting himself well in a rare serious role as the Covenant pilot who must make some difficult choices after he loses contact with the away team (and his wife, played by Amy Seimetz).
The movie begins at a leisurely pace, but once the Covenant arrives at this foreboding location the story quickens, and there’s less and less time for Scott’s quirky philosophizing — or even for the characters to make rational decisions. The movie has the same problem as Prometheus: By the third act, everyone is pretty much running headlong into their own deaths (which, it should be noted, are troubling, disturbing, and totally icky and gross.) A chicken with its heads cut off is a model of rationality compared to these people.
Given the film’s generally sour perspective on humanity and its prospects for survival in the coming centuries, all of this could be by design. Perhaps Scott would say society is too stupid to endure, and that piecing together the film’s spotty backstory requires an act of faith. That would fit with the rest of Alien: Covenant. Its most provocative idea might be the suggestion that all gods are ultimately the creations of their subjects. And because their subjects are mortal, and therefore inherently flawed, so are their gods. Art sometimes works the same way. But when its aims are ambitious, it’s easy to overlook some of the problems.