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Alien: Covenant

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/21/17 12:30:33

"More ALIEN, if not necessarily new ALIEN."
3 stars (Average)

That the original "Alien" movies wound up being made by four different filmmakers, each of whom would have noteworthy careers, doing a distinct take on the material, was likely less the product of design than the studio looking for people who would work cheap on a series that had a moderate number of devoted fans. It made that series a fascinating, if uneven, anthology in retrospect, and this second return of original director Ridley Scott in an era when studios prize the predictable stability of a series that is now a popular brand is the opposite of the reinvention that characterized the series originally. So this is a new, fairly capable "Alien" sequel, but it's a predictable one, and maybe these movies shouldn't be that.

The Covenant of the title is a colonization spaceship with a crew of 15 - seven couples and synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) - plus two thousand colonists and another thousand embryos. Walter is the only one not in cryo sleep when a neutrino burst damages the solar sails, necessitating waking the crew, though a malfunctioning cryo pod causes their captain to burn up. The crew intercepts what seems like a human transmission from a nearby planet during EVA and new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) opts to investigate; they can get there in days versus another seven years in cryo, though the deceased captain's widow "Dani" Daniels (Katherine Waterston) thinks this is a little too good to be true. She, of course, is right - this is the planet where the Prometheus disappeared ten years (and one film) ago, and though the xenomorphs are dormant, a ship full of fresh meat and bodies to spawn in will take care of that.

We've seen this situation play out before, of course, five times over not counting the crossovers with the Predator franchise and the other-media tie-ins, and that in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing: H.R. Giger's Alien still looks fantastic and comes across as believably unstoppable, and over the past 40 years, the Alien universe has built up a framework where one can have the aliens run amok without feeling trapped in a single box. The trouble here is that Scott and at least four writers put themselves in a box willingly; their pokes at grander themes are all either callbacks to Prometheus or foreshadowing of whatever the third movie in this trilogy winds up being. Alien: Covenant, itself, is a set of familiar sci-fi plays and frantic violence, not using the familiarity of its pieces to dig a little deeper.

Part of the problem is that there are just too many characters to give any much time. Fifteen is a fairly high number for what amounts to a slasher film, and in many cases there isn't much chance to really glean their function on the ship, let alone much in the way of personality, before they have something nasty pushing its way out of their bodies. Potentially interesting angles are glossed over in unfortunate ways: The human characters all being married (and, initially, Dani being the only widow) is not something that creates a specific dynamic other than certain characters reliably being focused on saving or avenging that one person more; we barely see them as couples otherwise. The exception is how Karine (Carmen Ejogo) steadying her husband when Oram tosses off a line about how they didn't want to put a man of faith in charge of this mission, which also serves as a reminder that Prometheus had pointedly religious characters, but doesn't really do much with questions of faith and origins even though characters talk a big game about their importance. Is Scott building to something here, or is this just a thread that he and his writers feel matters but which they can't integrate?

There may be too many characters, but Scott is at least able to give ach one to a good actor, right down to Amy Seimetz as a pilot who gets to panic memorably. As mentioned, Billy Crudup and Carmen Ejogo are the ones who get the most chances to demonstrate on-screen chemistry, and they're enjoyable to watch as his insecurity and her forceful confidence complement each other. Danny McBride and Demian Bichir are able to create memorable individual performances, and Michael Fassbender impresses in a dual role, as both the loyal Walter and David, whose programming could probably have used being a little more restrictive even before being marooned alone for ten years. The standout, though, is Katherine Waterston; Daniels is a raw wound from pretty close to the moment the audience meets her, and Waterston does something more horror movie heroines should, looking like every dead and mutilated friend and co-worker hurts her personally. There's sadness in her rage and determination, and it makes Dani seem all the stronger.

That includes in the middle of the action scenes, and there are a couple of good ones. Scott and his crew may not have the most original screenplay to work with, but Scott's still got a fantastic eye and fine instincts for how to stage a big fight in even the most unreal environments. It's surprising that this movie isn't being released in 3D; it's composed like one and Scott has used that format as well as anyone over the past decade, including in Prometheus. Most important, though, is that when the xenomorphs start killing, there's an impressive relentlessness to it; by this point in a series, the monsters are no longer the overwhelming threat they were designed to be, but this movie does a good job of building them back up.

Add that together, and "Covenant" winds up showing impressive craft in how it wipes out the latest bunch of nobodies that stumble upon these perfect killing machines, and there are moments when that's enough, especially if one either doesn't expect reinvention from "Alien" movies or thinks that's where the series went astray. Even then, it's not the monster movie it could be, whether coming in cold or as a fan of the first movie or two.

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