"Alien: Covenant" Makes Modest Improvements Over "Prometheus"

Despite a curiously warm reception from critics, Ridley Scott’s 2012 “Alien” prequel “Prometheus” – the director’s first tango with extra terrestrials since his 1979 original – carries a determinedly sour rep. On home video, with its admittedly gorgeous visuals at remove from the immersion of IMAX, the only thing terrifying about the sci-fi horror pic is its writing. Damon Lindelof (“Tomorrowland”) and Jon Spaihts’ (“Passengers”) screenplay was a quagmire of one-dimensional characters in a mostly Xenomorph-free story bereft of any kind of rhythm or tension. Worst of all, it teased the answer to a mystery (the origin of mankind) it had no intention to reveal, delivering a cliffhanger that few longed to see resolved.

The film was also poorly acted, the lone exception being Michael Fassbender’s David, a Weyland Corporation synthetic android. His commanding performance singlehandedly kept the picture from the bottom rung of Sir Ridley Scott’s filmography – it ain’t pretty down there – giving fans of the franchise a flickering hope for a more Alien-centric follow-up. That hope has been realized in the form of “Alien: Covenant,” an almost indisputably better film that still suffers some of the same issues. Happily though, it’s once again raised several notches by one hell of an unnerving robot.

Fassbender is the star this time around, with Scott literally doubling up on his most recent muse. The actor reprises David but also plays a newer model of the same android (named Walter), given an American accent that helpfully sets the two apart. Walter is part of the crew of the Covenant, a spaceship transporting thousands of human colonists to a new world known as Origae-6. When terraforming expert Dany Branson (Katherine Waterston) and her colleagues are awakened from their hypersleep by a shockwave, the ensuing chaos leads to the tragic loss of their captain and a reconsideration of their destination. First mate Christopher Orem (Billy Crudup) suggests a ostensibly livable planet closer by.

What results from Orem’s predictably bad, frighteningly stupid decision-making is a largely unsurprising but intermittently effective creature feature, revealing the origin not of mankind, but of the monstrous E.T.s that we know will eventually go on to haunt Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the spaceship Nostromo. Knowing the origin of the Xenomorph might not be exactly necessary, but it’s something, coming at us in revelations that are respectful of our expectations in a way that “Prometheus” decidedly wasn’t. It helps that the cast is a lot more engaging this time around, from Waterston’s convincing performance to comedian Danny McBride’s biggest dramatic turn to date as Covenant pilot Tennessee Faris.

After Orem decides to explore the nearby, unknown planet, things get creepy and crawly in a hurry. On the heels of a close encounter with a small alien life form, the Covenant crew hooks up with David, marooned there since the events immediately following “Prometheus.” The story becomes progressively more thrilling from here, only held down by some familiar pacing issues. As ever, Fassbender comes through, taking the movie to new heights every time he – or better yet, two of him – appear on screen. The decision to make him ringmaster ultimately saves the day, giving a back-to-basics Alien movie an extra shot of meaning. By the time Ridley Scott smashes to black, an occasionally pedantic monster movie has approached the ranks of the heavyweight its predecessor wanted to be.

Moviegoers on the hunt for an Alien fix will get it, even if the picture never quite reconciles its awkward place between prequel and sequel. And Ridley Scott struggles with pacing as much as ever, at odds with his visual eye and general enthusiasm for the medium, which remain as strong as ever. “Covenant” might be far removed from the series’ highest notes, but, unlike “Prometheus,” it’s worthy of fan investment. Just when it threatens to become bogged down in the familiar, a spark of inspiration hits and we’re carried away to the scariest reaches of space all over again.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: May 19, 2017
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: John Logan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez
MPAA Rating: R (for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity)