Published May 12, 2017Alien: Covenant smartly avoids the ponderously heavy philosophizing of the franchise's previous instalment, Prometheus. It knows enough about what its audience wants, and what made Prometheus so disappointing, to sidestep the navel-gazing and overly long diatribes on Alien mythology, offering exciting and horrifying high-octane action sequences packed with frantic intensity — for the most part. There are still a few middling monologues on life and creation here, suggesting that Alien: Covenant would have been better were it not tied down to being a sequel.
In 2104, ten years after the events of Prometheus, a colonization ship carrying 2,000 hyper-sleeping inhabitants is on a mission to Origae-6, a planet capable of sustaining human life. The android Walter (a new model of android David from Prometheus also played by Michael Fassbender) is forced to awaken the crew early after a disastrous flare event, and current Captain (James Franco, who has less than a minute of screentime) dies in his pod. Second-in-command Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), tepid and unsure, is now in charge, and when he makes the unpopular decision to follow a human-sounding distress call from a nearby planet, there are disastrous results for the entire crew. This nearby planet is the one that Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David (Fassbender) crash-landed onto in Prometheus, and as the crew of the Covenant are about to find out, David has been obsessed with recreating the creepy life-forms ever since.
The scenes in which David explains to members of the baffled crew why he's decided to play God only really work because of Fassbender's eerie magnetism. The film doesn't explain why David is inclined to create an army of toothy monsters, other than simple fascination at their power, but it's not reason enough to carry his motivations through to a logical conclusion.
Alien: Covenant wants to have it both ways, and marry philosophy with action-horror, but it's not a great decision when the scenes with David, as chilling a villain as he may be, seem like they belong in a different movie, and leave the audience eager for more alien weirdness — not to mention more characterization.
The decisions Captain Oram and his crew make are occasionally vague and could have benefitted from more fleshed-out dialogue (Christopher makes allusions to being a "man of faith," and then the subject is never addressed again). Aside from Katherine Waterson as the previous Captain's widow Daniels, and a surprisingly charming performance from Danny McBride as ship pilot Tennessee, there are not many members of this cast viewers know much about or can actively root for.
The film's best, most effective alien encounter focuses on two people, and is the only one that takes place on the ship itself, a reminder of how great this franchise can be when it focuses on horror scenes that are effective in their simplicity, contain characters we care about and make excellent use of the claustrophobia of a spacecraft.