It occurs to me that I may not be the best prepared person to adequately judge the pros and cons of the new Alien film, Alien Covenant, the decidedly more Alien flavored sequel to the somewhat maligned 2012 series prequel Prometheus. I liked Prometheus. A lot. It isn’t a popular opinion, and it’s not just because Michael Fassbender is one of my favorite actors. Prometheus had a mystery about it, a sort of pessimistic mean streak regarding the nature of humanity itself pulsating beneath the well worn science fiction tropes at the film’s surface. Covenant is definitely the Aliens to Prometheus’ Alien. It’s bigger, faster, louder, more. But is it better? That all depends on what your own expectations for a modern body horror blockbuster are.
All of the Alien films have a definite template: years long space mission, a rag tag crew, a distress signal, a drop ship, bad shit goes down, a carrier is brought back to the main ship, terror ensues, and a survivor or two emerges. AC is no different but it does remix the formula slightly. The crew of the Covenant is on a colonization mission, looking for a suitable environment for the over 2000 colonists on board to start a new life, exiled from a presumably unsafe earth. When the ship is damaged by a freak storm in space the ship’s crew, including newcomer Katherine Waterston in the Ripley surrogate role and ringers like Billy Crudup, Damian Bachir and Danny McBride (great in a rare dramatic turn, though he does get some comic relief in) is awakened from hypersleep only to discover a distress signal from none other than Prometheus survivor Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), but in true horror fashion the doctor’s communique, and the seemingly inhabitable planet that it originates from, is not all that it seems.
There’s a definite Heart of Darkness vibe here, initially owing more to Predator (or perhaps Predators) than anything in the Alien canon, and when the bodies start dropping (as they’re wont to do) the carnage on display has an almost Cronenbergian squirm factor, including a sex = death shower set piece that would make Jason Vooorhees blush, but legendary returning director Ridley Scott’s greatest triumph is in making believable characters out of his canon fodder, the colonization angle adding the extra wrinkle that most of the crew members are couples, adding to the emotional devastation when the slimy star beasts at the film’s center start doing their dirty, dirty work.
The finest day that I’ve ever had was when I learned to cry on command.
But what about Fassbender? Or Fassbenders? If anything elevates Alien Covenant from derivative franchise cash grab to required viewing it’s the supremely talented irishman’s dual role as unhinged returning Prometheus killbot David and the more advanced, kinder, gentler new model on the Covenant’s crew Walter. The good droid / bad droid theatrics aren’t anything new for this series, or the genre in general (see Scott’s Blade Runner and its upcoming belated sequel) and in less capable hands may have been laughably overwrought, but Fassbender deftly and delicately dances around this material with such fascinating idiosyncrasy that it makes any scene he’s in (and especially any scene that both of him are in) just as enthralling as anything involving H.R. Giger’s enduring giant cockroaches.
There are some world building, retcon-y things here that might demystify the Alien a bit, and the film’s brisk, propulsive pace feels a tad slight given the epic, methodical nature of the preceding installments, but without spoiling anything, Fassbender’s performance, inventive action and gore sequences (with no grand guignol punches pulled) and one hell of a nihilistic fuck you downer ending (it’s great, trust me) make this a must watch for any fan of the sci-fi / horror hybrid genre that Ridley Scott’s original Alien film created almost 40 years ago.