Ridley Scott may have a disdain for humanity. At least he has little affection for us. This film, for its many talented actors, is concerned visually and narratively with the non-human stars. As a result, the characters and humanity by proxy seem…well, disposable.
The newest addition to the Alien franchise opens on a conversation between synthetic, David (Michael Fassbender) and ubiquitous financier from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, Peter Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce.) Weyland is a megalomaniacal creator and the Alien franchise has done a pavlovian number on the audience with the Weyland name. He commands David to play music and fetch tea, generally marveling at the product of his own genius, but David asks questions about the chain of origination that begat himself and that kind of reflection doesn’t sit well with Weyland. This sets the tone for a movie that often looks down upon the fertile homo sapiens, who are constantly looking for a savior, but won’t do the damned work of saving themselves.
But let’s backtrack. It is December 5th, 2104 and the starship Covenant is en route in colonization mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. In tow, a crew of 15 and a payload of 2000 colonists and 1400 human embryos cryogenically stored away. The ship is a floating starter kit for humanity on the more habitable planet of Origae-6. Awake on the ship is a new synthetic, Walter, still played by the wonderfully game Michael Fassbender. Trouble begins immediately, when a random localized event (space glitch?) forces an emergency crew revival from cryogenic stasis.
Reborn into chaos and doom, the crew of the Covenant fight against fate to correct their course. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes command, but his rigid faith-based leadership quickly isolates members of the crew and he struggles to unite the team or even properly memorialize their fallen captain. The rest of the crew are mostly coupled up, including Branson’s partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston), for population purposes narratively and stakes for the audience.
Meanwhile, while fixing external damage to the ship, crew member Tennessee (Danny McBride in a Danny McBride role) picks up a ghostly transmission from a nearby planet. As the crew is not eager to get back into their cryo-coffins, Oram decides that this planet is likely as good as Origae-6 for colonization. He leads all but three of the ill-fated crew on a scouting mission.
No sooner have they split up in their eerily-empty surroundings than pod-born nano-dust impregnates the least of these with the usual body-bursting aliens. The crew discovers a few familiar faces in the otherwise deserted planet, including David (Michael Fassbender) in an spirited Fassbender on Fassbender duo that Covenant thoroughly explores. David is still harboring ulterior motives and, well, it gets weird. Any more and the reader will be robbed of Covenant’s best bits.
Working from a script by John Logan (Gladiator, Spectre) and screenplay newbie Dante Harper, Ridley Scott embraces a universe outside the spacecraft. Far gone are the claustrophobic thriller or doomed exploration mission of Alien and Prometheus. Instead, we’re given a one part greatest hits creature feature and one part world-building techno-thriller.
In a way, Alien: Covenant looks a lot like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, complete with its own sequence of raptors in the tall grass. As the second film in the Ridley Scott revival, Covenant may be answering to the anger of Alien fans upset at the distance between the xenomorph/neomorph-centered plots of the preceding films and the myth-building plot holes of Prometheus. During an exploration scene in the deserted engineer city, Daniels says, “There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense” as if to apologize for the confusion of Prometheus and acknowledge the strange turns Covenant takes. And for the most part the madness benefits the film’s many set pieces. There are plenty of gruesome body-hatching scenes and old-school face hugger deaths to make this writer practically giddy. And the mix of hyper-tech space ships and ancient architecture offers an expansion of Prometheus’ visual design.
In the last act of the movie, Fassbender’s character attempts to reassure a crew member, “I think if we are kind, it will be a kind world.” It is the least reassuring arrangement of words uttered in the movie and speaks directly to the thinning veil of civility (even naivety) keeping humanity from tearing itself apart. The optimism injected into the line makes it ring all the hollower. True horror is despair, not spectacle. But Alien: Covenant delivers a meal of both, with all the grotesque comforts of the franchise.