Those of us who adore the 1979 movie Alien do so because we “admire its purity.” That line is spoken by undercover android Ash when he encounters the extraterrestrial specimen—he’s a sucker for efficiency—but it applies equally to the movie’s conceptual backbone. Alien combined creaky haunted house tropes and a slasher-movie literalism with a working-class view of the corporate future, all of it framed in blatantly psychosexual terms. It was fast, dirty thrill.
The Alien series has evolved to incorporate other metaphors (Vietnam, motherhood) in the years since, but it’s always functioned best at its leanest. Ridley Scott, who’s directed three parts of this six-movie cycle, seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from 2012’s Prometheus, a bloated origin story that traded the original’s fixation on sex and gender for religion and mythology.
If Alien: Covenant was meant as a course correction—the name is back in the title—an interminable opening exchange between prototype android David (Michael Fassbender, returning) and Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, also returning sans inexplicable old-age makeup) betrays that notion: “If you created me,” David asks Peter, “who created you?” “Ah. The question of the ages—where do we come from?” Yikes.
Before long, we’re aboard colonization ship Covenant, its sleeping crew attended to by android Walter (also played by Fassbender but with an accent that will only make sense about halfway into the movie). The promotional material has done stellar work concealing the movie’s plot, which will satisfy Prometheus fans but affords the rest of us an opportunity to watch Fassbender kiss and punch himself in the same scene.
It’s in those stranger moments that Covenant justifies its existence, although it’s mostly content allowing Fassbender to wax rhapsodic about Byron, beauty, and creation. Prometheus proved antiquity a poor fit for this series, but Covenant indulges in classicism, only pausing its soliloquies for brief punches of gore. Those sequences test the boundaries of CGI carnage, but they’re structural afterthoughts—announcements like “Let’s split up” and “I gotta take a leak” signal violent detours—and the entire climax hinges on an absurdly obvious wrinkle.
Like Prometheus, Covenant’s main interest isn’t visceral body horror, but mythology—specifically creation myths. That’s not an inapt fixation—this is a sequel to a prequel to one of Hollywood’s most durable franchises—and it might even be intellectually stimulating if that kind of self-referential posturing weren’t so ubiquitous. But it still wouldn’t satisfy those baser impulses that make Alien so penetrating almost 40 years on. Whatever potency remains in this series, there’s little purity left to admire.
Alien: Covenant. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper. Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Billy Crudup. Opens in Kansas City May 18, 2017.