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"Alien: Covenant" sacrifices freak show theatrics for fan service, isn't as good as underrated "Prometheus"

City Paper

Like Mary Shelley’s famous man-made monster, 2012’s “Prometheus” wasn’t so much bad as it was misunderstood. The greatest sin of Ridley Scott’s return to the “Alien” franchise after so many decades away was that its reach exceeded its grasp: A fairly bare bones script made all the more unique and intriguing by astonishing and horrific visuals, “Prometheus” was a hundred million dollar studio picture given the unenviable task of balancing sci-fi action with heady questions about free will, morality and faith.

Say what you will about “Prometheus” few major motion pictures open with a large muscular alien drinking black goop then disintegrating in agony—“2001: A Space Odyssey,” eat your heart out. And that's to say nothing of the fact that the sequence of Noomi Rapace’s space heroine being cut open inside a surgery machine is handily one of the best moments of claustrophobic horror from a recent American film (and a commentary on a woman's right to choose to boot!). With the benefit of hindsight, “Prometheus” is maybe not a great film but it is certainly a memorable one. Maybe it’s perfect that a movie obsessed with the messy, unpleasant relationship between creator and creation be equally messy and unpleasant in parts.

All of this is just to say that this week sees the opening of “Prometheus” follow up “Alien: Covenant”, a mixed bag of space horror and body-bursting that unfortunately never matches the bugfuck highs of its 2012 sibling or the white hot adrenaline suspense of Scott’s original 1979 “Alien”.

Scott himself has said in interviews that he’d taken the resoundingly negative audience reaction to “Prometheus” into consideration when it came time to make “Covenant” and it shows. While “Prometheus” was a film that loosely resembled Scott’s 1979 “Alien,” “Alien: Covenant” is explicitly an Alien movie. Even the title, ALIEN COLON COVENANT, feels like a “hey, okay we heard you” marketing nod. Plot-wise “Alien: Covenant” splits the difference between “Alien” and “Prometheus”, following yet another Weyland Industries manned mission on its way to a distant habitable planet crewed by a group of seven couples set 10 years after the events of “Prometheus” and about 20 years pre-“Alien.” Disaster strikes and acting captain/crazy religious guy Oram (Billy Crudup) and acting second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston) argue over whether or not to try their luck on a close-by seemingly liveable planet that just happened to issue some kind of recorded message. Oh yeah, and that planet is the homeworld of those massive pale Engineers from “Prometheus”.

“Alien: Covenant” suffers from the unusual condition of having a stacked cast that, by and large, never seems to fully awaken from space travel-induced hyper-sleep. Crudup’s paranoid captain, Demián Bichir’s gay head of security and even Danny McBride’s cowboy hat-wearing pilot are essentially character sketches to be terrorized by a variety of facehugging and chestbursting lifeforms. Waterston, while still not enormously well developed, shines a bit more on pure charm and charisma as a proto-Ellen Ripley who just wants to build a space log cabin and mourn her dead husband (played by James Franco in a hilariously low key cameo). Waterston’s Daniels is the only competent member of the Covenant crew able to keep their wits about them as everyone’s spouses are bumped off, a solid Final Girl for the film’s blood-soaked finale who mainly suffers from not getting much to do otherwise.

“Alien: Covenant's" true star is Michael Fassbender. Pulling double duty as the deranged android David first seen in “Prometheus” and as the more servile Walter, Fassbender dominates the film. While David in "Prometheus" was more of an amoral child attempting to find meaning in his own existence, the long haired, cloak-wearing David of “Alien: Covenant” lords over the ruins of an alien mausoleum like some kind of outer space Dracula, an ageless being that resents and preys upon the humanity he resembles while quoting the classics. The “what hath science wrought?” influence of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” hangs heavy over the film and while I’m not sure audiences needed an explicit explanation of where the iconic facehuggers from “Alien” came from, it’s a blast watching David trick his perceived human oppressor into looking into an blossoming egg pod unaware of what’s coming.

As Walter, Fassbender spits out lines in what must purposely be a terrible American accent and avoids the gaze of his human shipmates. It’s a less captivating performance made substantially more interesting as the two Michael Fassbenders homoerotically gaze into each other’s eyes and discuss the morality in genocide later in the film. This is a movie where Michael Fassbender fights himself, kisses himself, and teaches himself to play the flute. And it’s these moments are where “Alien: Covenant” really shines as the kind of weird, challenging blockbuster other blockbusters are so often too afraid to be.

While predatory, Fassbender-on-Fassbender, robo-action is a high point of the film, it’s strange how oddly unconcerned “Covenant” is with the variety of alien monsters who show up to munch on the human crew. Several prototypical “neomorphs” burst out of characters’ backs and faces but are dispatched on screen without much fanfare. Even the threat of the newly born alien “xenomorph”— translucent black dome and everything—feels a little subdued given how easily it’s squashed by our heroes in a construction machine-heavy scene that probably owes James Cameron some residuals. The presence of the aliens in the film feels like a box to be checked off on a shopping list rather than the driving force of suspense that made “Alien” and “Aliens” such enduring classics. 

“Alien: Covenant” veers wildly between mere watchability and gleeful menace, no more so than in its surprisingly audacious final moments. “Prometheus” is reviled or beloved depending on which corner of the internet you ask but the new film sells itself short by bending over backwards to please those fans left confused and angry by the prior film’s lack of answers and double-jawed alien monstrosities. Although “Alien: Covenant” is a perfectly serviceable delivery system for Scott’s brand of literary philosophy and alien slasher movie kills, you’ll pine for its predecessor’s stumbling ambition.

"Alien: Covenant," directed by Ridley Scott is out May 19.

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