The Bock’s Office: ‘Alien: Covenant’ — In space, no one can hear you scoff
May 25, 2017
A series with horrific creatures that take form thanks to incubating within human hosts should have a sense of irony when its latest entry uses the same methodology to mangle its original greatness. And, yet, no such self-awareness is present in "Alien: Covenant."
In 2104, the spaceship Covenant is en route to a new colony planet with thousands of people aboard in the hopes of starting a new world.
A bump in the ride slows the ship's progress, also bringing the crew out of hyper-sleep. During maintenance on the damaged vessel, the group receives an unusual distress beacon from a previously uncharted planet.
Reasoning that the source of this cry for help could be an even better place for their colony, the newly appointed captain (Billy Crudup) leads a search party to explore the mysterious planet.
While the sender of the transmission appears to be long gone, the crew finds much more than they bargained for, as members are impacted by unseen dangers that bring about some very hostile native lifeforms and one artificial one with a familiar face — an android named David (Michael Fassbender), whom they'll have to trust if they want to stay alive.
The entirety of the plot and perhaps the movie altogether rests on the synthetic shoulders of Fassbender, who returns as the shady, snarky artificial man from "Prometheus," who we learn named himself after Michelangelo's greatest sculpture and is harboring a serious God complex to unravel the secrets of creation, whatever it takes.
This time, however, he's met his match in the mirror, as the actor also plays a newer model named Walter, much more subservient to the people of Covenant and less inquisitive about his programming. Try not to be insulted that this denser, dutiful, electronic pack mule speaks with an American accent compared to David's hissy British intonation.
It wouldn't be an "Alien" movie without a strong woman present who is all but ignored by her colleagues until it's too late, and Katherine Waterston has the honor this time as scientist Dany Branson, still mourning the recent death of a husband who was incinerated in an accident on the ship, upsetting the chain of command.
Crudup does his best in an underwritten, ultimately meaningless role as Christopher Oram, a pious sort who takes his duty to lead mankind to a new future seriously, somehow making all the wrong decisions along the way.
Then there's Danny McBride in all his redneck grandeur as pilot Tennessee Faris, whose recognition of the decoded signal — John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" — that brings them to this frightening new world speaks volumes about the simplicity of the script.
We ain't in West Virginia anymore…
It's worth noting that the main crew of the Covenant consists of married couples, a hard 180 from the single nature of characters in the earlier films, which makes sense in depicting people uprooting their lives to relocate across the galaxy yet largely serves as an emotional manipulator as people are torn up in learning of their spouses' demises, in most cases to later be ripped apart more literally.
Director Ridley Scott touches on some of the themes from "Prometheus" but also is clearly determined to return to what worked best from his 1979 slasher that introduced us to the Xenomorph.
Blood and guts galore provide the same kind of gruesome thrills, a tactic that of course will work decades later, with some brilliant effects to make these malicious beauties all the more shocking. Yet, it rarely feels fresh when it's happening to folks who are more stock personalities than full people.
Scott is more tethered to the past than he's willing to admit, with a score by Jed Kurzel that draws from Jerry Goldsmith's 1979 composition, plus the tones of Marc Streitenfeld from "Prometheus" for a musical mishmash that goes from hopeful to terrifying and back again.
The battle of wits between David and Walter is easily the most watchable bit of the film and one that isn't as developed as well as it should be, providing an eerily perfect yin and yang of android ethics that's secondary to mayhem.
Did Isaac Asimov take face-huggers into consideration when he came up with his laws of robotics?
Serving as a bridge to a far superior flick, "Alien: Covenant" is serviceable enough without being as groundbreaking as Scott's initial effort, as action-packed as James Cameron's "Aliens," or as full of wonder as "Prometheus."
Still, the "Alien" brand isn't going anywhere any time soon, nor should it. After all, there's still work to do to get "Alien: Resurrection" out of our collective consciousness.