Presenting Alien: Covenant, in which the DNA of several movies—a literal sequel to Prometheus, a spiritual sequel to Blade Runner, a Planet of Dr. Moreau, and a run-and-gun splatter-fest—mix into a half-formed mutant that bursts from Ridley Scott’s chest and onto screens everywhere. Prometheus had been Scott’s mixed-reception start at giving the monster from Alien its own origin story, and Alien: Covenant resumes its predecessor’s mythology as well as its ponderous meditations on man, god, and mortality. This is the sort of movie that uses the word “ambulate” when “walk” would have worked just as well. It is also the first Alien movie to succumb to the horror cliche of having people killed during sex, and something of that schizoid nature typifies the film.
The opening act, where another ship of doomed space travelers awaken from their interstellar sleep and respond to a mysterious signal, actually does a fine job of throwing us back into this universe. The characters of Prometheus became semi-infamous in geek culture for being among the dumbest brilliant scientists to ever explore a new planet. The characters of Covenant are better drawn, particularly Billy Crudup’s shaky captain and Katherine Waterston’s solid replacement-Ripley. Then, once the ship lands and the alien appears, those characters hit a wall. It’s a fundamental question that I’m not sure Alien: Covenant has an answer for: is the movie meant to belong to Waterston’s Ripleyesque heroine, or is it Michael Fassbender’s show? Fassbender pulls double duty here, reprising his role as the creepy android David from Prometheus while also playing a “new model” that the colonists bring with them. David, it seems, has been stranded on a distant planet, biding his time and attempting to genetically engineer a “perfect organism.” And as Fassbender takes his place as the Alien backstory’s chief villain and prime motivator, all Covenant‘s humans start to fade, reintroduced only to be eaten.
All of which is to say that Alien: Covenant is a movie distracted from itself, and I can’t tell which half is the distraction. Does the philosophical backstory distract from the basics of an Alien movie—another day, another airlock—or is it the other way around? The speculation about the origin of the species (ours and “its”) is a lot less fun; this is a movie that throws around terms like “faith”, “believe”, and “creator” in a way that implies meaning without actually having much. But then, Scott’s interest in those ideas is the part of the movie that feels most passionate; the action, by contrast, is professional but utterly impersonal.
Each part is intriguing, each part is incomplete. But if this particular sci-fi fan is allowed to be schizoid himself, I must admit I kind of enjoyed sifting through this new material for two hours: rooting for Waterston, marveling at Scott and co.’s visual wizardry, and barreling through the detailed, claustrophobic sets. The lasting question, and the one that addresses why this new film was greeted by so many fans as a non-event, is whether its most basic mission is even desirable. Could an explanation of the creature, even if done right, do any good? I’m reminded of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”, another touchstone of sci-fi horror, whose opening paragraph contains this warning: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should travel far.” Something of that essential Lovecraftian anxiety was ingrained in the original Alien: the sense that the endlessness of space, only just being explored, might contain terrors beyond imagination and comprehension. And I’ll bet you points off the gross that that long, cold stare into the unknown will continue to power Scott’s first masterpiece long after the mythology of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant start to fade.
Alien: Covenant is available for rental on iTunes. If you want to see a movie where one Michael Fassbender hits on another Michael Fassbender, this is probably your only chance.