Those looking for a concise illustration of Ridley Scott’s talent as a filmmaker could do much worse than the first hour of Alien: Covenant. Moving at a pace that’s neither rushed nor lugubrious, the film establishes its story of a colony ship transporting cryogenically frozen humans and embryos to a far-flung planet 10 years after the events of Prometheus. A solar flare damages the Covenant, killing the captain while he’s in cryostasis and rendering the surviving skeleton crew so shaken that when they intercept a faint transmission from an unknown planet, they jump at the chance to investigate the message rather than go back inside their sleep pods. Soon, they find themselves on the small planet where the characters from the previous film crash-landed and whereupon they run afoul of similar horrors.
Scott’s facility with wide compositions serves these early scenes well. On the surface of the planet, gray skies press down on brackish waters, while an extreme long shot of the humans beside a steep mountain face with scarred rock and splintered trees speaks to the gouging impact of something unfathomably large. The eerie tranquility of such images only deepens the sense of dread. When the Covenant crew finds the Prometheus, and later a giant public square filled with the desiccated corpses of the creator beings from the earlier film, the unease roused by these gargantuan but hollow and dead spaces chokes you in ways that this film’s blood and gore do not.
The film’s first scene of full-on terror lands spectacularly, with Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) infected by viral spores that send him into bloody convulsions inside a medical lab, his whole body shuddering violently as blood and, eventually, a xenomorph erupts out of his back. It’s a gruesome spectacle, but it’s the dead look on Ledward’s face that makes the scene, casting a horrible pall over his final moments, which rob him of any sense of self. That glimpse of mankind reduced to warm meat is lost in the subsequent horror set pieces, which rely too heavily on telegraphed jump scares and even bigger levels of carnage. Scott even recycles bits from the original Alien, most notably in a watered-down retread of the original film’s pulse-pounding scene of the Nostromo crew tracking the xenomorph via its heat signature. What once was hair-raising is now glib and perfunctory, with Covenant even offering a spin on the violent coitus interruptus of so many slasher films when a couple’s shower tryst essentially becomes a hideous threesome.
The only saving grace of the film’s horrors is how they deepen David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus who survived the events of that film. Having reached the inevitable stage of artificial intelligence where he deems humanity an imperfection to be overcome, David regards the xenomorphs with admiration and a small sense of camaraderie. Fassbender brings a dark humor to the action as David oversees the chaos with an impassivity that barely masks his excitement. Despite his programmed procedures, this synthetic being exudes a more expressive personality than any of the film’s humans, who constitute an interchangeable, characteristically indistinct group of targets—a dull homogenization that wastes the talents of Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, and Billy Crudup.
The film’s strongest stretch involves David’s philosophical battle with Walter (Fassbender again), the colony ship’s upgraded—and more obediently programmed— android, over whether the latter’s loyalty to the human crew only exists because it’s been written into his source code. Fassbender’s interplay with himself is the best thing in an Alien film in 30 years, and the simple fury of David’s maturation is at once more driven and more philosophical than any of the thematic musings in Prometheus.
In essence, then, Covenant is at its best when furthest removed from its actual aliens, who’ve lost nearly all of their menace in CG form. Where Alien’s budgetary restrictions necessitated that the xenomorph be mostly hidden, ultimately enhancing the film’s fearsome properties through ambiguity, Covenant reveals too much of them. The infant xenomorphs, once dizzying blurs of reptilian movement, now suggest Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s Baby Groot with teeth, and the adults look surprisingly slim in full view, almost frail, if not for the durability of their exoskeletons. This isn’t the first Alien film to show the xenomorphs so clearly, but the frequent callbacks to the original film only exacerbate the sense that something’s been lost here. Indeed, David’s swift, insect-like darting movements during combat unsettle more than anything a xenomorph does throughout Covenant.
In Alien, the dying android Ash summarized the xenomorph as a pure evolutionary machine, his dispassionate tone of nihilistic praise setting the highest standard for cosmic horror ever glimpsed outside of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. But both of Scott’s returns to the franchise fail to attain the balance of grim existentialism with Spartan, primal horror, with Covenant leaning so heavily toward the latter that it loses sight of the rich vein of possibilities inherent in David’s quest for self-actualization. David is the flipside of the xenomorph, a creature locked into an evolutionary cycle of consumption and reproduction, and to see him continue to toy with God’s creations to establish his supremacy is where the true horror of these prequels lie.