In space, no one can hear you scream — but in the theater, everyone can hear you snore. Alien: Covenant may not be a snooze-fest on par with last week’s tepid take on King Arthur, but it certainly doesn’t come anywhere close to living up to its prodigious potential. Equal parts existential navel-gazer and sci-fi slasher flick, Covenant embraces the disparate pitfalls of high-concept and low-brow, packaging them together in one gory bundle.
On paper, everything about Alien: Covenant looks as if it should work — you’ve got a solid premise, a great cast and a complete and total lack of Damon Lindelof that I always find appealing. Those offended by the ponderous pacing and philosophical pomposity of Prometheus will find Covenant closer to a return to form for director Ridley Scott, doubling down on the carnage while still managing to shoehorn in some of the solipsistic underpinnings that seem to be the cornerstone of his revitalized franchise. But while this all sounds great in theory, nothing functions quite the way that it should.
Picking up 10 years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant follows an ill-fated colonization mission that finds itself waylaid by an unexpected space storm of some sort — the science isn’t particularly important — this is all just an excuse to kill off Captain Daniels (James Franco) and leave the rest of the crew in moderate disarray. Now headed by a “person of faith” with literally no faith in himself (Billy Crudup), the skeleton crew responsible for delivering the Covenant’s cargo of colonists to their new home world sets off on a highly questionable side trip to uncover the source of a transmission featuring the universe’s worst karaoke cover of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. Why, you might reasonably ask? Because none of them wants to go back into hypersleep — and the bad decisions just get worse from there.
The first act trudges along with a sense of inevitability rather than intrigue, and by the time the second act rolls around, the audience is forced to wonder if people in 2104 have forgotten that horror movies were ever a thing, so profoundly boneheaded are the choices made by the central cast. But despite the obvious flaws in story logic, the second act is a vast improvement over the first, descending into a gothic “old dark house” story in the mode of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, complete with a postmodern mad scientist in the form of android David (Michael Fassbender, reprising his role from Prometheus). Fassbender also plays Walter, the new and improved model built on David’s original design, and the interaction between dueling Fassbenders is easily the film’s strongest selling point.
As both Walter and David, Fassbender’s performance is occasionally virtuosic (although I’m not sure where he was going with Walter’s accent), and Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride are both outstanding in their roles. The set design is every bit as lush and atmospheric as that of Prometheus, and the action sequences are (generally) well-executed, if highly derivative. So what went wrong? It’s the little things. Elements of Judeo-Christian, Zoroastrian and Egyptian religious iconography are introduced but never explored; the xenomorphs are awkward CGI marionettes rather than the lube-dripping monstrosity barely glimpsed in the shadows of the original Alien; the third-act “twist” is so predictable that perceptive viewers will see it coming an hour early; the list goes on and on. If Covenant is any indication of Scott’s intentions for future films in the Alien universe, I for one would be just fine with him stopping at three prequels rather than the proposed six. Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.