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Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender
20th Century Fox
 122 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kathleen Watertson
Alien: Covenant

Watching Alien: Covenant is like watching a very good Beatles cover band in concert. If you’ve never seen or heard of the Beatles, you might think the cover band was pretty good and that they were performing some great numbers. But the vast majority who have seen and heard the Fab Four more than a few times in their lives realize just how much better the original group was and wonder why these talented cover artists don’t try their luck with their own material.


Ridley Scott’s original Alien was a groundbreaking science fiction movie that was the first such epic to feature a strong female protagonist, monsters created by the legendary H.H. Giger, a gutbusting introduction to the monster that has become one of the most famous scenes in horror cinema lore, and some terrific suspenseful direction from a master director. Scott is back to helm Alien: Covenant, but the novelty has long since worn off. Instead, we get what is technically a second prequel to the original movie.


Not that many people were demanding answers to the origin of the creatures after a half dozen or so earlier Alien movies (not to mention Alien/Predator team-ups), but Scott finally connects the dots between his last effort, Prometheus, which featured what was storyline chronologically the first appearance of the creatures, and 1979’s Alien. This time it’s still a half century or so before the events in Alien, and the current film covers the voyage of the Covenant, a craft carrying some 2,000 passengers in suspended animation headed for a new home on some distant world. While passengers and crew sleep, the ship is under the control of an android, Walter (Michael Fassbender). The ship encounters a freak storm and is damaged. The captain (an unbilled James Franco) is killed and, while making repairs, the surviving crew receives a radio transmission from a nearby planet and decides to investigate.


The crew consists of the usual variety of practically interchangeable multicultural sorts who, despite being played by some recognizable talent like Carmen Ejogo, Damien Bichir, and Jussie Smollett, are merely 21st century versions of the infamous Star Trek red shirts. The new commander, Oram (Billy Crudup) is noteworthy only for his unfailing ability to make the absolute worst decision under pressure. Soon, the crew encounters some familiar pods that emit spores that, when breathed in, hatch teeny tiny aliens that soon grow into baby aliens that burst out of crew members’ bodies that soon grown into bigger nastier aliens.


The few surviving crewmembers including Oram, Walter, and science officer Dany (Katherine Waterston), whose resemblance to Sigourney Weaver is no coincidence, are rescued from seemingly certain doom by David (also played by Fassbender), an earlier model of Walter’s android. David was part of the crew of the Prometheus, and has been stranded on this new planet since the events depicted in that movie. David offers to help the crew recover in his cavernous lair, but it’s soon clear that the lair is home to some very nasty secrets (hint: see the title of the movie).


If you’ve seen any previous Alien film, then you’ve seen this one, since almost every action scene seems to have been grabbed from an earlier episode in the franchise. Screenwriter John Logan has three Oscar nominations, but he is new to the Alien universe and horror film making in general and shows a slavish addiction to the previous films that completely drains the horror and suspense from this effort. Watching a creature explode from the back of someone’s neck isn’t nearly as effective as seeing John Hurt’s death throes four decades ago. Ridley Scott is a skilled director, but the essence of horror is the unexpected. It’s hard to scare audiences if they know exactly when and how the next attack is coming.


In addition, the recycling of familiar story material in Alien: Covenant has the effect of making the soon-to-be-doomed crew of the ship look even more stupid than they are. We know that when the giant pod opens, a creature is going to spring out and clamp itself on the hapless crew member’s face, but he doesn’t, so taking a peak at what’s inside, while probably not the smartest move in the world, isn’t quite as enormous a faux pas as it might appear. This doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to root for the crewmembers. They consistently do one dumb thing after another and are incredibly clumsy at times to boot. Surely, Scott and Logan could have figured out some way to drag out the suspense just a little bit.


Unfortunately, lost among all the face clamps, exploding chests, and acid baths in Alien: Covenant is one heck of a good idea for a science fiction movie. The Alien movies have always placed a heavy emphasis on the various android characters, and this film is no exception. The most impressive reveal in the movie is the nature of what David has been doing over the last few years on the planet, and, indeed, the character of David himself and the differences between him and the later model, Walter. This entire subplot is probably the most original idea the Alien franchise has had since the original movie. The storyline also gives Michael Fassbender a chance to show off his acting chops in two of the better performances you are likely to see this year. There’s a great deal of subtlety in the performance (and some excellent effects photography that allows Fassbender to appear and act seamlessly against himself in several scenes), and the storyline, hinted at in Prometheus, comes full circle here.


I have little doubt that the story of David and Walter, with a slightly altered backstory, could have made one of the better science fiction movies in years. But Scott and Logan, or more probably the executives at 20th Century Fox, insisted on plunking the two androids and their story in the midst of yet another recycled helping of already far too familiar monsters. As a result, Alien: Covenant is interesting and at times compelling when either version of Fassbender is on screen. The rest of the time, however, it plays merely like a clips compilation from earlier films in the franchise, minus the considerable presence of Sigourney Weaver. The word is that Scott plans yet another film in the series that bridges the remaining gap between Covenant and the original film. That’s simply a bridge too far.

In this scene,  a couple of crew members have an up close and personal encounter with an alien.

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Alien: Covenant (2017) on IMDb