If you think about it, space is the ultimate haunted house. It’s dark, quiet—too quiet, some might say— and isolated. Things are likely to go bump in the night, because it is always night. No matter what direction you turn, every corridor looks just like the last, and may very well be. It is a cold maze of hopelessness and unwanted discovery. Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, “Alien,” captured this idea beautifully—add some Freudian nightmare scenarios and H.R. Giger’s one-of-a-kind designs, and you’ve got yourself a classic.
Scott returns to hallowed ground with “Alien: Covenant,” which feels more like a direct sequel to the cerebral, mythology-heavy “Prometheus” than his original “haunted house” film. Whether or not that’s a bad thing depends entirely on your own dispositions.
Scott chooses to open the film with Michael Fassbender’s David, the curious android from “Prometheus,” as he wanders around a white room filled with pieces of art—among them is another David: Michelangelo’s. Like those pieces of art, David is the creation of a human being; unlike those pieces of art, David has the ability to question his creator. Naturally, he asks about his existence and his purpose, and then about his creator’s existence and his creator’s purpose. The answers are underwhelming.
This sequence announces the film’s intentions as thoughtful sci-fi, something that’s rare in the cinemas these days (even “Star Trek” has been degraded to motorcycles and the Beastie Boys). Immediately following David, the film cuts to an unspecified time in an unspecified area of space where we find the Covenant, a colonization ship stocked with couples. After receiving a bizarre transmission in the middle of deep space—John Denver, of all things—they decide to change course for the transmission’s origin. They land on a strange planet, and I hate to break it to you, but it’s not filled with E.T.s.
“Alien: Covenant” is the kind of film that is watched with one eyebrow raised—partly out of curiosity and partly out of skepticism. Between the grotesque murders of crew members—which range from fun to generic—the film waxes poetic on a number of high-brow concepts. Brothers turn on brothers, synthetic beings struggle with their sentience and men of faith are easily deceived. It’s all very intriguing, even if the film occasionally reaches beyond its intellectual grasp.
If you’re yearning for the old days when the Xenomorph was a Freudian monstrosity, impregnating men with its children and having them give birth through their chest, fear not. While the alien has come to represent something different in this film, it hasn’t quite given up on its old ways, particularly when it sneaks up on a couple who are enjoying each other’s company in the shower, and dispatches with them in a, well, suggestive manner. Oh, and the ship’s computer is referred to by the crew as “mother,” which sounds like cause for extensive therapy—three days a week, at least.
The film accomplishes much with its subtlety. This is a summer movie, so it is not without spectacle, but it’s a restrained, graceful spectacle, in which ships do not race or fire upon one another, but majestically land. Yes, even a simple landing can be something to behold when photographed right. Scott has always had an excellent sense of space and a frugal eye for what populates the frame—a must for the horror genre. He relays and foreshadows heaps of important information through delicate visual cues, and then draws a sharp contrast by showing us mammoth constructs that are terrifying simply by their size, aliens or no aliens.
The act of creation—whether it be through art, technology or reproduction—is at the heart of “Alien: Covenant.” With its methodical storytelling and awe-inspiring visuals, I’d say the film is a fine creation in and of itself. It lulled me into one of those deep-thinking moods that demand absolute silence, compelling me to turn off my radio during the drive home. That’s an achievement not to be taken lightly.
4 out of 5 stars