With 1979’s “Alien,” Ridley Scott created a claustrophobic horror show within the confines of shadowy space ship; nearly 40 years later, the franchise has expanded in some clever ways, but the essence remains the same. “Alien Covenant” spends close to two hours following a set of intergalactic explorers on a mission that goes horribly awry, only to arrive at the showdown that made this series so compelling in the first place. Diehard fans will find the homage sufficient enough to justify Scott’s world-building ambitions, in part because he doesn’t mess with the original formula.
There’s more exposition this time, and ponderous dialogue from a robotic Michael Fassbender about Darwinian concepts, but that’s largely sidelined by the shocking effect of watching gooey monstrosities burst forth from the bloodied chests of terrified human victims. What did you expect? It’s an “Alien” movie.
It’s also the followup to 2012’s “Prometheus,” and “Alien Covenant” benefits from that fresh hit of DNA. Scott’s clever quasi-prequel to the “Alien” stories followed a group of astronauts to a mysterious planet where they discover a virus that implants the carnivorous aliens in unsuspecting human victims. That movie spent most of its run time exploring the origin of the species — theirs and ours — and how it related to the efforts of wealthy inventor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to obtain immortality. It was a clever means of deepening the narrative foundation of the earlier movies, explaining their chaos as the result of a god complex gone horribly wrong.
20th Century Fox
“Covenant” unfolds as a hybrid of the ponderous philosophy in “Prometheus” and the run-and-gun survival tactics of the first two “Alien” movies, landing on plenty of satisfying beats but struggling to balance the dissonant approaches. At 80, Scott can still stage the scares, but he’s interested in larger questions that don’t always hold as much interest.
Weyland resurfaces briefly at the start of “Covenant,” in a prologue where he converses with David (Fassbender), the monotonous robot helper in “Prometheus” who wound up stranded on the planet by that movie’s end. It’s a clever bait-and-switch moment that calls into question David’s allegiances to his inventor and whether he’s truly the heroic aide that the previous movie allowed him to be.
Then the movie plunges ahead, setting the story a decade after “Prometheus.” The Covenant vessel is carrying thousands of colonists on a seven-year journey to a distant planet, but an apparent electrical shortage forces the crew to wake up ahead of schedule. In the process, they’re left without a captain (James Franco, in an uncredited and hilariously fleeting cameo, almost drops out of the picture before he’s in it) and forced to take orders from a new commander, Oram (Billy Crudup).
Fassbender appears again as another robot, an affable, practically minded model named Walter who has more in common with “Star Trek” shipmate Data than his curious-minded manifestation as David. That disconnect will become more obvious once Walter actually encounters David, and Fassbender singlehandedly elevates the experience by playing two characters at once, but “Covenant” has a lot of exposition before that happens.