“Not as good as Alien, better than Prometheus” is a pretty wide gap. Alien is one of the best movies ever made, and Prometheus is… not terrible, but a mediocre muddle elevated by good performances and the occasional powerful scene and deflated again by confused mythology and moment after suspension of belief-shattering moment of scientists behaving like absolute dipshits re: substances on strange alien worlds. Alien: Covenant has all the same problems that Prometheus did, but the highs are higher, and the lows aren’t as low.
Still an Alien prequel, and set 10 years after Prometheus, Alien: Covenant introduces us to the usual poor space schmucks who are about to be facehugged and chestbursted to death. Here, it’s the 15-strong crew of the colony ship Covenant, which is en route to the planet Origae-6 with some 2,000 cryofrozen humans and a whole bunch of embryos. They pick up a strange transmission, and captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides—hey!—the planet the transmission originates from looks pretty sweet, so why don’t they go check it out? This, as second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston) points out, is Grade A Stupid, but in Covenant’s defense there are aspects of Oram’s character that justify his decision. We’ll get to characters doing boneheaded things for no reason later on.
So Daniels, Oram, android Walter (Michael Fassbender), ecologist Karine (Carmen Ejogo) and a whole bunch of redshirts skip down to the planet’s surface to investigate the source of the transmission and see if this planet might be a good place to set down roots. SPOILER ALERT: It is not, because there are. mother. fucking. capital. A. Aliens. there. And of course one of the Covenant’s crew gets affected, because safety precautions when setting foot on an alien planet for the first time begin and end with “Don’t wear a facemask or anything. Don’t worry about stepping on any weird plantlife that may be poisonous. You’ll probably be fine.” They’re not fine.
Up until this point, with director Ridley Scott familiarizing us with the Covenant crew and the dire situation they find themselves in, Covenant is pretty entertaining. (Barring some bizarre and misguided stunt casting in the form of James Franco.) Then the second act kicks in in earnest with David (Fassbender)—the android from Prometheus—popping up. Here’s when things starts to drag, because it’s when Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper get into the (dramatic echo voice) mythology of it all. The very first scene in this movie has David, pre-Prometheus, talking with his maker Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who’s obsessed with finding out where the human race comes from. Prometheus and Covenant are obsessed with that question, too, only they don’t really have much interesting or new to say about it. Blade Runner commented on the nature of humankind through its story. Covenant brings its story to a halt so Scott can get quasi-deep for a while.
The saving grace while we wait for the inevitable human/xenomorph showdown is Fassbender’s dual performances as Walter—a later generation of android, designed to have less free will—and David, who, as we know from Prometheus, has a little bit of a eau de creepy-ass murderer in him. What can I say? Fassbender gives good android. His accent as Walter is bizarre—it’s flat, a “generic American accent” a la Hugh Laurie in “House” or Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, only with an occasional bit of twang. It’s grating, and it’s weird, only it’s supposed to be weird because Walter and David are meant to be unsettling characters. In that way, it really works. It’s a bold choice from Fassbender, and one that pays off.
Walter and David both, but David in particular, are very intense characters, and that intensity lends Covenant a strain of unintentional comedy. Or… intentional, maybe? I don’t know how Scott could have David very solemnly intone “Watch me. I’ll do the fingering.” during a scene where David teaches Walter how to play a primitive flute (it’s a metaphor, just go with it) and not expect audiences to burst out laughing.
Other lines that Michael Fassbender delivers in a very, very portentous manner:
*”Breathe on the nostrils of a horse and he’ll be yours for life.”
*”No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.”
*”Welcome to my dire necropolis.”
*”My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
Of course the dramatic robot with the messianic complex quotes Shelley.
Once Scott has all the overwrought mythology he cares to dispense out of his system, we get to the third act, which delivers what Alien gave us back in ‘79: a horror movie on a spaceship. It’s here that Covenant really gets into its groove. Waterston is a worthy heir to Sigourney Weaver. Daniels, like Ripley, is badass but also consistently looks terrified, which amps up the tension. (Also, they both have bad hair.) Daniels is just a great fucking character—she’s traumatized, she’s scared out of her wits, she’s not prepared for any of this shit, but if she has to kill a nearly unkillable alien she will figure out a motherfucking way. The last 30-40 minutes of Covenant are scary and brilliant and more like the original Alien than anything Prometheus did. The third act and the fingering line are worth the cost of admission all by themselves.