For most of its life span, the Alien series has been the cinematic equivalent of an Iron Chef challenge. Apart from the inclusion of a few mandatory ingredients—anti-corporate politics, confinement in close quarters, androids, blue-collar camaraderie, and, as the primary ingredients, Sigourney Weaver and the alien itself—the filmmakers were free to invent as they saw fit. For Aliens, James Cameron tossed out Alien’s elegant horror and replaced it with the ultimate in ’80s action. For Alien 3, David Fincher pivoted from cavalry movie to prison picture. And for Alien: Resurrection, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet swapped paranoid claustrophobia for outer-space existentialism. The movies existed in roughly the same universe, but they were complementary rather than additive. You could watch as many or as few as you wanted, in practically any order, without significantly compromising the experience.
Alien: Covenant arrives in an era when the stand-alone sequel has been replaced by the 10-year plan and expanded universes stretch as far as the eye can see. It follows on from 2012’s Prometheus, a gorgeous bit of feature-length exposition whose primary purpose was to explain how the creature that attacked Ellen Ripley and crew in the first movie ended up on that forsaken planet—a bit of information viewers of the original had comfortably gone nearly three decades without pondering. That movie, at least, offered Ridley Scott a chance to reinvent the series he’d inadvertently created in visual terms, trading the gloomy confines of a dimly lit space freighter for the rocky expanse of an alien world. But “the fans,” Scott discovered, weren’t keen on that reinvention, so, Covenant attempts to, in essence, retcon Prometheus’ retcon, taking the series back to basics while also extending its predecessor’s plotline to lay the groundwork for what Scott has said may be anywhere from one to six (!) more movies.
The product is an awkward fusion, one that, unlike the interspecies hybrids that populate the Alien series, never quite takes. Covenant begins aboard the titular vessel, a colonizing spaceship populated by a dozen-plus crew members and one eerily serene “synthetic,” Michael Fassbender’s Walter, as well as a couple thousand slumbering colonists bound for a habitable new world. An unexpected blast of solar radiation damages the ship, stirs the crew from their hypersleep, and results in the death of the Covenant’s erstwhile captain inside his malfunctioning sleep pod, an unheeded augury of things to come. Their unplanned awakening puts the crew in range of a mysterious signal from an uncharted nearby planet, which happens to be an even better prospect for human habitation than the one they were headed to. With no one particularly keen to get back into their sleep pods, the ship’s new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to divert the mission, and once they set foot on their brave new world, things get exactly as sticky as you’d expect.
One of the things that distinguishes the Alien movies, especially the first two, is the skill with which they delineate their inevitably disposable cast members: Scott cast a range of races and physical types in the first movie, and James Cameron loaded Aliens’ script with brief, sharply written encounters that instantly fixed the characters in our minds. (When a Colonial Marine tries to taunt his muscled-up female comrade by asking if she’s ever been mistaken for a man and she shoots back, “No, have you?” we know all we need to know about both of them.) That sort of screenwriterly semaphore is nowhere present in Covenant’s script, which is credited to John Logan and Dante Harper, with a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. As Daniels, Katherine Waterston takes the Ripley role, and Danny McBride’s Tennessee is distinguished by his late-21st-century knowledge of John Denver songs (it’s nice to know the classics last), but apart from that, you could swap one eventually lifeless body for another and no one would be the wiser. Crudup’s Oram identifies himself as a man of faith, which is doubtless meant to connect with the biblical resonances of the movie’s title, but apart from the scene where they’re explicitly mentioned, Oram’s beliefs have no apparent bearing on any of his actions; his faith is like a note scribbled in the margins of a draft script that no one remembered to follow up on.
There’s only one character Covenant is interested in, and that’s Fassbender’s David, who has spent the 10 years since Prometheus growing out his blond locks and working on the best way to emerge out of the darkness while wearing a hooded cape. Like Walter, his double, David is a human creation, but he’s a little too human. The relationship between these two Fassbenders is at the heart of Alien: Covenant, and it’s one of the few things that really entertain on a level beyond the technical. Prometheus was nigh on a visual masterpiece, especially in 3-D, but it was hollow at its core. Covenant is a more by-the-numbers exercise in giving the people what they want, right down to a climax that feels like it’s cobbled together from the ends of Alien and Aliens, but at least it’s got some tender Fassbender-on-Fassbender action, including a scene where David teaches Walter to play a primitive flute and offers, “I’ll do the fingering.”
Apart from David’s reappearance, Covenant’s only real connection to Prometheus is a brief flashback that explains how he came to be on this new world, and its only link to the future films is largely a matter of design: Here, the aliens start out looking like translucent jelly beans before evolving into the more familiar xenomorphs. Even as a cog in a machine, Covenant isn’t a very important one. Perhaps the most interesting way to look at it is as Scott’s attempt to put his mark on the Alien movies that were made without him. The climax and the scenes where Daniels tracks the creature through the ship’s corridors play like Scott’s version of Aliens, the exploration of the planet’s ominous caverns feels like Alien 3, and the more outré bits are reminiscent of Resurrection. The strength of the Alien series was that every director could make it his own, but now Scott’s trying to keep it all to himself.