The recent wave of “Alien” movies has been preoccupied with matters of theology, destiny, and free will. They may be baroque and horrifying on their heavily digitized surfaces, but there are angels in these movies, avenging and otherwise, extraterrestrial and man-made. And of course there are devils, those familiar shape-shifting nightmares bursting out of chests and looming, acid-faced, out of the gloom.
In the middle are the humans. We’re supposed to be the heroes, but we’re looking more vulnerable than ever.
“Alien: Covenant” is an improvement on “Prometheus,” the 2012 film that rebooted the franchise by going back to events preceding the original 1979 “Alien” while straining to pump up the series’ back mythology. As with “Prometheus” (and “Alien”), the director is Ridley Scott, at 79 confidently re-revisiting one of his most celebrated pop successes. But Damon Lindelof, the “Lost” creator who co-wrote “Prometheus” and who may have been responsible for that film’s unsatisfying philosophizing, is absent this time. As if to make up for the lack, we get twice the Michael Fassbenders. “Alien: Covenant” is better for both developments.
The time is a few decades after the events of the last film; the setting a spaceship carrying 2,000 Earth colonists and a crew to a distant planetary system. Everyone’s sleeping the long interstellar sleep except for Walter (Fassbender), an android who stands as the latest model of the pioneering David in “Prometheus.” A bit of nasty space weather wakes the crew and sidelines the captain (James Franco in an unbilled cameo); the interim captain (Billy Crudup) decides to reroute the ship to a promising planet that’s practically rolling out the welcome mat via a mysterious and possibly human transmission.
You’ve seen enough “Alien” movies. You know these situations don’t end well. The question is how don’t they end well, and who will be standing when the final credits roll?
There are a number of reasons “Covenant” works where “Prometheus” struggled to work. The characters are more incisively drawn this time, and their relationships inherently more dramatic. Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is the closest the new movie comes to an Ellen Ripley figure, but as the movie begins she’s already weighted down with grief, and the gravity pulls her character in interesting directions. Crudup’s captain is a portrait of insecurity — he’s a man of faith who has no faith in himself. Comic actor Danny McBride is on hand as Tennessee, the most raffish of the crewmembers, but the only joke about the performance is that he may turn out to be the most reliable character in the movie.
Because the “Alien” movies are suspense films, they’re built upon unreliability — even the extraterrestrial monster of the title can’t be trusted to stay the same shape for long. After an increasingly taut first act, “Alien: Covenant” introduces several horrific new ways for the critters to get under the skins of the human landing party and out into the open, and there are a number of intermediate stages. It’s almost as if someone were playing with their DNA to find the most deadly variations yet.
“Alien: Covenant” recaptures an element that was largely missing from “Prometheus” — it’s scary. The violence wreaked by the creatures is bloody in fresh and unnerving ways, to the point where a viewer can feel unmoored, no longer safe. Whether you find that sensation enjoyable is up to you, but even horror non-fans may be pulled in by the psychological and metaphysical creep-show that unfolds once the crew stumbles upon the original David from “Prometheus” and Fassbender gets to act opposite himself as dueling androids, one programmed for obedience and the other his own proud master.
One scene, in which David teaches Walter how to play the recorder — and thus experience self-expression for the first time — is a seduction quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a major motion picture. But everything Fassbender does here is surreal and marvelous, possibly even awards-worthy if those who decide such things can lower their gaze to include genre fare.
Scott’s direction is muscular and assured — he has nothing left to prove, really — and the screenplay by a quartet of writers folds in its Big Ideas more naturally than in “Prometheus.” Those ideas are often disturbing. If, as these new “Alien” movies posit, we humans were created by a superior race and have gone on to create a superior race in the androids, where does that leave us? Stuck in the middle? Snacks for ET? Are we even worth saving? At moments, “Alien: Covenant” dips into a nihilism that seems not of the characters’ time but our own.
If that sounds too pompous, rest assured that the aliens regularly come along to bite someone on the face. As an A-level horror movie, “Alien: Covenant” is satisfying enough to arguably stand as the third-best entry in the series, after “Alien” and James Cameron’s majestic “Aliens” (1986). But it’s the sight of a great actor playing mindgames in the mirror that will stay with you afterward.
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan, and Dante Harper. Starring Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 120 minutes. R (sci-fi violence, bloody images, language, some sexuality/nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.