“Alien” taught us that in space, no one can hear you scream. The latest offshoot of its DNA, “Alien: Covenant,” offers the lesson for fans of early incarnations that in theaters, people can indeed hear you sigh.
Without “Alien” origins to bolster its box-office cachet, a sequel to the lightly regarded “Prometheus” probably wouldn’t have been in the cards. Yet director Ridley Scott – who birthed the original nearly 40 years ago as well as that last film – plunges back into the latter’s mythology, with equally uninspired and perhaps more blatantly derivative results.
Although “Covenant” incorporates the “Prometheus” story, the movie feels less like a sequel than a Frankenstein version of the “Alien” franchise, stitched together from pieces of earlier films. Even the terror of being in a confined space with a Xenomorph is diminished when the sequences amount to cut-and-paste jobs from prior go-rounds.
Perhaps tellingly, the only standout performance comes courtesy of Michael Fassbender, reprising his role as the synthetic David as well as a newer model, Walter. The latter is part of the crew of Covenant, a ship ferrying 2,000 colonists to a new world in 2104.
An opening sequence, flashing back to David’s “birth,” is genuinely intriguing and like much of the film visually arresting. Unfortunately, that also turns out to be the highlight of a movie that peaks early.
Circumstances force the hibernating crew to awaken prematurely, despite still being years away from their intended destination. A tragedy leaves them under the leadership of Oram (Billy Crudup), who, against the advice of his second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston) decides to make a detour to investigate a “rogue transmission” emanating from another planet that might actually be more hospitable to settlement based on its readings.
Those hopes, naturally, are pretty quickly dashed. But the slightly next-gen version of the aliens we’ve come to know doesn’t make the crew’s behavior or decision-making any brighter.
Waterston ostensibly has the equivalent of the Ripley role, but it’s thinly written and defined. Other than Fassbender, most of the cast (which includes Danny McBride and “Empire’s” Jussie Smollett) pretty transparently serves little purpose other than to provide ambulatory hors d’oeuvres for their gruesome hosts, albeit in ways that seldom muster the kind of tension that made “Alien” and “Aliens” classics.
Why Fox would want to keep churning out “Alien” movies is hardly a mystery, given how cool they look on billboards and their international appeal. What has motivated an acclaimed director like Scott to willingly board another flight into banality proves more puzzling.
The entire franchise, in fact, had been well on its way into cheesy popcorn territory with the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, which seemed like as good a way to keep exploiting the material as any. Scott’s reunion with the space thriller seemingly augured a desire to pursue a more ambitious and thoughtful approach.
Instead, “Alien: Covenant” delivers another hollowed-out movie-going experience – one that might not burst out of your chest, but which offers precious little that’s memorable enough to stick to your ribs.
“Alien: Covenant” opens in the U.S. on May 19. It’s rated R.