In space, no one can hear you scream. They can, apparently, hear you clamoring for sequels.
Which brings us to Alien: Covenant, the latest installment in the vaunted deep-space horror saga that was born with 1979’s Alien, mutated into several follow-ups in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and has now morphed into a subspecies of prequels that kicked off with 2012’s Prometheus.
Covenant picks up after Prometheus, and shares more than just a narrative through-line: Both films were directed by Ridley Scott, who himself helmed the very first Alien film, and he mines that movie’s DNA for stylistic strains to infuse in Covenant. This time around, a cast of interstellar colonizers led by Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup find themselves detouring to an uncharted planet after they intercept a mysterious signal. There, the mission goes gruesomely awry when the crew discovers that the seemingly inhabitable planet houses some very inhospitable denizens.
Amid a string of de rigueur action centerpieces, Alien: Covenant tries to reach — but ends up overreaching — for grand themes, exploring motifs of technology, creation and life, as well as the inevitable God complex that comes with the technology to create life.
That’s all well and good. But all that high-concept mumbo-jumbo can’t mask the fact that at its core, Alien: Covenant really just wants to be one thing: a relentless slasher film that ups the gore, piles on the body count and the revs up the shocks.
The most shocking part about Alien: Covenant, though, is how unshocking it actually is. For all its slick effects and brooding burnish, the film is a by-the-numbers retread of can’t-miss Alien tropes amassed over four decades of deep-space marauding: crustacean-like face-huggers, entrail-splattering chest-bursters, acid-laced alien blood — they’re all here, ensconced in the appropriate H.R. Giger-esque grotesquerie that has always been the saga’s visual blueprint.
It’s all very familiar — too familiar, in fact, which may not be a bad proposition for those seeking serviceable, perfunctory thrills. After all, you don’t go to a Chick-fil-A to look for a chicken cordon bleu.
But like fast-food grub, the film feels like an exercise in assembly-line efficiency, introducing a roulette of characters who are whacked (or decapitated, or disemboweled, or dismembered, as is the norm in this saga) before you even get chance to remember their names — much less what they were there for in the first place.
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Waterston gives it her all, and she shoots, screams and weeps with gusto, readily updating the template of a badass heroine whose genealogy can be traced all the way back to Sigourney Weaver’s game-changing Ellen Ripley from the first Alien film.
In fact, Alien: Covenant hews closest to that 1979 film, with its foreboding sense of claustrophobia and carnival-of-horrors malaise. Covenant is easily one of the most atmospheric entries in the Alien saga — bolstered invaluably by a bone-chilling twofold performance by Michael Fassbender, who plays dueling androids with very divergent agendas. At once calculating, charming and cryptic, Fassbender serves as macabre ringmaster to a tale that oftentimes veers Frankenstein — with some Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure.
In a film filled with stealth and mutating creatures, Fassbender’s performance — with his soothing voice, searching gaze and genteel handsomeness — is proof that sometimes, the most malevolent and terrifying menace is one that doesn’t look the least bit alien to any of us.