“Gladiator” may have been the movie that won Ridley Scott his greatest acclaim. “Blade Runner” gave him enduring cult appeal. And “The Martian” proved he still has it, even as he pushes 80.
But “Alien” was his masterpiece. A gritty, lived-in sci-fi horror tale that held us in gloomy dread before its string of shocks left us slack-jawed and exhausted, it’s a movie that fans (like me) would drag friends to, just so we could hear them scream.
And it’s a damn shame the old master won’t leave it alone.
“Alien: Covenant” continues the chest-busting terrors in the equally-muddled, revived “Prometheus” storyline“Prometheus” storyline, a ridiculously illogical sequel that builds on the secondary threat that’s always existed in the corporate “Alien” universe. It’s not bug-eyed (and bodied) monsters we have to fear, it’s our own technology.
But when “Covenant” is not head-slappingly obvious and perfunctory — Suspense? Surprises? — it’s just laugh-out-loud ludicrous.
Ten years after the Prometheus (with Noomi Rapace and “synthetic” robot Michael Fassbender) disappeared, the crew of the Covenant, a colonizing ark, is jolted out of hibernation by a deep space storm.
The captain (seen in flashback) doesn’t survive the awakening. The movie’s most terrifying death comes in those first seven minutes.
So command falls to the deer-in-the-headlights, quote “the book” first officer, Oram (Billy Crudup). There’s barely time for the captain’s widow (Katherine Waterston of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) to weep, when the indecisive and faith-based Oram makes his first and deadliest mistake.
They’ve heard a “distress call.” Actually, it’s John Denver’s “Country Roads” emanating from what looks like an “ideal” planet for colonization. Wonder how “the Company” missed it? Wonder what’s down there?
Not-quite-everything that follows is EXACTLY what we’ve seen before. This crew, comprised of couples and a Next-Gen synthetic (Fassbender, again), would supposedly be more wary and professional than the blue collar gang from that long-ago freighter, Nostromo. But no. They drop to the planet, sans space helmets, and immediately and repeatedly stick their necks out and their noses (and ears) in it.
With too-easily-anticipated results. The “infection” takes different forms, as indeed it did back in 1979’s “Alien.” And faster than Danny McBride can radio, “Babe, are we talking quarantine protocols?”, said protocols are abandoned, the women have weepy meltdowns and scream (very unprofessional) and the crew of 15 is sliced, burst, chewed and gutted. One by one.
It’s a pitiless picture lacking much in the way of tension or urgency. But Scott and the John Logan/Dante Harper script set us up for something more cerebral than “In space, no one can hear you scream” with a prologue that has Last-Gen synthetic David (Fassbender) pondering “I think, therefor I am” with his “father” — an inventor played by Guy Pearce in a serene, austere designer future-mansion in that under-populated Earth that sci-fi often presents as our future.
That’s a “2001” promise this silly movie cannot keep.
McBride, as a drawling straw-cowboy-hat wearing space jockey named “Tennessee,” has a couple of the best lines.
“We didn’t leave Earth to be safe.”
But Scott and Co. want this to be a meditation on the machines we’re building that will someday, Stephen Hawking and James Cameron say, wonder what they’re keeping us around for. So it is that David has survived the Prometheus on this planet, and had a lot of time to think and misquote poetry. And Walter (Fassbender), the newer model on the new ship, gets to listen to David’s pitch, making us question what they’re planning and what we’re doing, giving so much control of civilization to gadgets.
As a thriller, “Covenant” is strictly low-brow horror, eye-rolling scenes where you can shout, “Wait? WHAT? Don’t go in there/out there/OVER there ALONE!” Nobody listens. Or wears a helmet on this alien planet, which once had a civilization that we see traces of, in addition to the familiar horn-shaped ship that the first “Aliens” were found in. Instead, everybody is dragged into a dank castle straight out of Grand Guigonol. And what happens in Grand Guignol castles? Ask Edgar Allen Poe.
The great Scott entrusts his movie to the great Fassbender. But whatever higher debate was intended in his scenes with himself, he cannot overcome the laugh-out-loud stupidity of “David” teaching “Walter” something he’s learned in his ten years on this lonely planet — how to play the recorder.
Thus, the tag line is all that’s really changed in 38 years of “Alien” pictures. “In space, no one can hear you giggle.”
MPAA Rating: R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Cruddup , Danny McBride, Amy Seimetz, Demian Bichir
Credits:Directed by Ridley Scott, script by . A Fox release.
Running time: 2:06