- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
There are two types of nervous laughter to be heard from audiences during the somehow unsurprisingly disappointing “Alien: Covenant.”
The first is that which comes from witnessing extreme stress and violence: humans screaming, humans running, humans running and screaming, humans slashed to pieces by Xenomorphs. This reaction is completely understandable and likely welcome by the film’s creative team.
And then there’s the kind that erupts from various corners of a packed theater when Katherine Waterston’s character says to her fellow meatbags, “There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense.”
You ain’t wrong.
For those totally baffled by the increasingly insane “Alien” continuity, “Covenant” is a sequel to “Prometheus,” itself a prequel to the original 1979 “Alien” film — “Covenant” is set between those two films.
It is 2104, about ten years after the ship Prometheus was lost in deep space. The Covenant is carrying about 15 crew members in hypersleep and thousands of frozen colonists and embryos to start life anew on the planet Origae-6, watched over by a synthetic named Walter (Michael Fassbender).
Thanks to an accident involving solar sails, the crew is woken from their multi-year nap and the panic starts, mostly because ship captain Branson (James Franco, barely in the movie) doesn’t even make it out of his chamber — those oxygen-rich environments can be awfully flammable. Since we were denied the spectacle of a Xenomorph bursting out of Franco’s chest, I choose to believe Branson died trying to light a joint.
Anyway, now the moody, uptight first mate Oram (Billy Crudup) is in charge. He is a man of faith; we know this because he keeps telling us. He wants to do well as captain, so you’d think he’d play it safe. But, no, the second the Covenant picks up a transmission that they identify as being from Elizabeth Shaw of the long-missing Prometheus, Oram decides to go check it out.
Leave it to the guy named Tennessee (Danny McBride, not his finest hour) to note that she’s singing John Denver; glad to know “Take Me Home, Country Roads” survives the centuries.
It doesn’t take long for the landing party to start dropping like flies. Whatever planet Oram has idiotically ordered them to check out, the place is lousy with Xenomorphs, which now are in convenient aerosol form and easily breathable.
The remaining crew members are rescued by, of all people, David, another synthetic played by Fassbender in 2012’s “Prometheus.” David, as one might surmise, has not been entirely truthful about his role on the ship Prometheus. Or his relationship to humanity. Or anything at all. And then the true carnage starts.
Look, it’s a good tip for anyone, not just space explorers: When someone — especially a robot — starts quoting “Ozymandias” out loud, sans irony, just run away. (Do Walter and David eventually meet? They do. Do they make out? Almost. Memes will be made.)
It takes “Covenant” an ungodly amount of time to get to this point. A good half-hour could have been carved out of this thing, making for a much leaner, meaner, meatbag-exploding horror flick.
Part of the problem with “Prometheus” and now “Covenant” (and possibly with future prequels) is we have to do the whole “OMG WHAT IS THIS HORRIBLE THING KILLING ME GAAAH (gurgle)” scene over and over, which director Ridley Scott perfected the first time around in “Alien.” It’s not getting better than that dinner scene, and it’s faintly embarrassing to see Scott try.
But, no, Scott seems determined to play with themes that he not only explored already in “Alien” (man versus nature, Xenomorph-as-disease) but also explored in “Blade Runner” (What does it mean to be human? Do we deserve to survive as a species?). This sort of thing makes one worry a bit for this fall’s “Blade Runner 2049,” which Scott is producing. (Denis Villeneuve directs that one, fortunately.)
There was a time when the “Alien” franchise seemed like an interesting place for up-and-coming filmmakers to work out ideas. “Alien” was Scott’s second feature. “Aliens” was James Cameron’s third full-length film; he was all of 32 when it was released. “Aliens 3” was David Fincher’s feature debut. “Alien: Resurrection” was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first American directorial effort with a script by a pre-fame Joss Whedon. The latter two films certainly had their problems (not to mention that they are a continuity nightmare), but there was also a sense of young filmmakers trying hard to think of ways to teach an old Xenomorph new tricks.
Now, we have Scott, one of contemporary cinema’s grand old engineers, seemingly incapable of leaving well enough alone, determined to fix up these movies into a multi-picture epic about life, the universe and everything.
Which is too bad, as there’s so much here that doesn’t make sense.