The “Alien” franchise has always been a battleground for the philosophical and physical tussles for dominance between human, alien and artificial intelligence.
While “Alien” set up the themes, character types, and iconography of this universe, 2012’s prequel “Prometheus” established an origin story and philosophy, bringing up questions of faith, spirituality and the risks of creating life.
“Alien: Covenant,” once again directed by Ridley Scott, is the second prequel in the series, chronologically following “Prometheus,” and exploring the fallout from the events of that film, while offering a rich terrain for an epic battle between the differing forces in this world. The questions posed in the film are universal, and primal, and easy answers are never forthcoming.
In “Covenant,” a sleek, austere prologue finds weaselly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) enjoying his Mahler and activating his latest android (Fassbender), whom he names David, after the statue. The robo-lad’s head is filled with dreams of alien life forms and the glories of space exploration. Then, the movie proper: We’re aboard the Covenant, with a new, hapless crew of mortals. The year is 2104. This is a colonists’ ship, like the Mayflower, only with embryos and sleep-frozen humans.
The humans in the story are a plucky crew of space explorers; a tight-knit group of couples piloting the ship to a new planet that holds their dreams of a fresh start and new life. When a random shockwave hits the ship’s solar recharging sails, damage is incurred, lives are lost, and the team is diverted from its course. The incident takes the life of the captain (James Franco, in a hilariously brief cameo), leaving the Covenant under the command of Capt. Oram (Billy Crudup, valiantly enlivening a role defined by insecurity).
A rogue, seemingly human, transmission offers the opportunity to explore a closer, previously hidden planet, so they decide to try their luck — though this roll of the dice is made under some objection.
Rogue transmissions, planets that seem too good to be true, and a motley crew of space explorers? It sounds a lot like the “Alien” we know. “Covenant” uses the mythology established by “Prometheus” and fuses it with the story and character types of “Alien.” Scott explores the tensions between spirituality and science, faith and family, emotional and analytical intelligence, and manages to do all that in the style of a slasher horror film. “Covenant” rips through plot points and action set pieces with the speed of a xenomorph ripping through flesh. The story is a whirlwind smash-and-grab as the group is slowly pulled in different directions and picked off one by one, until a final girl, or woman, is left standing. The final woman is played by Katherine Waterston, who has been toughened up with a bowl haircut and an odd little cap. She is broken, in mourning, trying to put herself back together and keep fighting for her dream. It takes a bit of time, but Waterston ably fills the Ripley-sized shoes of Sigourney Weaver, both physically and mentally. In the “Alien” franchise, whether human, alien, or artificial, female intelligence is proven to be the most versatile and insightful, and Waterston embodies that with finesse.
But no performance eclipses that of Michael Fassbender, who played the android David in “Prometheus” and here plays a later model of the same droid, Walter. From Ash in “Alien” to David, android intelligence has always been in many ways superior, but less easy to predict. Fassbender is given the opportunity to give a wide-ranging and fascinatingly campy performance, and it’s no surprise he steals the show. Much of the spiritual questions about creation are wrapped up in Fassbender’s character, who questions his provenance and if he himself can create. This desire for procreation and preservation of the self — human, alien, or artificial — is what motivates every being in the “Alien” universe, and in “Covenant,” Scott sets up a thrilling thunderdome in which we can watch this bloody battle unfold.