Alien: Covenant (2017)

Original “Alien” director, Ridley Scott, brings his nightmarish Xenomorph back to the big screen in another prequel that feels thematically at war with itself.

In the late 70’s/early 80’s, British film director Ridley Scott made a seismic impact on science fiction cinema with “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982), both of which have only continued to gain greater respect and admiration from film fans and critics alike. This summer, Scott unleashes “Alien: Covenant,” a follow-up to his incredibly ambitious if not completely coherent, “Prometheus,” which could be seen as a spiritual successor to both of his pioneering sci-fi/horror hits.

In “Prometheus,” Scott teased the audience’s attention with a tricky carrot-and-stick approach that promised an eventual connection to his 1979 extraterrestrial nightmare. But while audiences patiently waited for a slimy xenomorph to burst through one of the cast’s rib cages, Scott blindsided fans with a film more interested in asking the bigger questions about life, creation and the existence of a higher power. While not necessarily a hit with fans of the original “Alien” franchise, “Prometheus” made enough money at the international box-office to demand a sequel, putting Ridley Scott in an unusual position.

For years Scott had openly admitted that he had lost interest in grotesque eggs, facehuggers and hissing aliens with acid blood, believing the franchise well had gone dry. But any follow-up to “Prometheus” without the original monster on board was likely a non-starter with the studio. No, if Scott wanted to continue his intellectual crusade for the answers to questions about the origins of life and the nature of the soul, he was going to have to break some eggs and burst some chests.

Alien: Covenant” is Ridley Scott’s compromise and it feels like a movie trying to serve two masters. It’s as psychologically fractured as the film’s android anti-hero, David, played magnificently by Michael Fassbender. One half of “Alien: Covenant” is a perfect replica of Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, recalling the look and feel of that blue collar, lived in universe right down to the casting of Katherine Waterson as a tough and resilient heroine replacement for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Just like nearly all of Scott’s films, it’s beautifully shot and showcases magnificent full scale sets. When Scott makes use of gooey practical effects, the visceral horror is truly repugnant in the best possible way, but when the film resorts to digital creatures and blood spray, the effect is greatly lessened.

The other half of “Alien: Covenant,” and the only half that Scott appears to be fully invested in, is the part of the story that continues where he left off in “Prometheus,” and here the central conflict plays out between two androids both played by Michael Fassbender. David is the only survivor of the doomed crew of the previous film’s expedition, now living alone on the Engineers’ planet after they’ve all mysteriously died off. Surrounded by his sketches & portraits and obsessed with classical literature and music, David has essentially become the Hannibal Lecter of replicants. Walter is the new-and-improved model without his brother’s artistic flourishes, but also without his twitchy psychosis. The consensual/adversarial chess game played between David and Walter, including a little not so subtle sexual innuendo scene involving a flute (of all things), is clearly Scott’s primary interest. This whole element of “Covenant” feels more like a proper “Blade Runner” follow-up than an “Alien” franchise film.

However, when the Alien does finally make its’ appearance in the second half of the film, it doesn’t disappoint. The creature is probably closer in appearance to H.R. Giger’s original alien designs than in any of the other sequels, and when the crew of the Covenant, including a well-cast Danny McBride as the ship’s pilot, must fight for their lives against a perfect organism with an extra set of flesh ripping teeth, nostalgia for the original film tickles the appropriate pleasure sensors.  The budget allows for a duel finale with two spectacular action set pieces that are sure to please hardcore fans of the franchise.

It would be tempting to call “Alien: Covenant” the best Alien film since James Cameron’s first sequel, and while that’s mostly true, Scott has delivered a hybrid film as mutated as any of his synthetic anti-hero’s experiments. Fan reaction is almost guaranteed to be equally divisive.

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