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The arc of ‘Alien: Covenant’

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Latest franchise installment a worthwhile addition

A lot of people threw a lot of shade at 2012’s “Prometheus,” the film that was intended to reinvigorate the long-stagnant “Alien” franchise. I wasn’t one of them, but the detractors had perfectly justifiable reasons.

But with “Alien: Covenant,” one could argue that fans of the series might be getting the movie that they thought that previous installment was going to be, a body horror allegory steeped in overarching mythology and literary allusion. And while “Covenant” has its flaws, it seems to be a worthwhile step forward, albeit one that perhaps doesn’t travel as far as one might hope.

It’s a decade after the events of “Prometheus.” The colony ship Covenant is on a years-long trip to the planet Origae-6, the remote location chosen for a new settlement. For the majority of the trip, operations are overseen by Walter (Michael Fassbender, “Assassin’s Creed”), a synthetic humanoid built by the Weyland Corporation. However, things take a tragic turn when a neutrino burst hits the ship and overloads it, resulting in numerous deaths – including the captain.

The crew is awakened from suspended animation. Acting captain Oram (Billy Crudup, 20th Century Women”) and the rest initiate repairs, but in the process of doing so, crew member Tennessee (Danny McBride, TV’s “Vice Principals”) inadvertently detects a mysterious signal – seemingly of human origin and emanating from an undocumented planet.

Against the advice of terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”), the captain decides to investigate further in hopes that the planet is suitable for colonization and eliminating the seven remaining years of the Covenant’s journey.

This goes about how you’d expect, considering this is an “Alien” movie.

Not long after the away team lands, things start to go horrifyingly wrong. They discover that the source of the signal is a ship – the same alien ship from “Prometheus,” in fact, crashed here a decade prior. Chaos reigns as they soon realize that the stormy atmosphere eliminates any real evacuation policy. Their only hope is the discovery that David (Fassbender again), the synthetic from that previous mission, is still here.

However, it soon becomes clear that the dangers being faced are far more widespread – and far more surprising – than any of them could possibly have anticipated. It’s a desperate fight for life – on both sides of the equation.

Considering its placement in the franchise firmament - “Alien: Covenant” is the second in the prequel series and sixth in all – this movie manages to do a lot of things right. It has been a long time since that intense horror vibe has been properly captured by one of these movies, but this one has some solid scares. The developing mythology is intriguing; there’s a bit of wheel-spinning here – particularly in the middle third – but it’s still on course. And the retconning being done to loop this series into the overall narrative isn’t horribly intrusive.

Part of what made the early films so successful was that wonderful sci-fi/horror blend, something that director Ridley Scott captured so intensely in the first “Alien” and finally seems to be reclaiming with this film. Despite a much more expansive setting, Scott still manages to mine that pressing sense of claustrophobic terror that marks the most impactful moments of the entire franchise. He also brings out that tonal bleakness that sets these films apart in many ways.

Put it this way – this movie certainly earns its R-rating.

“Alien: Covenant” is aesthetically solid. The effects work is strong throughout, though as always, the creature design is the highlight. These monsters have an almost archetypal look – one that this film captures while still making its own. This vivid visual style partially makes amends for the relative thinness of the narrative.

Fassbender shines again in this movie. It’s strange to consider, but the actor actually had to convey two different characters without the benefit of affect or emotion. Think about how difficult that must be; Fassbender handles the task admirably. Waterston is quite good as well, eliciting a Sigourney Weaver vibe without devolving into imitation. Crudup seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the cast, like he’s vibrating at a slightly different frequency. McBride is a weird choice, but he’s actually surprisingly good here. Among the rest of the crew members, Demian Bechir (“Lowriders”) is a standout; most of the rest tend to fade into the scenery a bit.

We may never see the brilliance of the early “Alien” films matched by these subsequent offerings, but I would argue that “Alien: Covenant” gets us closer than we’ve been in quite some time. There are flaws, of course – there’s a struggle to find storytelling balance, for instance – but the positives have them well outweighed.

“Alien: Covenant” is a bleak, bloody … and worthy successor to an iconic franchise.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 19 May 2017 09:50

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