If you have ever wanted to see Michael Fassbender kiss himself, then Alien: Covenant is the movie for you. If, however, you don’t like bodily fluids spraying everywhere, then Alien: Covenant is probably not the movie for you. Ridley Scott returns to his Alien universe to redo Prometheus in a movie that is, on the whole, more cohesive and tolerable than Prometheus—a supremely frustrating movie that is half great, half sci-fi bullsh*t—but that still shows some problems Scott hasn’t yet solved in the franchise. When it’s working, though, Covenant is Ridley Scott at his best: nervy, tense, claustrophobic, and scary as hell.
Covenant picks up ten years after Prometheus, and if you haven’t seen Prometheus it’s still going to work, but Covenant is definitely better for knowing what all went on in the previous movie. Scott is not ignoring Prometheus or completely remaking it, he’s building on the good stuff and pretty much dropping the rest (the continuity is a little wonky: don’t dwell). The eponymous Covenant is a colony ship carrying thousands of passengers and embryos to a new planet—it is impossible to ignore that this is the same setup as Passengers. In fact, Covenant has a similar space catastrophe that results in an early awakening, though this time it’s the crew (James Franco has a hilarious cameo). The crew awakes to find that their ship has taken a hit and needs repairs, and while space-walking to fix some sh*t no one really cares about, a rogue transmission is picked up by the Covenant.
It is immediately obvious that Scott doesn’t give a single f*ck about his human characters in Covenant—he cares so little he apparently did nothing to stop Katherine Waterston from getting this haircut. What Scott is most interested in is David (Fassbender), the android from Prometheus. Covenant begins with a prologue about his “birth”, and in the main action, we have two Fassbender robots: David and Walter, a next-gen model meant to “improve” on David’s too-realistic behaviors and thoughts. Between David and Walter and the evolving Xenomorphs, Scott is prodding at something about creators and their creations and the uncontrollable impulse we have to destroy our gods. That’s good stuff, but Scott can’t quite balance his interest in David’s experiments with creation and the must-have action beats to satisfy a general audience.
It’s not as uneven as Prometheus—and it generally makes WAY more sense—but Covenant still has a momentum problem. The beginning is slow—there’s just not enough investment in the crew as individuals to make it interesting—but then the first-wave attack starts up and it’s BRUTAL. Like if you’re squeamish, it’ll be a problem. But then there’s the middle part where David teaches Walter to play the recorder, which is a lovely scene in and of itself, but a jarring tonal contrast to the people running around screaming and being eaten. David’s Dr. Moreau Space-Island doesn’t really jive with the Covenant crew succumbing to their own stupidity and getting devoured, and the only way to make it fit is to make the crew REALLY dumb. They’re not quite Prometheus dumb, but it’s close.
There’s also a problem with Scott and repetition. He goes back to his chest-bursting roots, which is slightly at issue—you’re never going to top the original chest-burster, but he actually tries it here, and there’s something a little sad about watching a filmmaker of Scott’s caliber repeat himself in this way. (Maybe it is time to pass the torch to someone else.) But few filmmakers can do tension and body horror the way Scott can, so even though it feels familiar, the horror aspects of Covenant are top-notch. You certainly won’t be bored, between the action and bonkers side-trip into David’s nightmare zoo.
At this point, Scott has done everything he can with the idea of aliens attacking people in space, and he’s clearly over the rape metaphor—though the imagery lingers—and would rather make existentialist space movies about creation and the inevitability of destruction. But when you have “Ridley Scott” and “aliens” in a movie, people have certain expectations. Scott can still deliver, though there’s a whiff of the perfunctory about Covenant, especially the ending (which is clearly telegraphed). But when he’s focusing on David and Walter and the creator-destructor bond, Covenant sings. It’s weird and won’t be for everyone, but Alien: Covenant is fun, strange, gross, kinda boring a little bit, and also SCARY.