Though the Alien franchise is six films deep and counting, you could argue that we’ve never seen a true sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. This isn’t necessarily a dig at the movies to come in its wake. Seven years after the fact, James Cameron reengineered the once downright barren scope of the inceptive feature to deliver Hollywood’s first–and what stands to date as best loved–crack at an Alien follow-up; heck, some even call Aliens the superior outing. (Not me, but some. Perfectly fine, respectable people, I’m sure.)
But more recent leaps beyond its original margins haven’t gone over quite so well for the series. Interestingly enough, it’s Scott’s return as director of the Alien world that has showcased what some call the biggest betrayal of his original schematic. With Prometheus, Scott ditched the minimalism of Alien in favor of a thorough—perhaps exhaustive—illustration of a reality that would retroactively effect the self-contained horrors of its forebear.
Notwithstanding the mixed response to the 2012 movie, Alien: Covenant springs from its abdomen with the same torch in hand. Revolving around the titular colony vessel’s ad-hoc stopover on an uncharted planet, the film of course doesn’t deny its human cast a faceoff with its series’ reliably chilling brand of acid-spewing horror. But Covenant seems far less interested in chest bursts and face hugs than it does in connecting the dots of the Xenomorph’s origin story and, more still, in diving deep into the nature and worth of a remarkably fallible humankind.
This may all sound like bad news to someone seeking a revival of the terror first experienced aboard the Nostromo. Admittedly, Covenant is never as scary as Alien, and less consistently gripping. But with different things on its mind, Covenant has different strengths. Its nuanced navigation of the jagged dynamics among the ship’s crew, composed entirely of married couples, bring a new color to the series’ human element. Woven into this side of the equation are conflicts of priority, loyalty, and respect; actually, Alien purists may appreciate that the gender divide plays as substantial a role here as the class divide does in the original.
Hardly just for show, these endlessly empathetic imperfections lend to Covenant’s greater conversation about the distinction between man and machine. A self-elected mouthpiece for the latter community, an automated Michael Fassbender steals the show with a fresh and provocative take on that old question about how our computerized pals really feel about us. With a bountiful feast of scenery for the chewing, robo-Fassy plays around with quandaries about the self, be it organic or artificial. Scott doesn’t always fill out this heavy-handed material with the weight it suggests of itself, but it’s a treat to watch Fassbender swim in the thick of such reliably engrossing sci-fi fodder.
Though charged with slighter duties, Fassbender’s human costars keep the mood from fading when Covenant tries its hand at the action-horror element. Billy Crudup brings an interesting complexity to the politics of commanding a space mission; standout subordinates include pilots Danny McBride and Callie Hernandez and medic Amy Seimetz, all of whom feel vividly human (which is perhaps even more important here than in the average movie) despite smaller parts. Last but far from least: as our de facto hero of the lot, Katherine Waterston is as delightfully badass as Alien tradition demands.
But don’t get too hung up on Alien tradition–expecting the like won’t do your viewing many favors. Like Prometheus, Covenant isn’t so much an Alien movie as it is a movie about Alien. It’s a conversation about its ideas and mythology, and a well-articulated one at that. Despite a shared title, Covenant doesn’t look to offer much of the same experience first undertaken in Scott’s ’79 science fiction-horror, but what we get instead is hardly lacking in brains or guts… and I mean that both figuratively and otherwise.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Images: Mark Rogers/20th Century Fox
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.
The 25 films you need to see this summer
[brightcove video_id=”5410848537001″ brightcove_account_id=”3653334524001″ brightcove_player_id=”rJs2ZD8x”]