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“Alien: Covenant” and the Too-Many-Monsters Problem

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In Ridley Scott’s new movie, Michael Fassbender plays not one but two androids.In Ridley Scott’s new movie, Michael Fassbender plays not one but two androids.CreditIllustration by LilidesBellons

Thirty-eight years ago, in Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” we met the crew of the Nostromo, a spaceship that, having picked up a signal of mysterious origin, was diverted to an uncharted planet. Lurking there was a thing that knew no mercy. Now we have Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” in which the crew of another spaceship, the Covenant, go through the same experience, and make the same mistake of importing the thing in question onto their craft. Trust humans to screw up.

In between these two works, a franchise has unfurled. We have had James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986), David Fincher’s “Alien 3” (1992), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Alien: Resurrection” (1997)—a downward curve, from masterpiece to mess. Yet there is no denying the lure of the basic hook; the first four films pitched Sigourney Weaver, as the indefatigable Ripley, against her opposite number, a silvery beast with a biomechanical edge. For fun, it liked to lodge in the human host, spawning beastlets as if they were sequels. These were action movies, aimed at the mass market, yet they writhed with Boschian details of ingress and engulfing, and seethed with sexual dread. Then, in 2012, Scott returned to the fray, unable to stay away, with a prequel to “Alien” entitled “Prometheus.” Intended to illuminate, it left many of us in a state of baffled gloom. The new film is a follow-up to the prequel. Got that?

The noble task of the Covenant is to ferry thousands of people—most of them in suspended animation, or in embryo—to a new world, ripe for colonizing. Along the way, the captain dies in an accident, leaving his wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), in tearful shock and his deputy, Oram (Billy Crudup), who looks barely less stricken, in charge. Calm is in short supply, unless you count Walter (Michael Fassbender), the resident android, who is programmed to be unflappable.

The role of the planet on which the crew lands is taken by an especially dramatic patch of New Zealand, the country that played host to “The Lord of the Rings,” and I could swear I saw a stray hobbit pottering about. Needless to say, the place is stiff with monsters. Some hatch from eggs the size of trash cans, as they did in “Alien,” but others are more subtle. Tread on a puffball, for instance, and you release a mist of tiny spores. These can slip into your ear like a whisper, burrow into the tender flesh, and, in less time than it takes to roast a chicken, multiply in size and sally forth from an orifice of their choice. One poor fellow is turned into an involuntary stickleback.

All of which is quite charming, and, as folks flounder in spilt blood in the sick bay, you wonder if Scott, who will be eighty this year, is deliberately mocking the maxim that old age should be the era of gentle tastes. But there are problems here. First, such full-frontal nastiness feels like a snub to “Alien,” which, with its flurry of sly glimpses, was a triumph of the peekaboo. Second, once the fiend assumes myriad forms—there’s a baby one that stands up on spindly legs, as if attempting its first-ever jive, and some sort of crossbreed with a milk-white head—it loses the monomaniacal thrust that made the original critter, designed by H. R. Giger, so forbidding. There are plenty of reasons to shut your eyes and cross your legs while watching this film, but is that the same as being scared?

This blurring of intensity extends to the cast. Decades on, the faces of the men and women aboard the Nostromo—many of them wearied and worn, played by actors as distinctive as Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto—are stamped on the memory, and the same goes for the grunts in “Aliens,” among them the late Bill Paxton. Three days after seeing the new movie, however, I’ve already forgotten who stayed on the Covenant and who disembarked to scout the strange terrain. At one point, two crew members make out in the ship’s shower, only to be joined by an uninvited guest, but it was news to me that they were even an item. The film keeps having to catch up with itself, defining the characters by their doom before we’ve had a chance to grasp who they are, or were, and amid the haste we’re left to ask who the hero is supposed to be. Is it the spunky Daniels, her courage displayed by a haircut that only a Monkee would dare to request, or might it be Walter, assigned to save mortals from their follies and other foes?

You can see the temptation. Consider the major robots of the “Alien” saga: Ash (Ian Holm), in the first film; Bishop (Lance Henriksen), in the second; and the lordly David (Fassbender), in “Prometheus,” who rolls up again in “Alien: Covenant.” All three are extraordinary: too human to be true, there but not quite there, and gazing with forensic stillness, plus a glint of professional awe, at the workings of the lethal brute that confronts them. So why not promote the robot to top dog? Though all that remained of Fassbender, at the conclusion of “Prometheus,” was a handsome head in a bag, he is now restored to full bodily function, with two roles—David and Walter—at his disposal. He even gets to sing “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” thus renewing David’s obsession with “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which Peter O’Toole belted out the same tune on the back of a camel. And yet, alas, what the movie proves is that androids are meant to be servants. Give them mastery, and the unthinkable happens: they become a bit of a dragoid.

All of which makes you long for Sigourney Weaver. No dog has ever been more top. Holding sway, proud and uncontested, she even allowed a warped romance to bloom in the crannies of the plot: “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else,” she says, prowling a basement in “Alien 3,” and addressing the creature as you might an exhausting spouse. (Remember how she undressed before it, like a nervous bride, at the end of the first film?) Unable to exist without each other, they fought to the death, with a gusto that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would have applauded, and the saddest thing about “Prometheus,” and now about “Alien: Covenant,” is how thoroughly Scott has junked that fertile theme, of a symbiosis between the hunter and the hunted, for the sake of a more ponderous idea: the creation myth. Ye Gods!

Hence the deep flashback at the start, when Weyland (Guy Pearce), the genius who invented David, refers to “the only question that matters: Where do we come from?” This is fine for a sixth-grade sex-education class, but less so for a hundred-million-dollar chunk of adult sci-fi, and the upshot is that, as in “Prometheus,” we are introduced to a glum tribe of extraterrestrials, statuesque and stone-faced, who allegedly lie at the root of something so cosmically important that it escapes me. What does interest me is how the man who directed “The Martian” (2015) could bracket that film, so wry and so fleet of foot, with a pair of such groaningly mirthless trips to yet more distant worlds. In space, I guess, no one should hear you laugh.

To be fair, there is one melodious gag, which pops up when Daniels and her comrades are trying to decipher the transmission, scratchy with static, that was received out of nowhere. Suddenly, one of them exclaims, “That’s fucking John Denver!” And it is—“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” strumming across the void. As often occurs with Scott, the cultural references are nicely scattershot; Shelley and Byron get a name-check, as does Piero della Francesca, while the ancient citadel of the tribe, darkly fenced by a stand of pines, is lifted straight from Arnold Böcklin’s “Island of the Dead,” which he painted several times in the eighteen-eighties. All of this tallies with Scott’s reliance on Francis Bacon—to be exact, on “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (circa 1944)—for the look of the newborn alien, both screeching and phallic, in 1979. In short, if you want a cascade of visual wealth, Scott is still your man, and, when those riches are backed by the flow of a generous storyline, as they are in “Alien,” “Blade Runner” (1982), “Thelma & Louise” (1991), and “Gladiator” (2000), you feel happy to be overwhelmed. It’s when the narrative dries up or goes astray that the images, however wondrous, tend to get stranded and stuck.

Thus, in the later stages of “Alien: Covenant,” we are ushered into an alchemist’s lair, halfway between a laboratory and a hovel, and dedicated, as far as I can gather, to alienology. Nothing could be clammier, but, still, you can sense the film slithering toward a dead end. As if aware of the threat, Scott hauls us back to the ship for a final showdown, which would be a good deal punchier if it weren’t such a blatant retread of the bout between Ripley and her tail-lashing pal at the close of “Aliens,” right down to the wrathful jaws that snap at protective bars, like a prisoner banging against his cage. There’s just time for a startling late twist that nobody, apart from absolutely everybody in the cinema, will have seen coming, and then we’re done and drained—and so, I reckon, is the franchise. This film is at once sumptuous with thrills and surplus to requirements. Let sleeping aliens lie. 

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