Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: "Alien: Covenant"

Everyone knows the “Alien” franchise stopped being good after the second movie, reaching its nadir when the iconic mouth-within-a-mouth critter squared off against the Predator.

Original director Ridley Scott, no doubt grumpy about the state into which other filmmakers had led his creation, came back in 2012 with the moody, dizzy “Prometheus,” which he coyly declined to describe as a prequel, saying it “shared DNA” with his 1979 movie.

Well, now Scott has made a sequel, “Alien: Covenant,” and there’s no more doubt remaining about where the two latest films fall within the canon. (Squarely.) These events take place 10 years after “Prometheus,” and still some decades before “Alien.”

It’s energetic and fast-paced, covering familiar territory with (mostly) new characters playing out a lot of the same scenarios and musing upon the same themes. Despite the lack of originality, I liked it better than any of the other “Alien” movies since 1986.

It’s probably the closest inheritor to the story and mood of the original, with a crew of woefully unprepared humans exploring an unknown planet where alien bugaboo will infect them, releasing larger versions that grow rapidly and kill even quicker.

Again, a female junior officer chafes under the yoke of clearly less competent male superiors, having to wait her turn until a sufficient number of them have died to place her in command. Here it’s Katherine Waterston as Daniels. As before, characters are known simply by their last names, and share a sort of martial comradery.

There are some differences, however. The ship Covenant is traveling to colonize a far planet, carrying 2,000 colonists in cryo-sleep and another 1,400 or so human embryos to speed up the population-building. Interestingly, pretty much all of the crew are paired off into romantic couples – an arrangement better suited to starting a new life far, far away.

“Alien: Covenant” has lots of fascinating ideas like this that it never bothers to really explore. Such as the captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), being a man of faith whose leadership is questioned by a crew more typical of an agnostic future.

Actually, they doubt him because he’s a squirrelly, inconsiderate weakling who was never meant to be the leader in the first place. The real captain (a cameo by James Franco) dies in the opening sequence, in which a solar flare damages the Covenant, necessitating the early awakening of the crew, and his hyper-sleep pod fails horribly.

They receive a strange signal they believe is human from an uncharted planet. Since no one wants to brave the sleep pods after the accident, and this planet can sustain human life, they decide to go there to check it out as an alternative to their destination. Daniels and Oram clash over this, and we know who is going to turn out to be right.

Demián Bichir plays the chief of the security squad (along with his husband – hey, it’s the year 2104, people); Amy Seimetz plays Faris, the hyperventilating one; Carmen Ejogo is Karine, Oram’s mate and the science chief. Danny McBride shows he can not be goofy as Tennessee, the cowboy hat-wearing pilot who gets to show his right stuff.

Michael Fassbender reappears playing Walter, the creepy “synthetic” – aka android – assigned to the Covenant. He’s a later model of David, the trouble-making synthetic from “Prometheus.”

Mild spoiler alert: Fassbender also has a dual role playing David himself, whom we might have dismissed, seeing as how he was decapitated in the last movie and all. The two get to have a number of philosophical conversations about the nature of humanity before the inevitable square-off.

“Alien: Covenant” doesn’t break any new ground or raise the bar for the franchise. But it’s entertaining and doesn’t embarrass itself in front of its forbears.

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