“ALIEN: COVENANT” — 2½ stars — Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride; R (sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity); in general release
“Alien: Covenant” is the kind of movie that makes you wonder when it’s best to let the mystery remain mysterious. Sometimes the audience is just better off not knowing.
“Covenant” picks up the Alien story a few years after the events of 2012’s “Prometheus,” and fans will be happy to see director Ridley Scott get back to the franchise’s violent horror roots.
After a cryptic flashback prologue between the synthetic android David (Michael Fassbender) and his human creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), Scott’s film takes viewers to a colonization spaceship named the Covenant packed with 2,000 sleeping settlers about seven years from their raw and untested future home.
But after an energy burst damages the ship and kills Captain Branson (an unbilled James Franco), the suddenly roused crew discovers an alternate planet that seems even better for colonization. Since it’s only a few weeks away, acting captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate, against the vehement advice of Branson’s widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston, assuming the obligatory Sigourney Weaver role).
The planet is haunting and beautiful and, sure enough, within moments of touching down, the crew has unleashed the fury of those familiar chest-bursting aliens (dubbed Xenomorphs) that have been hunting humans on the big screen since 1979. But rather than resorting to a simple “Ten Little Indians” slasher countdown, “Covenant” ties the traditional Alien premise with the prequel “Prometheus” content when David arrives to save the day.
As it turns out, this alternate world is the home planet of the Engineers, the mysterious beings credited with the creation of the human race on Earth. David arrived there shortly after the dramatic conclusion of “Prometheus,” and the more Oram and company learn about what happened, the more they realize they have more than Xenomorphs to fear.
By sending the story into this detour, Scott makes a noble effort to bring the different elements of the Alien franchise together but, take a step back, and “Covenant” is still following a predictable formula. This is still a movie about killer monsters picking off the good guys one by one (frequently in the most disgusting manner possible), and just when you think things are safe, they never are.
It’s the kind of movie that makes you long for the streamlined simplicity of the original, and for James Cameron’s 1986 follow-up sequel “Aliens.” Diehard fans of the franchise will always want to know more about the mythology, but they may find themselves yearning for the blissful ignorance that allowed the earlier films to be more frightening. (Spoiler alert: “Covenant” isn’t very frightening.)
One of the film's more interesting elements is the dual acting duties of Fassbender, who plays both David and an updated synthetic named Walter. Aside from clothing and a particular battle wound, the only thing separating the characters is a subtle accent, and Fassbender’s muddy approach to his characters adds tension to the story.
In its effort to satisfy audience's blood lust and the mysteries of its mythology, “Alien: Covenant” offers a product that covers both bases but fails to move the needle. Movies like this live on big moments — think of Weaver showing up in that yellow P-5000 work loader outfit in “Aliens,” or that first iconic chest-burster scene in “Alien” — but “Covenant” feels decidedly moment-free. It won’t be ranked with the worst entries in the series but, in the long run, it will probably go down as franchise filler.
“Alien: Covenant” is rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity; running time: 122 minutes.