'Alien: Covenant' Review: A Thoughtful And Gnarly Sequel

(Because of the mixed reactions to the film from critics across the internet, we are running two reviews of Alien: Covenant. Here's a positive take on the movie. For a different perspective, you can read Josh Spiegel's negative review.)

The planet upon which most of Alien: Covenant unfolds is not unlike the movie itself: it's a vast and beautiful thing, though not without its share of dangers and unexplored territory. Covenant is an epic that sprawls across genres and ideas, some of which are better addressed than others, but in its final act, it shines just two beacons through the darkness. There's its base DNA in the self-contained drama and horror of 1979's Alien, and there's the near-biblical story that director Ridley Scott now wants to tell about man and post-humanity, and the creation of life. The resulting mix is a thrill, in no small part because — for a franchise that seems so determinedly nihilistic — it's surprisingly earnest.

Admittedly, the humans don't seem to mean much in Covenant. A couple of the characters stand out (Katherine Waterston as Daniels, a sort of proto-Ridley, and Danny McBride as the ship's pilot) but most of them are cannon fodder, there to enable the inevitable bloodbath. Once the movie starts to get cooking, it's a move that makes more sense. Humanity, ironically enough, manifests not in the crew, but in the androids David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender.

Walter is the newer version of David (a character introduced in 2012's Prometheus), now given an impenetrable midwestern accent and less personality in order to make him more palatable to the humans he's meant to help. However, this "lesser" state hasn't made him any less strangely human than his predecessor. Simplicity is what has ultimately given him a heart, and with a heart, the most human of traits: the ability to falter, and to fail. On the other end of the spectrum, David is still driven by an ambition that is both literally and metaphorically all-consuming, and spares no room for mistakes or doubt. It's the kind of need to invent and to proliferate (not to mention an unease with one's legacy and predecessors) that's characterized human expansion throughout history. If Walter is the heart, then David is the ruthless head.

This is a neat analogy for the way the movie works as a whole: Walter accompanies the crew of the Covenant, who provide the bulk of the emotional weight of the movie. As part of a colonization mission, they are all paired off, and must deal first with grief as they're killed off one by one, and then a burgeoning fear of the unknown as they realize the planet isn't quite what they expected it to be. Loss is introduced before any aliens are, as the movie opens with a catastrophe that leaves them without a captain, and the emotion (and the question posed: "All this, to start our new life?") informs the rest of the movie more than any shock or fear.

The plight of the human crew also hews closest to the original archetype of Alien, as their struggle is microscopic and relatively contained in comparison to David's plans, and as they fight simply to stay alive. David, after having been stranded on the planet for a decade, reveals in both flashbacks and in his present actions that he is still reckoning with his place as both Frankenstein and Frankenstein's monster — he hates that which created him despite the fact that he apes it in trying to create new life himself, determined that he is meant for greater things. For the most part, the movie seems to agree with him; it's relentlessly dark, and we already know that happy endings are a non-entity in the Alien universe. But there are still glimmers of light throughout it all: the settlers are attracted to the new planet by the strains of John Denver's "Country Roads," a song of longing if I've ever heard one, and the heights the movie reaches are less science and more fantasy. The monsters here aren't monsters for monsters' sake. Rather, they're born out of need.

But make no mistake, on the fear front, Covenant delivers. Though the new planet is habitable, with running water and plenty of greenery, the absence of any other life clues you into the fact that something's wrong. That unease soon manifests in black spores that burrow into the ears of a few unfortunate crew members before emerging later as particularly vicious xenomorphs (notably pale and sickly as opposed to the oil-black aliens we're used to seeing, which only serves to make them more upsetting to look at). We encounter a few more varieties of alien after that, though it's the early encounters that pack the most oomph, if only because there are more people dealing with them, i.e. more opportunities for things to go wrong. The crew's skills are supposed to help them settle a new planet, not fight monsters, and they act the way anyone would when gripped with panic and fear.

The movie is a titan, and the great balancing act that it pulls off between the small-scale (Daniels' wish for a cabin by a lake) and the grandiose (meeting and becoming one's maker) isn't necessarily one that it lands without tripping. But it is decidedly its own creature, and much like the android at the center of it, it's ambitious on a level that's rare and risky for a film so big. That ambition lends itself to a delight — in creating and in destroying — that pervades the entirety of Covenant's running time, and it's infectious in a way that's hard to shake. Even if the twists and turns in the plot aren't too hard to see coming, there's a distinct joy that Scott takes in setting up and setting off each of those traps. Where you fall on the rest will depend on whether you're more likely to follow your head or your heart.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10