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'Alien: Covenant' Mixes Blood And Guts With Existential Questions

May 19, 2017
Originally published on May 23, 2017 10:38 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The alien film cycle began in 1979 with Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror movie "Alien." It was a huge hit followed by three sequels. There also was a prequel in 2012 called "Prometheus." Now Scott is back to direct another prequel called "Alien: Covenant." Michael Fassbender plays two different androids. And the rest of the cast includes Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Once scene, there's no way to forget the title creature of Ridley Scott's 1979 film "Alien," now making its comeback in "Alien: Covenant." Conceived by writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett and designed by H.R. Giger, it was the sum of all fears, the mascot of the sub-genre called body horror. The alien impregnated its victims, who were then eviscerated giving birth. Its blood was acid. It was steely and drippy, a fusion, in the words of one conceptual artist, of phallic symbols and motorcycle parts.

Some people wondered how could such a killing machine have evolved? I wasn't one of those people but plenty of them flocked to the 2012 film "Prometheus," for which Ridley Scott returned. It was a prequel. It took place before the events of the first "Alien" but irritated audiences by the general absence of, well, aliens. "Alien: Covenant," also directed by Scott, is a different kettle of maggots. It has all the face-grabbing, stomach-busting blood and guts you'd want while answering that existential question, from whence came this thing?

Here's the setup. It's some years after "Prometheus" but still before the events of the first "Alien." Covenant is the name of a spaceship heading to a hospitable planet in a distant galaxy, carrying thousands of colonists in suspended animation and a handful of crew members. As the movie begins, there's some kind of cosmic burst that damages the ship. So an android named Walter, played by Michael Fassbender, wakes the crew and saves the vessel, though its commander goes up in flames. Having mourned the dead, crewmembers are set to go back to cryo sleep for about a decade when they pick up a faint human signal from a nearby habitable planet.

Billy Crudup plays the replacement commander, who identifies as a man of faith rather than science. And he thinks they should head for that closer planet. The original commander's widow, Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, thinks it's a bad idea. Not to spoil anything, but if it were a good idea, this wouldn't be an alien movie. So you begin to wait for stuff like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALIEN: COVENANT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Captain, come in. Do you copy?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Stop. Look out.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) OK, OK, OK, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Hold that there. Hold it.

EDELSTEIN: It looks even worse than it sounds. "Alien: Covenant" is plodding and repetitious with dull stretches between the scenes of screaming and splatter, although that was true of the first "Alien," too. This one's nowhere near as original or invasive or as ferociously exciting as James Cameron's first sequel "Aliens." But the movie does deliver. It's not a cheat. Katherine Waterston makes a soulful protagonist, human rather than superhuman. And Danny McBride is fun as a mouthy officer who calls himself Tennessee.

The film's real focus, though, isn't human or alien but fascinatingly enough, android. In the last film, "Prometheus," we met Michael Fassbender's David, an android with a chip on his shoulder bigger than the ones inside him. He's back in "Alien: Covenant." He's living on that deadly planet. And suddenly, he's face to face with Walter, his brother android from the Covenant. What do they make of each other? Well, Walter is the next generation of android. He's been stripped of some of David's pesky human emotions and thinks himself superior.

But David, it turns out, has a powerful agenda. Without giving too much away, I can say that "Alien: Covenant" turns out to have two distinct progenitors. One is Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," which incidentally had the subtitle "The Modern Prometheus." The other is the spate of books and films in which machines evolve to the point where they wipe out humanity. "The Terminator" is a prime example and so is "The Matrix," although the machines in that one kept humans around to use their bodies as batteries.

Laugh all you like at those sci-fi scenarios but no less than Stephen Hawking recently said he gives humans 100 more years before artificially intelligent entities take us out. Worse news yet, when those machines see "Alien: Covenant," they're going to get some spectacularly yucky ideas.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.