“Alien: Covenant” is meant to be both a satisfying sequel to “Prometheus” and worthwhile prequel to “Alien.” It is meant to bridge the gap between one of the most divisive sci-fi films ever made and one of the most celebrated. With that in mind, the fact that “Covenant” has something of an identity crisis makes sense, and it’s a wonder director Ridley Scott (“The Martian”) was able to wrangle its myriad plotlines together to make a movie that isn’t just coherent, but occasionally downright breathtaking.
Most of this comes down to the characters and the terrific work the script does at creating a cast that we will come to care for before their inevitable untimely deaths. Katherine Waterston (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) leads the cast as Daniels, and her introductory scenes give her the opportunity to build her character with sparse dialogue. She feels at once similar to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in her strength yet different in the places the movie takes her character.
But as good as Waterston is, the star performer of “Covenant” is undeniably Michael Fassbender (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) who portrays another android similar to the role he played in “Prometheus,” this time named Walter. Fassbender plays Walter distinctly more robotic than he did David, which makes sense considering references made to the David model’s “creepiness,” but the result is still an interesting character who has a chance for growth and his own relationships with the rest of the cast, particularly Daniels. A scene between the two early on sets an early high bar for emotional storytelling that the rest of the movie is certainly better for having but never quite lives up to.
This is where the aforementioned identity crisis comes into play, as “Covenant” spends at least half its runtime picking up the slack from “Prometheus.” To Scott’s credit, he makes good on a lot of the story-based promises that “Prometheus” made but never fulfilled, so while this movie lacks the grandeur and originality of its predecessor, it is infinitely more rewarding. It could even be argued that it retroactively improves what many considered to be a disappointing film.
“Covenant” definitely has more in common with “Prometheus” than “Alien,” and Scott returns here to the questions he asked last time but never answered. Religious imagery is common, as is the faith vs. logic argument. Without giving too much away, the non-Xenomorph villain — and far and away the most interesting character — of the piece is almost a direct Biblical allegory for the Devil.
Still, this is an “Alien” movie. It’s in the title, and that series comes with certain expectations that “Covenant” fails to meet. The thematic musings are great, but they occasionally come at the cost of the edge-of-your-seat horror of the original film and the pulse-pounding action of its sequel. Take away the familiar production design, there are several scenes that could pass for any other sci-fi franchise you’d care to name. Scott’s ambitions are admirable, but he seems to be losing sight of part of what made the original “Alien” films work. Again, the characters are great, but the dread that they could be lost at any moment is missing.
That may seem like an overselling of the movie’s flaws, but it bears saying outright that “Covenant” is the best film the “Alien” franchise has had in over 30 years. It isn’t without its flaws, but overall it is a worthy piece of filmmaking. Its visually stunning finale could even be looked at as a promise that more familiar — at least in intensity — territory lies ahead for fans of the franchise. Those who liked “Prometheus” will likely love what Scott has done here. Those who didn’t may still wish to give it a look.