In some world, Alien: Covenant has a different title. In that world, it is not a sequel to 2012's Prometheus, and it is not a prequel to 1979's Alien, but it's simply a standalone sci-fi horror picture about a group of colonists who take a wrong turn at Albuquerque and as a result end up as part of a science project gone wrong. Perhaps in that world, I liked Alien: Covenant better, though the flipside of this little thought experiment of mine is that Just Plain Covenant would probably never have been financed by 20th Century Fox and directed by Ridley Scott.

The point being, somewhere inside Covenant is a wonderful little schlock horror movie, a high-polish slasher with a particularly outrรฉ choice of psycho killer. The problem is the strain of having to also be an Alien film, and even more, the strain of having to be a Prometheus film, doing something to pay off the dense, Chariots of the Gods philosophisin' of its immediate predecessor. It fails at this quite fully, I'd say; nothing is thought in Covenant that wasn't already thought in Prometheus, and it fit better in that film's profoundly ponderous scope than it does in this film's grimy little thriller mode.

In fact, "basically Prometheus only not as good in every meaningful way" makes for a pretty good summary of Covenant. Maybe every meaningful way but one: this film's extraordinary Michael Fassbender performance that the screenplay doesn't remotely earn is probably better than the last film's extraordinary Michael Fassbender performance that its own screenplay didn't remotely earn. And I've been on the internet at any point in the last five years, so I know that liking Prometheus is not the thing we do, but I still think it applies: the plot of Covenant is more derivative, the characters vaguer, the design less evocative, the visual effects a hair less convincing, the cinematography less gorgeous. Covenant has no 3-D at all, which is a goddamn shame, given that Prometheus was among the very best examples of that gimmick that has e'er been.

What Covenant does have to lord over the last movie is that it's a pretty rollicking little horror thriller, as made by a filmmaker who somehow hasn't made a pure horror film in the 38 years since Alien, despite it being one of the best of all time. I wish it had committed more to it; Scott and his dog's breakfast of writers (story by Jack Pagler, of Transcendence, and Michael Green, of film and TV comic book adaptations from Green Lantern to Logan; screenplay by first-timer Dante Harper and John Logan, who has been all the hell over the place, but who last worked with Scott on Gladiator in 2000) do tend to take the whole thing VERY seriously, and in so doing grind out a little bit of the fun, while also bringing in an air of the frankly ridiculous.

Anyway, the plot of the thing: after a thematically laden prologue in which the robot David (Fassbender) and his aging multi-billionaire creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in an uncredited cameo) discuss how sapient beings are to know the face of their god, we skip ahead to 2104, when a different robot named Walter (Fassbender) is minding the deep space colony vessel Covenant. With two thousand future settlers in cryogenic stasis and no crew awake but for Walter and the sentient computer Mother (voiced by Lorelei King), the Covenant is uniquely fragile out in the void, and we see what happens almost immediately when that fragility runs afoul of the perils of space. Long story short, the command crew is forced awake to deal with a terrible tragedy, one that leaves several frozen colonists, including Captain Branson (James Franco, also in an uncredited cameo), dead.

The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), is somewhat disliked by the crew - he believes it's because he's religious, a hugely important thematic thread that all the writers and director leave proudly untugged - and overreacts by making one very bad decision in a bald-faced attempt to make them happy: he proposes that the Covenant make an unscheduled visit to an uncharted planet that might be an even better fit for human colonisation than their assigned target, from whence an odd human-sounding radio transmission is coming. The word "Alien" being in the title and all, it really had oughtn't come as a surprise that this planet turns out to be full of dangers in the form of a toxic spore that infects the human host with a sort of hideous embryonic monster. But this is merely the first of several unpleasant surprises in store for the Covenanteers, who stumble across the remains of the lost Prometheus expedition: a Kurtzian robot in the form of David, and the grave of his beloved human, Elizabeth Shaw. From there it would be a damn shame to say what else happens, though I think it's not a spoiler to say that the film broadly alternates between robot-on-robot philosophical discussions about knowing God as both an external and internal force (as well as Fassbender-on-Fassbender erotica), and scenes of colonists being ripped apart by a CGI version of H.R. Giger's xenomorph.

First things first: Ridley Scott is a great director, Dariusz Wolski is a great cinematographer, and Pietro Scalia is a great editor, and Chris Seagers is a great production designer, albeit one who tends to get himself hung up in bad movies (he's also a Transcendence veteran). Between them, they manage to make sure that Covenant is two things, and they are both very important: one of these is that it's beautiful as all hell. The film is a gorgeous piece of design, set in large part on a planet full of menacing grasslands and rocky outcroppings, and in the ruins of a monumental civilisation. It feels as close to the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness as any film I've ever seen. The other thing, not too far away, is that the film is well-built to be scary; not that it is scary, I wouldn't say, but it's pieced together in a way that indicates that scariness would be well within its purview, if it wanted to go that direction. The shift between stillness and frenzy, the movement in and out of close, unpleasant spaces, the frankness about gore, these things are all working well to make the toniest slasher movie that ever took to the stars.

Part and parcel of being a slasher movie, though, is that Covenant has a dopey script; not dopey in the high-minded Prometheus manner, where characters make stupid choices to drive the plot (though that happens here, conspicuously), but dopey in the sense that the whole thing is basically mindless fluff. There's a reason I've named more cameoing stars than actors playing colonists; the characters are entirely disposable and impossible to keep straight, except insofar as they're mostly played by unreasonably famous people. The film throws out the conceit that the colonists are all married couples, but this goes only far enough to give Captain Branson's widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), additional motivation. Otherwise, it's a gimmick that doesn't even do enough with itself to work as a gimmick, and mostly leads to a fun game of "Wait, Who's Married to Who?" that only ends when most of the cast has been killed off. So good is the movie at leaving us with a distinctive sense of who its characters are that I didn't even realise there was a gay couple in the movie until one man wept over the body of his dead husband.

Let me be perfectly blunt: Covenant is trashy body count horror - it has, for Christ's sake, a murdered-during-shower-sex scene - and if it leaned into that, we might actually have something, an ultra-classy Leprechaun 4: In Space made by outstanding visual artists. Instead, we have a self-reflexive attempt to do Alien over again, with exactly the same structure, pacing, and visual design (for which I am totally grateful) of the 1979 masterpiece. The result is an unhelpfully slow-paced beginning (for did not Alien have such a thing? But the mood was all different there, and it worked then as it does not now) that lurches into a waddling collection of death-by-stupidity scenes.

And the whole thing is interwoven with Fassbender being fucking great, playing the two characters with minute distinctions that don't suggest "different human personalities" but rather "robot programmed to avoid the flaws of the other robot", and still attains the great philosophical introspection that the film really wants to be doing more of. He's chilly and scary, he's witty and probing, he wields accents remarkably well, and he pulses with sexless eroticism for himself. I love every inch of the performance, and as I result I end up loving the more thoughtful, pretentious half of Covenant far more than the action-heavy horror half. It is weird to have an Alien film which one wishes the alien could be removed from, but that's pretty much entirely where I'm at with Covenant. Plus, if the xenomorph were taken out, we wouldn't have to deal with the increasingly reedy destruction of Alien's gorgeously mysterious backstory in favor of a tacky The Planet of Dr. Moreau bit, or the growing impression that Scott is trying to write Aliens, Alienยณ, and Alien Resurrection out of the series. Which would be a shitty thing to do, since it's a better movie than two of those, but it's a hell of a worse Alien movie than any of them.

Reviews in this series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alienยณ (Fincher, 1992)
Alien Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (The Brothers Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)
Alien: Covenant (Scott, 2017)