'Alien: Covenant' trades big ideas of 'Prometheus' for just another bug hunt

Director Ridley Scott imitates earlier films with hopes of pleasing audiences

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This reviewbs second half discusses a revelation from Alien: Covenantbs latter section b but will give a warning if youbd rather remain unspoiled.

In 1979bs original Alien, an android character neatly described the titular entity like so: bIts structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.b

The line anticipated the challengesB of continuing the franchise after Ridley Scottbs menacing Alien and James Cameronbs propulsive Aliens. How do new filmmakers follow the perfection of the best sci-fi horror films ever made? How to raise the stakes of a story that seems hostile to sequels?

Despite featuring the terrifying, H.R. Giger-designed bxenomorphs,b the Alien films of the 1990s and 2000s saw diminishing returns, until the title creature played second fiddle to the Predator. Then director Ridley Scott returned to the series that helped launch his career with 2012bs divisive Prometheus, a sort-of prequel that hinted at the events of the original films while focusing on a different set of science fiction concepts.

Ambitious and stunningly photographed, Prometheus frustrated audiences. The charactersb boneheaded behavior undermined the scriptsb ideas about the origins of intelligent life, and the filmbs Easter eggs about Alien couldnbt make up for the absence of, well, the actual alien. As if stung by Prometheusb reception, Scott uses the new Alien: Covenant as a course correction to Prometheus, ticking off boxes to provide the gore, chills and set pieces he presumes the viewers want.

Set 10 years after Prometheus, the new chapter takes place aboard bThe Covenant,b a colony ship from Earth heading for a hospitable world. When it suffers an interstellar accident, its android worker Walter (Michael Fassbender) awakens the crew for emergency repairs. Like the early films, the shipmates draw from blue-collar workers and soldiers, all with a relatable willingness to get their hands dirty. Tim McBridebs pilot named Tennessee even wears a cowboy hat. And as colonists, theybre unified by the idealism of founding a new world.

Dany Branson (Katherine Waterston) suffers an early tragedy when the initial accident costs the life of the captain b who happened to be her husband (James Franco in an elaborate cameo). When the ship receives an enigmatic, seemingly human transmission from an uncharted planet, Branson argues against changing course, but uncertain replacement captain Oram (Billy Crudup) opts to check it out.

Upon landing, they discover that the dank, rainy world contains an alien shipwreck, a Pompeii-like city of the dead and deadly spores with grotesque effects on human bodies. Soon the would-be colonists turn into prey, and Alien: Covenant embraces familiar horror tropes in the name of racking up a body count.

Go no further, lest ye be spoiled.

On the verge of disaster, the landing party is rescued by a mysterious figure who turns out to be David (also played by Fassbender), the same shifty android who barely survived Prometheus. We learn that Walter is an updated model from the bDavidb line, meant to be more loyal and less off-puttingly emotional.

Scott and Fassbender both seem totally jazzed by the David/Walter dynamic. David has a lilting English accent and a sinister, superior attitude; Walterbs more stolid and upright, with an iffy American accent (that could be a subtle joke at the expense of English actors). Special effects allow Fassbender to play out homoerotic scenes with himself, and this section of the film suggests the acting of Dead Ringers wed to Ex Machinabs notions of artificial life.

We also learn that David has been experimenting with the spores, engineering a highly familiar entity (which is no surprise, given that it's all over the film's marketing). Alien: Covenant effectively provides the xenomorphs with an origin story that feels unnecessary and overdetermined. Itbs like the film takes great pains to connect dots that have more mystique if left alone. The themes of life and creation set up by Prometheus and Covenantbs early scenes devolve to a half-baked mad scientist plot.

Covenantbs last act plays out with the kind of action we expect: Branson using her nuts-and-bolts know-how against a relentless adversary. Despite the competent staging. the thrills feel perfunctory, with neither the crew nor the film around them as frightened by the alien as they should be. In trying to give viewers what they want, Alien: Covenant delivers little they havenbt seen long before.

Alien: Covenant. 2 stars. Directed by Ridley Scott. Stars Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender. Rated R. Opens May 19. At area theaters.

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