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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Alien: Covenant  (2017)
2½ Stars
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, Guy Pearce, James Franco, Noomi Rapace.
2017 – 122 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 11, 2017.
It has been a long five-year wait for a sequel to 2012's "Prometheus," an unnerving, thinking-person's sci-fi astounder so conceptually expansive it served not only as a prequel to the "Alien" quadrilogy begun in 1979 but also the existentially searching origin of a potentially new spinoff series. As the riveting tale came to its thrillingly suggestive conclusion, the sky seemed to hardly be the limit for sole survivor Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archaeologist clinging to her childhood creationist faith even as she could not stop herself from searching the galaxy for the finite answers to man's existence.

"Alien: Covenant" vaguely continues this narrative, yet takes it down a questionable avenue which doesn't pay proper respect to the previous film's vividly drawn heroine. Torn between the former picture's cerebral leanings and the urge to fall back on baser conventions of a stalk-and-slash horror flick, director Ridley Scott (2015's "The Martian") and writers John Logan (2015's "Spectre") and Dante Harper shortchange their aspirations while delivering what they assume mainstream audiences wanted and didn't quite get in full from "Prometheus." There is still enough here to divert, captivate, and occasionally even provoke, but the seams are more apparent and the ball is dropped more than once on living up to its rattling capabilities.

As year 2104 draws to a close, colonization vessel Covenant flies through space with over 2,000 embryonic colonists onboard. Awaking from their cryosleep chambers just in time to witness the tragic death of their captain, the crew—including the late captain's grieving wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston)—look to second-in-command Oram (Billy Crudup) for leadership. When a rogue transmission is received from a nearby, previously unidentified habitable planet, Oram makes the executive decision to change course from their original destination, the still-seven-years-away Origae-6. Daniels warns they do not know what might be down there, that it is all but impossible other human life might be residing in the mouth of this unknown world. What they find once landed initially appears to be a paradise of fresh water, oxygen, and—is that human vegetation? As all of them will soon find, when things appear too good to be true, they usually are.

"Alien: Covenant" is wildly uneven yet impossible to discount, continuing to confront big questions about the genesis of life and the mysteries of death. Instead of following Shaw's personal journey established in "Prometheus," director Ridley Scott has taken a U-turn to join with a new group of characters, nearly the entire lot of them two-dimensional victim fodder. Early enticing scenes—including a prologue between David and his creator in younger years, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce)—lead into the crew's portentous exploration of the unnamed planet they've discovered. The mere suggestion of what might be lurking on the edges of this eerily quiet landscape, a place at once familiar to the earth-born visitors and massively, majestically otherworldly, proves creepier and more effective than what follows.

The wait isn't long before challenging, often chilling existential ruminations find themselves at war with the formulaic body-count slasher affair the film ultimately becomes, adhering to conventions right down to the obligatory shower sex scene interrupted by a deadly unwanted visitor—a situation which should have been milked for classy tension but instead is hastily botched in its build-up and payoff. In terms of onscreen carnage, there is plenty of bloody body-bursting action recalling Scott's own original "Alien," but nothing approaching the fiendishly imaginative, squirm-inducing cesarean set-piece in "Prometheus." And, as faultless and convincing as the special effects were in the picture's predecessor, the CG here involving the full-body aliens calls attention to itself every time the creatures appear. In these moments, the otherwise sumptuous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (2015's "The Walk") opts for erratic shakiness as a transparent ploy to hide the seams. Sadly, this only exacerbates the issue.

Michael Fassbender (2017's "Song to Song") is tremendous portraying the very different dual roles of Walter, the updated, less emotionally invested synthetic aboard Covenant, and David, the model last seen disembodied and accompanying Dr. Elizabeth Shaw on her mission for answers to man's creation. As Walter and David navigate all that unites and divides them, a dark dance of power and maneuvering gradually reveals their true nature. Fassbender crafts a fascinating dichotomy between engineered obedience and live-wire intimidation, even deviance.

Katherine Waterston (2016's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them") hasn't the juicy material to work with that Sigourney Weaver or Noomi Rapace had—little is learned about Daniels' backstory outside of her marriage to the vessel's ill-fated initial captain—yet it is a testament to her chameleonic ways that she is instantly inviting and sympathetic. For an actor whose passive-aggressively spiteful character in 2015's harrowing "Queen of Earth" still lingers in this writer's mind, Waterston's ability in completely shedding this is no simple feat. There is even less room for development with its supporting players, but two manage to stand out. Billy Crudup (2014's "Blood Ties") gives welcome vulnerability to new captain Oram; a late admission he makes—"I met the devil when I was a child, and I've never forgotten him"—is an evocative, out-of-the-blue statement left to linger in the air, unexplained and somehow more frightening for it. In the film's scariest scene, Amy Seimetz (2014's "The Sacrament") unforgettably sells every panicked moment as crew member Faris, faced with an unimaginable immediate danger and no help in sight.

Where do we come from, and where do we go when our light fades? Is life more than a biological byproduct of molecular circumstance? What else is out among the ethers? "Alien: Covenant" continues to raise deep questions while providing few resolutions, and, while viewers preferring tidy bows may be frustrated, this ambiguity adds to the haunting spell of all which is too vast to be satisfactorily answerable. As elegantly as these queries were broached in "Prometheus," they often come off as afterthoughts in this more basic, genre-shifting continuation, replaced by plodding sequences where characters are constantly going off on their own just in time for aliens to sneak up and pounce. Much of this is at least skillfully mounted, and the courage to embrace its own alternate bleakness and wide-eyed curiosity is appreciated. Nonetheless, in light of the limitless possibilities set up at the end of the previous film, it is impossible to not feel somewhat let down by "Alien: Covenant." What could have, and should have, been another gourmet feast on its way to linking up with "Alien" instead reminds of a gristly amalgamation of "Prometheus," 2010's "Predators," and 1997's "Alien Resurrection," ambition tempered by the seeming need to appease studio higher-ups. Is it still worth seeing? Certainly. But why must Ridley Scott have taken two steps back when he was already on his way toward shooting for the moon?
© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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