I've always believed the real thematic purpose of the "Alien" franchise was to highlight the ineffable terror of the unknowable. That somewhere, whether it's deep under the ocean or hundreds of thousands of miles out in the blackness of space, there's something truly alien that will swallow you up so profoundly that no one would ever find you again.
Sir Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece, "Alien," takes that fear and manages to build so much tension off of such a simple premise (and not to mention the horrifying creature design by H.R. Giger) that it changed how monster movies were made. Each progressive "Alien" movie lost a bit of that tension, but even the worst movie of the franchise (I'm looking at you, "Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem") has a moment or two of genuine creepiness.
When Scott decided to step back into the franchise with 2012's "Prometheus," excitement levels were high. The film is gorgeous to look at with flawless cinematography and special effects, but the script left a bit to be desired. The first half of the film is packed to the brim with huge ideas like the search for the birthplace of humanity and whether we as a species can be the master of our own destiny. When the film devolves into a very basic horror movie in the third act, the disappointment is palpable.
Scott continues his newfound obsession with his oldest franchise in "Alien: Covenant," which simultaneously acts as a prequel to "Alien" and a sequel to "Prometheus." As a sequel it works wonders in ironing out most of the issues with "Prometheus," but as a prequel to one of the greatest sci-fi horror films of all time, it can't help but disappoint.
It's 2104 and the colonization ship Covenant is headed toward a faraway planet with thousands of people and embryos on board. When a neutrino bursts and damages the ship, Walter (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic model based on the David-bot (also Fassbender) from "Prometheus," wakes the crew much earlier than anticipated. The crew picks up a radio transmission from a nearby—and unknown—planet that looks even more suitable for human habitation than their initial colony choice. They land and terrible and violent things happen.
Scott once again makes the film look impeccable. Camera movement and framing are painterly and gorgeous, with Scott proving why he's still considered one of the masters even after a string of disappointing films. At age 79, Scott is still making films like a man with something to prove.
Fassbender, in dual roles, proves why he's one of our most talented actors (even when he doesn't select the projects worthy of that talent). He carries the film even past the weaker moments and makes it easier to overlook the film's myriad flaws.
The problem comes down to this: "Covenant" (pardon the pun) shoves all of the big ideas of "Prometheus" out of the airlock. The film is content to be a straightforward horror/sci-fi/thriller and it's not scary enough to be entirely successful. "Alien" is still one of the most intense movies of all time, so if you're gonna make a prequel, you'd better have some nightmare fuel.
"Covenant" is nowhere near a bad movie, but it falls JUST short of being a great one, which is somehow even worse. It's still pure popcorn entertainment, but we should expect more from Scott than empty calories. Scott is capable of filet mignon and "Covenant" is Outback Steakhouse, at best.
Dir. Sir. Ridley Scott
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX, Redmond Cinema