Latest ‘Alien’ Installment A Summertime Winner

‘I’ On Culture

We have another summer winner with Alien Covenant, the sixth film in the Alien series, although it actually is a prequel to the original film and a sequel to Prometheus. Most of the characters are new and, though we really have far too little time to know them (and anyone who has seen any of the films in the series knows what that means), they create a mosaic that helps focus on director Ridley Scott’s philosophical questions on the meaning of life.

Android Walter (Michael Fassbender) is running the Covenant, a colony ship containing thousands of colonists in suspended animation, as they cruise toward a planet considered able to sustain life. A sudden radiation burst, at a time when the ship’s solar sail is out, damages the ship and wakes the crew. The captain is killed, and his second-in-command Oram (Billy Crudup) takes over. Oram is conflicted, sure he did not get command originally because he was a “person of faith.”

The crew was made up of eight couples, and the tragedy shatters them while Oram is totally mission-oriented. A sudden rogue broadcast from a planet a short distance away that they had not previously spotted attracts Oram’s interest. Despite a warning from Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the widow of the captain, Oram heads to the new planet.

At first, it seems an ideal place to settle: The air is breathable; wheat is growing there. But one of the crew steps on some sort of plant and is infected. And we know, of course, what will happen. He gets evacuated, which brings one of the aliens onto the ship. Most of the crew down on the planet gets attacked but they are rescued by David 8 (also Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus.

Much of the rest of the movie, which has many twists and plot surprises, is a battle against the aliens mixed with philosophical discussions between the two androids about the meaning of life and creation. Some of the twists and turns are, to say the least, fascinating.

One of things that made the film more interesting than many of its predecessors is that the crew members (none of the passengers wake) all have mates. It hones the tragedy as they die and affects the decisions made. One key character, Tennessee (Danny McBride), risks the ship and himself and violates regulations and safety standards because his wife is stuck on the planet.

The cast is very good. Waterston is great as Daniels, a worthy successor to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. While not as tough, she is ferociously determined to destroy the monsters. McBride was very good as the conflicted Tennessee. Crudup’s character was not quite as well-rounded as he might have been; he was clearly too stubborn for his own good. But his relationship with Karine, his wife (Carmen Ejogo) helped make him seem more interesting.

But the film belongs to Fassbender. In the twin parts of the two androids (plus a quick bit in the beginning as their “creator”) he manages to bring character to roles that are supposed to be beings without feelings or emotions. And he does it beautifully. The discussions between the androids, which help explain plot points not only for this film but for the whole series, are fascinating.

Scott is fascinated by the idea of faith in a world that is increasingly dominated by science. Humans have many “creation myths.” The one thing certain is that in many ways, we have no real way to verify much except through a dry science that is ultimately not fascinating.

But the androids know who their creator is and know how fallible a human can be. Since the androids were built to be stronger, smarter and longer-lived than humans, religious ideas of all-powerful creators do not apply. So we in the audience get philosophy. But we also get lots of action, some thrills as humans fight the aliens through the corridors of the ship, and a very human story. Scott, nearing 80, is a consummate filmmaker, and he does a beautiful job.

This is a strong, well-made film, with a very good script by John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen and Michael Green. Writing by committee often creates a muddle, but here it works really well. This is a good movie to see.