Alien: Covenant, like the many offerings of that benevolent hydra known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, depends to no small extent on the foreknowledge of its filmic predecessors, both directed by Ridley Scott: the landmark sci-fi horror touchstoneAlien, of course, but more obviously the unjustly maligned Prometheus from 2012. Fittingly, it borrows strands of DNA (as it were) liberally from both, melding the basic structure of both with the grimy, generally no-frills mode of the former and the sense of wonder and existential doubt of the latter. The result is something slightly uncanny, as initially shocking as the notably CGI aliens (a far cry from the hulking suit of the original film), but thrilling and hard-hitting all the same.
What sets Alien: Covenant apart from its forbears is its method for unleashing hell. Functionally speaking, it takes a two-pronged approach, conveniently divided into two halves. The first concerns the various crew members of the Covenant, a deep-space colony mission diverted by a mysterious transmission issuing from a heretofore unknown planet that seems completely suitable for life, including acting captain Christopher (Billy Crudup), second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), and android Walter (Michael Fassbender). The second picks up neatly after various survivors of the initial alien attack are assisted by David (Fassbender again), the android figure from Prometheus who has been dwelling on the hostile planet for ten years.
But then again, it might be more instructive to reverse the prominence of these two storylines. For not only is David’s the one that is introduced first, in an overtly philosophical and rather effective pre-title flashback sequence involving his first tête-à-tête with his “father” and designer Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), but it quickly subsumes the plight of the crew. His scenes with Walter – a rather impressive bit of double acting, which Scott portrays with a supremely well-done sense of creeping unease – are the most effective, taking place in a veritable necropolis of the previous inhabitants of the planet.
Alien: Covenant feels like a haunted film, something most evident in the massive casualties sustained and rendered with surprising viciousness. What the film frequently lacks in strong, multivalent characterization, it mostly makes up for in brutality and gore, as aliens burrow and out of helpless humans (the entire cast in general acquit themselves with commendable steadiness). But even more important is the way in which the previous entries in the series shadow many of the key moments in the movie. It is plainly a Prometheus sequel first and foremost, drawing on the sometimes confusing mythology of that film in order to carve a path closer to the thrills of Alien.
And that commitment to the past films feels in this case like a sound strategy, one that rewards instead of requiring foreknowledge. What seems to matter most in the end is the willingness to go along with this sometimes unwieldy and largely contemplative work. Alien: Covenant‘s treasures lie in the little moments, in the desperation and the brave attempts to secure some better world for humanity.