In 2012, Ridley Scott puzzled viewers with Prometheus, a sideways prequel to Alien posing grandiose questions of sci-fi creationism without answers. Or as much face-sucking, flesh-bursting goo, as it turned out.
Alien: Covenant is more like what the franchise's fans expect, and why not? Scott practically invented the dead-meat-in-space genre with Alien. Here, he adroitly balances lofty ideas rooted in Prometheus and what can be described as covers of alien kills. A mind scramble here, a gut punch there. It works.
Covenant is its own subspecies of Alien movie, bearing franchise traits of claustrophobic spaceships and women in charge. Yet it's also uncommonly opened up to worlds outside the vessel, where safety isn't entirely determined by heroism from any gender. Or android, in the case of the movie's most compelling character.
At first look Walter may be mistaken for David, the "synthetic" crew member from Prometheus also played by Michael Fassbender. Walter is an updated model, introduced while parrying with his creator-father figure (Guy Pearce) about human versus artificial intelligence superiority. Fassbender's stillness fascinates, his voice and movements convincingly inhuman.
From that Kubrickian opener, Scott reverts to franchise form with a space expedition to a colony planet. The Covenant is sleeker, cleaner than the original's Nostromo freighter where Scott will eventually take his current arc.
The Covenant carries more precious cargo, thousands of humans in suspended animation and frozen embryos to populate a new world. As such, everyone aboard is coupled for procreation, even the crew, adding another layer of dread as things get messier. Everyone's sleep is watched over by Walter until a space storm collision requires the crew to awaken for repairs turning deadly.
An early casualty is the captain (James Franco, unbilled), leaving his mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston) distraught. His unsure replacement Oram (Billy Crudup) is a self-proclaimed "person of faith," an angle that Prometheus might have run with but Scott won't go down that rabbit hole again.
Still years away from the colony, the Covenant receives a radio transmission from a closer planet apparently safe for humans but previously undetected. Forgetting the road trip rule to never take an unknown short cut, an expedition is sent to inspect the planet, a lush place looking perfect for their needs.
The planet includes a familiar site for viewers, the crashed Prometheus spaceship where ancient cave paintings were first pieces in Scott's puzzle. The explorers also locate a familiar if shaggier face, the synthetic David providing Fassbender with two roles to perfectly play.
From there spoiler shields are raised, protecting the identity of victims who may include those thousands of sleeping passengers and embryos. Waterston's softer impulses suggest she isn't in Ripley's league as a feminist warrior. Walter and David have plenty to discuss. Those iconic Xenomorph creatures are closing in and busting out. The ending is a pip.
Scott smartly mixes the grisly shocks making the franchise famous with theological fantasy that five years ago turned off many fans (not me). Alien: Covenant is smarter than the average horror flick with a healthy dose of gross.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.