Smoke was everywhere, stinging Lt. Ellen Ripley’s eyes as she crept down a rusted corridor of the Nostromo.
Drenched in sweat, Ripley brushed against the wall with one hand while clutching an unwieldy flamethrower tight to her chest with the other. An alarm blared somewhere above her.
She rounded the corner, gingerly lowering herself over the edge of a narrow service ladder. When she reached the bottom she was panting with exertion, blind in the darkness save for the flickering light of her weapon. She spun, scanning the shadows behind her. And then she heard the noise.
It was 1979 when Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, first stood against the iconic Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s sleeper hit, “Alien.” The massive, predatory creature terrifying audiences world-wide was played by 6-foot-10 Bolaiji Badejo, a Nigerian actor in a black rubber suit slathered in several buckets-worth of KY Jelly.
We’ve come a long way since then.
Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” released on May 18, is the first in a planned trilogy meant to connect Scott’s 2012 “Prometheus” with the original 1979 “Alien.”
“Covenant” sets out to tackle two goals with varying degrees of success: to bring back the chest-bursting glory days of the “Alien” franchise and to bridge the 33-year historical and stylistic gap between the two films.
Taking place 11 years after “Prometheus,” the film follows the crew of the Covenant, a colony vessel carrying some 2,000 sleeping pioneers and 1,140 embryos on a seven-year journey to a habitable planet, Origae-6.
Shockingly, it doesn’t quite go according to plan when Synthetic Walter, played by Michael Fassbender, wakes the crew early after the Covenant is damaged in a freak accident; not everyone survives.
Shaken and grieving, the survivors, led by their new captain, Oram, and second-in-command Dani, played by Billy Crudup and Katherine Waterston, follow a mysterious message echoing through space to a lush, apparently uninhabited planet that has somehow avoided human detection.
Scott takes an interesting approach in “Covenant,” focusing much of the film’s two-hour runtime on character development. While the choice definitely detracts from the horror aspect of the movie, it gives the cast a chance to showcase their abilities.
Waterston is a joy to watch. Her portrayal of the film’s grief-stricken but eminently capable protagonist, Dani, comes off as relatable and human. It’s hard not to root for her as she runs, shoots and claws her way through the movie with striking similarity to Ripley from the original films.
Waterston also has fantastic chemistry with co-stars Danny Mcbride, who plays the gruff but endearing Tennessee, and Fassbender, who, as well as playing synthetic crewmember Walter, reprises his role as fellow android David from “Prometheus.”
Fassbender’s dual performance is easily one of the highlights of the film. David is delightfully eerie, and the sharp contrast between the two characters allows for some deeply creative scenes.
The film is a visual treat. The Covenant is claustrophobic toy box of dim, sterile hallways, looming machinery and control rooms lit by harsh computer monitors.
The planet design balances wide sweeping scenic shots with thick overgrowth and a hushed atmosphere. The color palette, muted and gray–with a liberal spattering of red–further drives home that creeping sense of paranoia.
The horror in “Covenant” is brilliant. It’s slow-building, but when the action finally kicks off, it’s a true return to form for Scott. Frantic pacing and a generous streak of gore bring the franchise back to its sticky, terrifying roots. There’s just one problem: there’s not a lot of it.
For such an iconic monster, the Xenomorph doesn’t get much screentime. Audiences get their courtesy facehugger and the “required” chestburster scene. But for a two hour film about aliens, you spend a lot of time waiting for them.
And the film’s fascination with Synthetics’ sentience gets old fast. Fassbender does a fantastic job with delivery, but the movie’s subplot is remarkably predictable.
“Covenant” gets a lot right, but it struggles to stand out. The film plays out like a love note, capitalizing on everything great about “Alien” and everything stomachable about “Prometheus.” While interesting, exciting and bloody terrifying at times, “Covenant” fails to break new ground.