When last we saw David, Michael Fassbender’s mad scientist android from Prometheus, he was a decapitated head in a bag, carried onto an alien spaceship by a woman he’d just helped impregnate with a squid monster. As Prometheus ended, this odd couple set off into space, seeking the grunting, black-eyed muscle gods responsible for seeding the galaxy with life.
As Alien: Covenant begins, its titular ship is under repair. After completing a fix, Tennessee (Danny McBride) picks up a stray communication, and the crew follows the signal to a pristine planet—at which point the film becomes four old Alien movies happening at once. David shows up. (Surprise!) Bodies explode. (Surprise?) And, after 20 years, everyone’s favorite fanged penis-monster triumphantly returns. (There is a surprise here, though opinions will vary regarding its quality.) The result is a film that’s much less ambitious than Prometheus, but also significantly less pretentious and stupid. Covenant aims lower but hits more frequently.
And yes: Danny McBride’s drawling, cowboy-hat-wearing character is named Tennessee, even though he’s really just “Slightly Quieter Danny McBride.” Even if you don’t like him, at least his personality sets him apart from the ambulatory alien chow that constitutes two-thirds of the Covenant crew. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, who starts off interesting but ends flattened into a generic, Ripley-esque shape. Billy Crudup fights some remarkably shitty dialogue to find a few compelling moments for his blandly religious Oram. And Demián Bichir’s Lope is a stand-in for director Ridley Scott—a cigar-chomping bit of gruff with a wiry beard and a gravelly bark.
Actually, Lope is the lesser of two Ridley avatars here. Scott, a man who waited until his 70s to get in on the whole franchise thing, has finally indulged in the pastime of his filmmaking contemporaries: sticking himself in one of his movies. Spielberg does it constantly, through actors like Tom Hanks. Luke Skywalker is little more than a heroic fantasy version of George Lucas. And every Woody Allen movie is about Woody Allen—starring either himself or a more attractive actor doing an impersonation.
And Fassbender’s David is Ridley Scott. For a 30-minute chunk in the middle of Covenant, Scott’s filmmaking ethos pours out of David’s mouth in the form of a long treatise on his artistic motivations and creative impulses. The speech, like the film, promotes the virtues of pure cliché—classy, mellifluous cliché, drowning in obviousness and mistaking the sound as profundity.
This part of Covenant is fascinating. Not just because Scott lays himself bare, but because Fassbender’s performance—as both David and the Covenant’s identical-looking droid, Walter—is so good that when the robots’ disagreements regress from philosophy into fisticuffs, it feels beneath them both. (Hell, the fact I—despite knowing how the movie was made—still considered Fassbender two separate characters as I wrote that sentence speaks to how good he is.)
But then David picks up a flute and plays a melody—lifted from the score of Prometheus—that serves as an announcement that Scott has finished grandstanding and now returns you to some Alien greatest hits. Almost every movie in the series gets multiple nods, save for James Cameron’s Aliens (which is too bad, as a bit of Cameron’s skill with action would have gone a long way here).
As the bloody, squealing, and somewhat satisfying rehash concludes, Covenant calls to mind the painting by H.R. Giger that inspired Scott’s original Alien: a sinewy, satisfied beast, curled in a ball and staring at its own tail. Covenant’s victory is minor—after 25 years, the Alien series has finally managed to make a movie that, however slightly, is better than 1992’s Alien3. The question is whether the beast will uncoil and move forward, or remain content to suck on itself like a pacifier.