Your feelings about the latest installment of the "Alien" franchise will depend largely on how you felt about "Prometheus." The 2012 prequel marked Ridley Scott's return to the science fiction series he established nearly 40 years ago. A direct sequel to that ambitious and polarizing blockbuster, "Alien: Covenant" splits the difference between continuing the earlier film's philosophically heady ideas, and cramming in plenty of good ole gory Xenomorph carnage.
Despite the "Alien" title, the series' iconic creatures are not the real focus here, and Scott seems happier to explore his themes of faith and creativity, the uneasy relationship between creator and its creations, and the purpose for humanity's being.
Along with writers John Logan and Dante Harper, Scott recognizes that the best thing to come out of "Prometheus" was the character of David, the inquisitive and inscrutable android played by Michael Fassbender. A supporting character in that film, David is a much more central focus here, and Scott opens the film with a meaningful conversation between the "synthetic" and his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce reprises the role he played in "Prometheus," though here without the old-age makeup).
The film then jumps forward to 10 years after the events of "Prometheus," with the spaceship Covenant in the middle of a multi-year colonizing mission, headed toward a distant planet with 2,000 colonists and a crew aboard, suspended in hypersleep. A sudden, deadly accident causes the crew to wake early, and before they've even had a chance to regroup, the ship receives a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. Somehow overlooked until now, this uncharted planet appears to be a perfect fit for their settlement. It's all the more enticing since it's considerably closer than their original destination, which is still a several-year journey away. After some debate, the Covenant's crew decide to set down and check things out.
Along the way, a few key crewmembers come into focus: there's the second-in-command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston); the newly-minted captain, Oram (Billy Crudup); and the ship's cocksure pilot, Tennessee (Danny McBride, easing nicely into a rare non-comedic role). The rest of the crew members are mostly interchangeable, but they are at least played by recognizable faces like Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, and Demián Bichir.
The crewmembers touch down and what they find is too good to be true: a paradise that appears tailor-made for human habitation. But things that appear too good often are, and soon they begin to severely regret their decision as a whole host of troubles begin rapidly thinning out the crew's numbers.
It's here that they also encounter David, who's been marooned on the planet after crash-landing the Engineer's spacecraft he commandeered at the end of "Prometheus." Time has not done much for David's state of mind it seems.
In a dual role, Fassbender also portrays Walter, the Covenant's resident synthetic, a modified and updated version of David. It's an extraordinary performance, and the scenes between Walter and David are some of the best in the film, filled with a charged, almost erotic tension -- which is appropriate, considering that there is a seduction of sorts taking place.
Much like those aboard the Prometheus, the crew of the Covenant continue to make spectacularly stupid decisions, poking and prodding at unknown lifeforms with the reckless abandon of a teenager in a "Friday the 13th" movie. But even more so this time around, that behavior starts to seem entirely by design: people are prone to wrongheaded moves in the heat of the moment, whether due to fear, panic, or the tenuous connection of love for their fellow man. As a result, these films seem to argue that in the grand scheme of things, humanity may not be cut out for long-term survival. As the series has gone on, it's become readily apparent that the human characters are not where these film's sympathies lie; there's a rather nihilistic viewpoint at work, suggesting that our creators may at best be indifferent to our suffering, and at worst, actively pursuing it.
Serving as a link between the prequel and the earlier series of films, "Alien: Covenant" feels more like what we expect from an "Alien" film, amping up the horror and suspense (there's plenty of gruesome business revolving around foreign bodies invading our own in every disgusting way imaginable). But in trying to simultaneously continue the thoughtful tone of "Prometheus," the film often feels torn between those differing agendas. As a result, not all of the film's disparate elements completely gel.
Still, like the ever-evolving creatures the series revolves around, a few of its more intriguing and troubling ideas manage to burrow under your skin, waiting to burst out when you least expect it.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the documentary "Obit."