'Alien: Covenant' leaves too much space between thrills
Michael Fassbender shines in Ridley Scott's latest extraterrestrial adventure, but it doesn't deliver the sustained thrills of the original "Alien" movies.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
2012's "Prometheus" was set in the universe of "Alien" movies, although there was a frustrating lack of the terrifying extra-terrestrials familiar from previous movies. For this month's follow-up, "Alien: Covenant", the word "Alien" is back in the title -- and the aliens themselves are back with a vengeance.
But although it feels like a proper "Alien" movie, "Covenant" doesn't quite measure up to the nerve-shredding suspense, action and horror of the classic movies.
The spaceship Covenant is trucking a cargo of human embryos across the galaxy to set up a colony on a new planet. We get to know the crew at length before they head down to a mysterious planet, where... well, you know the drill. Let's just say it doesn't go very well, as the crew mates encounter a selection of nightmarish creatures determined to sink their teeth (and their spawn) into our unlucky heroes.
If it sounds like "Covenant" follows the "Alien" movie formula, you're right. It's always thrilling to be chased around a spaceship by aliens, and there are a couple of nail-biting action scenes on show. Unfortunately, the film meanders between them. At times, the familiarity of the setup works against the movie, because we know what's lurking on that mysterious planet or in that suspicious-looking egg, but the film takes absolutely forever to get past each familiar franchise touchstone.
Ridley Scott directs Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride as the colonising crew. A nice twist on the crew-in-peril formula is that the aspiring colonists are all married, so when they start dying we feel an extra level of anguish as each character comes with the built-in pathos of bereavement.
The standout is Michael Fassbender, who plays both the android David last seen in "Prometheus", and a newer model of android called Walter. Following the events of "Prometheus", David has washed up on a sinister planet and gone a bit Dr. Moreau, drawing in his robotic counterpart for some cleverly realised scenes in which Fassbender interacts with himself. The dual performances present a master class in subtlety, as Fassbender creates distinct personalities for the two robots despite neither being able to show emotion.
Fassbender, meet Fassbender
As intriguing as the middle section's philosophical chats between Fassbender and Fassbender are, they happen at too leisurely a pace. In fact, the whole affair struggles to sustain suspense. All too often, instead of ratcheting up the tension and drama by piling problem after problem upon the hapless crew, the film solves complications as soon as they arise. For example, in the film's opening moments, the ship suffers a catastrophic disaster that could have underpinned the whole story with an extra subcurrent of danger. Instead, the problem gets immediately fixed and is never mentioned again.
In another scene, there's a reprise of the dilemma seen in the original "Alien" movie, in which Sigourney Weaver's character Ripley refused to help her infected crewmate. That decision haunted Ripley for the whole rest of the movie, cleverly giving the film an extra layer of compelling human drama.
"Covenant" brings up a similar dilemma, and then simply moves on. In between all-too-quickly-solved problems the crew sit around and chat, dissipating most of the tension until the next problem comes along -- which is in turn also dealt with too quickly.
Over the course of "Prometheus", "Covenant" and a planned third movie reportedly titled "Awakening", Ridley Scott seems determined to tell the origin of the alien Xenomorph. Frankly, I'm not convinced anyone else cares. It can't just be me who'll spend most of "Covenant" aching to fast-forward to the bit where people get chased by the acid-dripping, head-chewing nightmare we know and love. It doesn't help that the whole thing ends on a damp squib of a twist you'll see coming light-years off.
Still, at its best, "Alien: Covenant" is by turns creepy, thought-provoking and occasionally even thrilling. It's too distracted by its own mythology to deliver sustained terror, but when the film does get going it shows just why the alien is a classic movie monster.
I'm glad it's back.
Watch this: Latest 'Alien: Covenant' trailer sets the scene
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