The second Alien prequel appears to have been formulated to give everybody some of what they want. Love watching toothy xenomorphs chow down on unsuspecting space grunts, as in the original Alien (1979)? Hate the philosophical pretensions of Prometheus (2012)? Here you'll find more of the chomping and less of the speechifying.
On the flip side, if you're one of the people who actually enjoyed Prometheus (I did, with reservations), you'll be pleased that director Ridley Scott brings back some of its campy gothic stylings. Plus, not one but two sneaky androids played by Michael Fassbender.
Does the please-everyone strategy work? Not entirely. Paced at a lurch with a slow start, a rushed climax and a middle that seems to belong in a different movie, Covenant won't remind anyone of the steadily mounting tension of the first two films. But in its odd, compromised, collage-like way, it's pretty entertaining.
The story opens in 2104 on a ship full of colonists headed for a new home in the stars. Abruptly woken from hyper-sleep by a disastrous malfunction that kills their captain, the crew intercepts a mysterious signal from an uncharted planet and decides to investigate.
Of course, this is a terrible idea, and our heroes double down on their death wish by not wearing proper protective gear. Soon enough, two of them have become hosts for innocuous alien spores, which quickly morph into the fast-moving, literally gut-busting carnivore we know and love.
Viewers who skipped (or forgot) Prometheus may be a tad confused by the remote planet's resemblance to New Zealand and baffled to find Fassbender's David character presiding over the ruins of a humanoid civilization, equipped with a mad-scientist laboratory like an android Doctor Moreau. Walter, the mild-mannered android accompanying the expedition — and a ringer for David — is pretty confused, too.
Both in its showy visual style and its quasi-operatic content, the entire David story line feels like an alien graft from Scott's other sci-fi classic: Blade Runner. Like that film's replicant antagonist, David has a lot of feelings about his human masters and creators, and they aren't nice ones. Prone to preening and quoting Percy Shelley and John Milton, he skulks around his castle trying to pull Walter into his dark orbit. Meanwhile, the humans are preoccupied with not becoming monster chow.
To its credit, Covenant has stronger, more likable human characters than Prometheus did. Katherine Waterston brings both ass kicking and emotional heft to the action scenes as the captain's grieving widow. Billy Crudup gives inner life to the self-doubting new captain, who fears the crew disrespects him for his religious faith.
But their character arcs remain subservient to the film's overarching imperative of more chomping. Scott and co. satisfy the audience's thirst to see the title character in most of its familiar permutations and life stages, while adding a few new ones. Part practical and part digital these days, the creature is still viscerally gross. But the Miltonic-romantic mythology that Scott added to the franchise in Prometheus — with its recurring motifs of irresponsible fathers and rebellious offspring — is such a fixture of Western culture that it works against the primal terror of the unknown.
The rebooted Alien franchise seems unlikely ever to have another human hero with the iconic status of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley; for better or worse, David remains its strongest character. That's a bold, borderline-nihilistic choice for which no amount of self-conscious callbacks to Covenant's predecessors will compensate. I, for one, welcome our new android overlords, but purists may disagree.