ALIEN: COVENANT. I saw Ridley Scott's ground-breaking Alien (1979) too young and imprinted on its visceral sci-fi horror like a duckling. Artist H.R. Giger, whose work calls to mind an Art Nouveau death cult, designed a beast that finally frightened us more than humans. Its oil-slick, black, eyeless bullet of a head, with its dripping teeth and — surprise! — protruding mini-me jaws, swiveled over a body that was at once reptilian, human and machine. Was there anything so terrifying as that first face-hugger bursting forth, all milky exoskeleton, announcing the endless possibilities of horrific, acid-dripping, parasitic alien life, of an intelligent design that does not give a fuck about humanity? The films that followed couldn't replicate the shock of those first arrivals, building instead on the panic of contagion, the claustrophobia of fighting a nimble monster in a floating Habitrail of airlocked hallways, the visceral fear of birth (dudes, ask any woman) and the moral ambiguity/bankruptcy of scientists and corporations. They kept the ball rolling through the 1990s with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley — or her clone — as an archetypal woman-in-peril-turned-savior. Hit me up if you want to see my college essay on the maternal figure in Aliens. Pretty sure I can dig it up.
But now the story and its frightful creatures — human, alien and robotic — are back in the hands director Ridley Scott, and not just in his prescient only-if-you-squint prequel Prometheus (2012). He returns seemingly with a mind to reclaim his turf and create a continuous trilogy with a film that falls between Prometheus and Alien. Alien: Covenant, with all its flaws, keeps its promises to fans.
The film opens on a flashback to characters from that prequel, with newborn android David (Michael Fassbender), meeting his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce), the founder of Weylan Industries, the corporation at the center of all the ill deeds in the series. They muse uncomfortably about mortality and creation, and David plays piano — a little of Wagner's "The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla," in case you needed a sign that this will all end badly.
Jumping ahead at least a decade, we meet Walter, David's doppelganger a few generations down the line, managing a spaceship carrying some 2,000 colonists — some as embryos in cold storage like glass paperweights — to a distant planet, and chatting with Mother, the ship's operating system. (My paper doesn't seem so nuts now, huh?) Hardcore turbulence damages the ship and kills some of the crew, including the captain (barely a cameo by James Franco). This leaves his widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), as second in command to battlefield promoted Oram (Billy Crudup), a religious man who can't seem to connect with the team. A garbled message from a nearby, enticingly habitable planet draws the crew in for a closer look, despite Daniels' objections. What could go wrong?
Amid the creepily silent forest they find the wreck of the ship from Prometheus, the source of that mysterious message, and stumble onto spores that infect a couple of red-shirt crewmembers. Once they start getting the sweats, the nasty effects and action pick up — in no time people are sliding in spilled blood and scrambling to fend off lightning fast, rapidly growing albino monsters that zoom teeth first in all directions. They also meet David, who lives Kurtz-like among the ruins of the planet's former inhabitants, who were wiped out by those nasty spores and whose petrified remains are scattered about like bodies in Pompeii. The particulars of that genocide, as well as David's motivations, unfold as the crew tries desperately to get back to their ship, which is held off from landing by a massive storm. While Daniels comes up with an extraction plan, Walter does some uncomfortable bonding with his android predecessor — including a coldly homoerotic recorder lesson in which David holds the instrument to Walter's lips and suggests, "I'll do the fingering" — becoming more and more concerned as he learns what happened a decade ago and just how batshit David is.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect android than Fassbender, with his stage elocution, glinting eyes and mechanical posture. One can easily imagine him at home barefoot in a speed skating suit, moving silently and efficiently from room to room like a modern dancer. He's equally adept as a "good" robot mimicking humanity to make Daniels comfortable and as Stephen Hawking's AI nightmare: a faster, stronger, smarter student of all the worst in us.
As Daniels, Waterston maintains the role of central heroine — it's she that solves problems, deploys the team members and rushes headlong into battle against their foes. She has to, as Oram fumbles his chances to unite the crew and sinks into the guilt of his decisions. Unlike Weaver's Ripley, whose jawline and sinewy body, to say nothing of her intense gaze, seemed built for battle, especially as the films wore on, Waterston still has the baby face and fluffy, cropped hair of a grad student who skipped a few grades. In director James Cameron's installment, Aliens, much is made of the masculine qualities of its heroines, like Private Vasquez (the prototype for Linda Hamilton and her deltoids in Terminator 2). But here femininity is refreshingly not set in opposition to strength and Waterston carries it off well, even when dwarfed by enormous guns or wide-eyed in an oversized space helmet, she pushes through her grief and fear, and does what needs doing.
On the other hand, the rest of the characters, men and women alike, are thinly developed. Like Noah's Ark, the ship is crewed with couples, and the inevitable loss of partners is the only development most of them are afforded beyond a little cockpit banter. They're largely throwaways, fresh hosts to throw at the aliens. It's in the service of ticking off the checklist of a giddy fan base, which Scott does, re-staking his claim to all the conventions of the series. There are face huggers, monstrous eggs, steely black xenomorphs baring their teeth, bursting chests (though I am ambivalent about baby's first steps in one scene) and plenty of skittering around narrow hallways. All you could want, really, and wonderfully rendered by cinematographer Dariusz Woloski. In fact, the mid-air sequence in which Daniels deploys a swinging crane atop a pitching and rolling cargo ship is downright exhilarating.
Amid all the lightning storms, moody terrain and talk of creation, Alien: Covenant feels like an action-packed sequel to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with all its warnings about men creating life by cutting out the middle woman. It's no stretch since Walter at one point recites the author's husband Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias." There are, of course, parallels between Frankenstein and David and his creator, but David flips the script by becoming both monster and creator himself. That's evolution for you. R. 89m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the North Coast Journal. Reach her at 442-1400 extension 320 or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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