You know what you’re getting out of any movie in the “Alien” franchise, of course.
And while the latest installment in Ridley Scott’s 21st century revival of the series offers a heavy dose of the expected extraterrestrial gore, the film resonates not because of its scares or effects, but thanks to the simple fact that the filmmaker wholly commits to building an atmosphere of sadness and dread around it.
“Alien: Covenant” stands as a more streamlined and spare endeavor than its predecessor, “Prometheus,” but it retains a commitment to the bigger philosophical ideas surrounding the series, the biblical sensibility and creationist allegory that has deepened the mythology.
Set 10 years after the prequel, and some 18 years before the original “Alien,” the new movie follows the crew of a colonizing ship called the Covenant as its journey toward a new interstellar home is thwarted. Its crew picks up a human-like signal (a faint, singing John Denver) and investigates, finding a lush, Earth-like planet with a rainforest landscape and no signs of life whatsoever.
Scott casts this ensemble exceedingly well and the actors give performances that invest the movie with the sort of credibility that’s often missing from aspiring summer blockbusters. Katherine Waterston is a standout as the grief-stricken Daniels, a terraforming expert who must put aside thoughts of a great personal tragedy to pursue the mission at hand. Billy Crudup, Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir and others take smaller roles and imbue them with just the right touch of credibility and personality to present fully formed characters in limited doses.
Michael Fassbender, the holdover from “Prometheus,” faces perhaps the most aggressive challenge (and one best left unexplored here), and he evokes such a thorough range of emotions as, yes, an android that he significantly enhances the movie’s surprisingly rich tapestry.
Scott lets the movie proceed slowly and thoughtfully, only gradually revealing the scope of what’s facing this crew on this planet. He ably mixes the horror and action elements with the movie’s grandiose-but-understated exploration of the struggle between the uniqueness of the human soul and the realities of an unstoppable Darwinian force.
That sounds like heavy stuff, and it is. “Alien: Covenat” practically drowns in its sense of foreboding. The experience can be oppressive at times, but it’s rendered so thoughtfully that even its inexorable march toward present and future horror feels fresh and surprising.