Michael Fassbender plays two roles in “Alien: Covenant,” so he’s onscreen for at least half the film. Whenever he is, the movie cruises along in a classic sci-fi groove, full of gizmos and experiments and heady conversation about what the future holds.
Unfortunately, there’s another half of the film. And that half is full of cheese.
I liked the previous “Alien” chapter more than most people; “Prometheus” might have had its share of astronauts doing dumb things to keep the plot moving, but at least it had a big, trippy ambition.
“Covenant” dials back on that. Here, director Ridley Scott seems content to rip off the movie he made in 1979 that kicked off the “Alien” series. We meet the crew of a spaceship, they encounter a fiend, and one by one they die horrible deaths.
A decade has passed since the incidents of “Prometheus.” A ship seeking to re-populate a planet suffers an accident, and the insecure new captain (Billy Crudup) impetuously decides to land at a nearby Earth-like planet.
Impetuous behavior is never a good thing in leadership, as we are about to find out. The stormy planet hides a terrible secret — oh, who are we kidding? You know the place is crawling with steel-fanged, acid-spitting aliens, just waiting to feed on human life.
The Ripley figure here is the second-in-command, played by “Inherent Vice” star Katherine Waterston. The other crew members awaiting death, none of whom acts remotely like an astronaut with the Right Stuff, include Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, Demian Bechar and Amy Seimetz.
As for the eerily composed Fassbender, he plays Walter, the newly emotionless synthetic aboard the ship, and also David, the rather more empathetic cyborg who appeared in “Prometheus.” He’s great in both roles (one ‘bot has an English accent, the other American), and they face off while debating the meaning of life in a couple of spellbinding sequences.
There’s also a cool prologue, in which David talks with his creator (Guy Pearce) in what looks like an extraterrestrial gallery space. This is what Scott does best: little contained bursts of design and pretentious talk.
As usual, Scott’s ear for humor is clunky — the manly joshing of the crew would sound out of date even if the movie weren’t set in a distant future. And the rampant stupid behavior — in this one, an astronaut stalks off into a nighttime danger zone in order to relieve himself — almost seems designed to troll the audience into a collective grown. It works.
One cool thing about the “Alien” franchise is that each movie tried to do something different. “Covenant” is the first one that truly feels like an attempt to dumb it down to formula. The fact that Michael Fassbender will return, like an android James Bond, is the only bait for the next sequel.
“Alien: Covenant” (2 stars)
A scaling-back of the long-running sci-fi series, as the ambitions of “Prometheus” are ignored in favor of watching astronauts die one by one. The scenes with the spellbinding Michael Fassbender as two different androids are the saving grace, but the rest of Ridley Scott’s film is full of cheese. With Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup.
Rating: R, for violence, nudity
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