REVIEW: 'Alien: Covenant' ★★★ and ½

By Felix Albuerne Jr., Film Buff
Last Updated: Thursday, May 18, 2017, 1:57 PM EDT

Though it falls short of the timeless terror delivered by earlier "Alien" films, "Alien: Covenant" delivers more than its fair share of space-borne starts and scares.

Featuring impressive performances from Michael Fassbender and Katherine Waterston, the film is packaged in a way that honors the series' roots while pointing to the future of the franchise.

Longtime fans should come away pleased, while newbies to the Xenomorph brand of sci-fi horror should leave theaters with pulses quickened and plenty of nightmare material.

What's it about?

"Alien: Covenant” begins much as the original 1979 film did, with the crew of a solitary ship in cryosleep as the vessel travels through space. This time, the ship, named Covenant, carries over 2,000 sleeping colonists in addition to the crew, on their way to build a new home on a planet light years away.

Covenant does have one crew member awake for the duration of the journey. The android Walter (Fassbender), along with the ship’s computer, MUTHER, keeps dutiful watch over the ship’s functions and the health of the crew.

Walter and MUTHER are forced to wake the crew when an emergency threatens the ship and its many passengers. They’re able to save the ship, but the team and in particular the colonists’ terraforming director, Daniels (Waterston), suffer a terrible personal loss.

The situation, while tragic, does seem to yield a potential miracle. The Covenant’s sensors detect a mysterious signal leading to what looks like a perfect world for colonization, one much closer to their current position than their original destination.

The ship’s captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), knows his crew’s feelings about going back into cryosleep following what they all just went through. Despite Daniels’s objection, he orders the Covenant to check out the new planet, and at first, it seems like what it appeared to be from a distance: a perfectly habitable new home for human life.

It’s not long, however, before the exploring group makes a chilling discovery. Some sort of catastrophe ended life on the planet long before their arrival, life that bore striking similarity to humans.

What’s not clear is what exactly destroyed that life … until members of the Covenant’s crew start dying in violent, horrifying fashion.

Then the screaming starts. You know, the kind you can’t hear in space.

That familiar dread

In the broad strokes, “Alien: Covenant” looks and feels a great deal like a mashup of arguably the most beloved films in the series, the original “Alien” and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel “Aliens.”

The screenplay by veteran scribe John Logan (“The Aviator”, “Gladiator”) and Dante Harper structurally parallels the setup of the original film early on to build that familiar sense of dread, then borrows visual cues and action beats from Cameron’s more action-driven follow-up to pay off that anticipation.

But “Covenant” is more directly a follow-up to “Prometheus”, the 2012 sci-fi horror film that unfolded as a prequel to the whole saga. Also directed by Ridley Scott and featuring Fassbender in a prominent role, the events of “Prometheus” are referenced directly in “Covenant”, so viewers who haven’t seen that one in a while might want to dig it up to refresh their memories.

Fans of the series who came away from “Prometheus” disappointed shouldn’t worry about a repeat letdown here. “Covenant” is a more efficient film in terms of getting to what audiences are there for – the scares and the screaming.

Yes, it's scary

Speaking of the scares, yes, as mentioned earlier, “Alien: Covenant” has plenty of those, regardless of the sense of familiarity audiences might feel as the story unfolds. On the contrary, that sense of the familiar may even contribute to the dread audience may feel creeping up as things start to go badly for the Covenant’s crew.

It all still works because the imagery still preys upon primal fears hard-wired into the human psyche. The dark, claustrophobic spaceship corridors, the ominous eggs hatching, the creatures skittering across the floor in the darkness, and the violent deaths from contagion, torn apart from the inside out, it all still scares, especially when it’s orchestrated by a director like Scott and executed with the level of detail and special effects wizardry at work here.

Put it another way. You might see the scares coming in “Alien: Covenant”, and it won’t matter. You’re still going to feel that chill up your spine. You’re still going to jump a little in your seat.

And you won’t be alone.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels in ALIEN: COVENANT. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers.

Fassbender steals the show

Actor Michael Fassbender has become in recent years a welcome sight to fans of genre films. A mesmerizing performer equally at home in both character and plot-driven film stories, his appearances in the “X-Men” films as well as “Prometheus” have all been memorable high points, even when the films themselves were lackluster. (He even made last year’s “Assassin’s Creed” worth a look to audiences outside of video gamers.)

Without giving anything away, it’s fair to call Fassbender’s role in “Alien: Covenant” the most pivotal non-Xenomorph role in the film. He’s called upon to deliver by utilizing different body language, different accents, and a range of expression that’s nothing short of remarkable here, and he succeeds.

Yes, Katherine Waterston makes for a compelling heroine in the Ripley mold, and you’ll be cheering for her as the film ramps up to its climax. She brings a compelling blend of charisma, toughness and athleticism to Daniels, and when she's scared, you buy in.

But it’s Fassbender who commands attention every time the narrative lens finds him. No doubt it will be him – and maybe the terrifying aliens – that viewers will be talking about walking out once the credits roll.

Worth seeing?

For fans of the series, “Alien: Covenant” is certainly must-see material.

Again, forget any letdown you might have felt with “Prometheus.” “Covenant” delivers the goods unless you’re expecting something that exceeds the landmark original film, in which case, well, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.

For casual audiences who enjoy good scare fests and don’t mind blood and gore, “Covenant” should prove enjoyable, as well. It moves quickly, does not pull punches, and for the most part it’s self-contained – you don’t need to have seen the other films to enjoy it, though it certainly helps.

On the other hand, it should go without saying that if you have trouble sleeping after watching scary movies or you don’t care for films that liberally spray the claret (jargon for movie blood) steer clear.

Alien: Covenant

Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride and Demián Bichir. Directed by Ridley Scott.
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.