There are gross and eerie stretches in Ridley Scott’s new film, Alien: Covenant, that come closer to straight horror than any movie in this widely imitated sci-fi series has gotten since Scott’s original Alien—though maybe not the kind of horror that any devotee of all things Alien would expect. It is barely a monster movie, being more of a classic mad scientist or Dracula film in futuristic-industrial space. The crew of the USCSS Covenant, a 22nd century spaceship carrying 2,000 colonists to a distant system, descends to an unknown, Earth-like planet to investigate a distress beacon. There, they stumble upon tiny fungoid spores that burrow into the sinuses and ear canals of the unlucky and quickly gestate into vicious, pasty little troglodytes that tear their way out of their hosts’ bodies to chomp everything in sight as they grow bigger and bigger. For the survivors, help comes just in the nick of time from the android David (Michael Fassbender, reprising his role from Prometheus), the prototype of the Covenant’s own artificial crew member, Walter (Fassbender again). David has been stuck on this planet since crash landing 10 years ago, or he says. He leads the group to his sepulchral hideout, carved into the rotunda of a dead alien metropolis piled with the corpses of humanoids charred in mid-agony, like the bodies of Pompeii.
This is Alien gone gothic. The key image (and when, necessary, metaphor) of the series has always been the xenomorph—the alien of title, a spiny, 7-foot-tall malformed horror with acid blood and a skull like a elongated eggplant that peels back into a rictus grin of metallic teeth, hiding a thrusting, whac-a-mole pharyngeal jaw. The xenomorph is a twisted parody of the human form, and every Alien movie series since James Cameron’s Aliens (the series’ high point and a gold standard for sci-fi action) has found both revulsion and meaning in its life cycle’s sick caricatures of pregnancy, rape, and motherhood. And make no mistake, there is an old-fashioned lurking, pouncing, ripping xenomorph in Covenant, but it’s probably the weakest part of the film. For the real theme of this very bleak movie is that of the proverbial man and his creation, already a poor imitation of god and man, grotesquely distorted into a story of monsters creating monsters. The on-board computer of USCSS Covenant is nicknamed “Mother,” jut like the computer on the Nostromo in the original Alien, but this takes on special resonance in a movie that is darkly about fathers.
If Prometheus, Scott’s Alien prequel, often resembled a grandiose homage to Planet Of The Vampires and other sci-fi B-movies in that vein, then Covenant is the storied British director’s tribute to Hammer horror. Co-written by John Logan, who last worked with Scott on Gladiator, the movie makes an atmosphere of gothic and romantic references: Shelley, Byron, The Phantom Of The Opera, Das Rheingold, The Silence Of The Lambs, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, an alien city seemingly inspired by the imaginary architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée. Even some of its gore is picturesque—say, a woman’s severed head bobbing in water-filled fount, eyes and mouth open, like the drowned Ophelia in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. In his dual role as both the enigmatic (and possibly sinister) host and the outsider among his guests, Fassbender dominates the film. He plays David as a Hannibal Lecter-esque gourmand with a Transylvanian air and his long conversations with the dutiful Walter resemble an incestuous seduction. Pseudo-philosophical babble is more at home here than it was in Prometheus. (Let’s say this review doesn’t agree with The A.V. Club’s original assessment.)
But that isn’t to say that Covenant isn’t a blood-and-guts genre movie. There are fanged nasties erupting through chests, spines, and necks; floors so slick with blood and viscera that characters repeatedly slip as they run; sprays of arterial acid burning through faces. The sequence that introduces the USCSS Covenant’s crew, who are awakened from cryogenic sleep after their craft is hit by a neutrino burst, turns the sterile futuristic technology into an object of nauseous horror, as Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Oram (Billy Crudup), Tennessee (Danny McBride), and the rest pound their way out of malfunctioning hibernation pods, puking goo, and then scramble to try to save their captain as he is burned alive in his pod. Said captain happens to be Daniels’ husband, and the fact that all the members of the Covenant crew are couples only adds to the sense of despair once they start being split open by toothy, misshapen extraterrestrials. But given the importance the film places on the relationship between David and Walter—the two identical androids, another pair—maybe it’s inevitable that these humans get short shrift.
Sometimes, they act as illogically as second-act victims in an ’80s slasher flick. The performances sometimes make up for this flaw, especially from Waterston and from Crudup, who makes Oram—the second-in-command promoted to captain—completely believable and sympathetic as a man in over his head. But there is also the matter of style. There are long sections of Alien: Covenant that amount to the best filmmaking Scott has produced in decades. By the standards of contemporary blockbusters, it’s a very deliberate film. Scott’s own Blade Runner, which is playfully quoted here in the opening shot, remains the best example of a science fiction movie creating a mood simply by filming its production design, and here the extremely polished camerawork takes it time to prowl the interior of USCSS Covenant or to discover monumental ruins, finding a kind of inhuman strangeness in both. But no space is more evocative than David’s lair, which is part alchemist’s laboratory, part macabre shrine to his own encyclopedic programming, decorated with hand-carved musical instruments and precise illustrations of insects drawn from memory.
Given these dark, dusty, candlelit trappings, one can’t help but wish that Covenant did more with the Lovecraftian aspects of H.R. Giger’s designs for the series’ extraterrestrial creatures and environments. The gaunt, hideous, flesh-ripping xenomorphs seem to hold minimal visual interest for Scott, which makes for an unimaginative climax. But that’s because all of the suspense, tension, and unease of this film—which isn’t without its imperfections—is lurking elsewhere, in the shadows of a disturbed Frankenstein story about a monster who is rejected for being too perfect and yearns to create the most hideous thing.