The writers of the 1979 sci-fi horror movie Alien conceived of their title entity as a “perfect killing machine,” which the Swiss designer H. R. Giger translated into the realm of the “biomechanical” — a fusion of “phallic symbols and motorcycle parts,” in the words of the film’s concept artist, Ron Cobb. Thus equipped, the black, drooling, helmet-headed alien became the mascot of a subgenre that would come to be known as “body horror.” Neither fully male nor female, it murdered people by raping them (through the mouth, via a squiggly “face-hugger”) and implanting a seed that quickly led to a grisly birth. Subsequent Alien films have featured corporate-funded scientists who sacrificed unwitting employees to capture this rare species and harness its power for war and profit. Meanwhile, audiences wondered, How did it evolve in the first place?
Actually, I didn’t wonder. I rather liked the mystery of it. But for reasons that would take another sort of evolutionist to chart, studio blockbusters have produced a weird relationship between greedhead businessmen and sci-fi geeks, and so 20th Century Fox and director Ridley Scott have set out to explain — in multiple installments — how this perfect killing machine came to be. Their first prequel, Prometheus, was a tease that left most audiences irritated by the absence of, well, aliens. The latest is more revelatory — and much, much gorier.
And it opens like Passengers! A ship — the Covenant — carrying colonists to a distant, habitable planet is threatened by an explosion in space that forces crew members out of suspended-animation pods and incinerates the commander (a cameo by an overexposed star whom most of us could do, in this instance, without). While they’re awake, they pick up a faint human signal from a closer, more habitable planet. It’s eerie, that signal: You can hear a John Denver song. Is it a siren luring them to their deaths? If it weren’t, this wouldn’t be a horror picture, so you start looking at the characters as meat and wondering in what order they’re going to be eviscerated. You certainly can count on the new commander, played by Billy Crudup, to make the wrong decision. Singled out by others in the crew because he’s a “man of faith,” he can’t conceive of a universe as fundamentally nihilistic as this one.
The focus of Alien: Covenant turns out to be less on the title character than on an android called David, who appeared in Prometheus and whose “birth” is depicted in a prologue. Played once more by Michael Fassbender, he’s rather fey in his form-fitting white bodysuit attempting to mimic the gait of a human. You know you should worry when his first question to his creator (Guy Pearce) is, “If you created me, who created you?” It’s a bit early for existentialism.
Co-screenwriter John Logan also wrote the final and much-reviled Star Trek: The Next Generation movie, Nemesis (I liked it), and he knows his way around android f2fs. When David ultimately meets his “brother,” Walter (Fassbender), a member of the Covenant crew, the two discuss the ins and outs and what-have-yous of being human. In Star Trek, that man-machine nexus was — as in all things Star Trek — hopeful. Here, there’s some doubt about David’s ultimate motives, which puts Alien: Covenant squarely in the tradition of the Terminator and Matrix movies. And, of course, the novel Frankenstein, which carried the subtitle The Modern Prometheus. No less than Stephen Hawking — who survives with the aid of machines — has predicted that we have 100 years to live before evolved machines take human imperfection as justification for wiping us all out.
Meanwhile, the dialogue of Alien: Covenant is often clunky and its plot repetitious. (As usual these days, there are too many climaxes.) But it’s scary and splatterful, which is all it really needs to be. It holds you. Katherine Waterston is a good protagonist, a spokesperson for — and champion of — humankind who loses someone dear and spends the rest of the movie in a state of hyperalertness, waiting for the cosmic anvil to fall. Danny McBride brings the earthiness as a guy called Tennessee. Fassbender gives David a distracting touch of camp — you’d think he’d be, if anything, overearnest — but his Walter is subtle and likable. The supporting cast includes Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, and Amy Seimetz, actors who deserve the paychecks that come with studio “franchises.”
This will not, needless to say, be the last Alien. I give it two more installments before the computer-generated young Sigourney Weaver and her fellow space truckers board the Nostromo, after which probably there will be a spinoff or “reboot.” You can take out aliens, but “franchises” are indestructible.
*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.