‘Alien: Covenant’ refocuses on suspense and horror

The xenomorph prepares for attack.

Three and a half stars

Alien: Covenant Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.

Despite having the word “alien” in its title, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant focuses far more on following up Scott’s 2012 sci-fi hit Prometheus than on setting up his 1979 classic Alien and its sequels. That sometimes puts the movie in an awkward middle ground, trying to serve two overlapping but different fan bases (along with Scott’s own artistic interests), although it also gives Covenant a sense of momentum that the sometimes meandering Prometheus lacked. Taking place roughly 10 years after the previous movie, Covenant more closely connects the events of Prometheus to the events of the Alien movies (which take place another 20 years in the future), although it’s often focused on answering questions that probably didn’t need to be asked in the first place.

The only Prometheus star returning in a major role is Michael Fassbender, who previously played the cold, calculating android David and here plays a more helpful and sympathetic android named Walter. Walter is part of the crew of the Covenant, a ship carrying 2,000 colonists and a small crew to a distant planet to start a new life. Like Prometheus and Scott’s Alien, Covenant finds the crew of a deep-space vessel investigating a mysterious, possibly dangerous planet (in this case, on a fairly flimsy pretext) and discovering some horrific monsters lurking there.

Although the crew (led by Katherine Waterston as the level-headed second-in-command) encounters plenty of deadly creatures (including, eventually, ones that resemble the iconic xenomorphs of the Alien movies), the real villain of the movie is David, who has been biding his time on this ancient planet and treats the new human arrivals as subjects for his demented experiments. Fassbender was the best thing about Prometheus, and he’s even better here, playing David as a megalomaniac who has literally supplanted his own gods, and then contrasting David with Walter in a series of riveting scenes in which Fassbender acts opposite himself.

The rest of the cast is mostly just fodder for the bloodbath, although Billy Crudup has a few nice moments as a self-doubting officer thrust into command. More so than Prometheus, Covenant is focused on suspense and horror, and Scott stages some truly gruesome moments. At the same time, Covenant isn’t as visually breathtaking as its predecessor, and some of the special effects are a little shaky. As intense as many of the violent confrontations are, there’s nothing as viscerally unsettling as the self-administered alien abortion in Prometheus. Still, for fans who got impatient with the previous movie’s philosophical musings and just wanted to see more hapless humans being eviscerated, Covenant delivers. The remarkably bleak ending provides a reminder that as scary as feral monsters might be, the truly frightening thing is the hubris to create them.

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