Alien: Covenant (20th Century Fox, R)

Alien: Covenant is large-scale science fiction movie with a good cast and a great look but no real reason to exist.

Alien: Covenant is large-scale science fiction movie with a good cast and a great look but no real reason to exist. It picks up from Ridley Scott’s 2012 Prometheus, and is the second in the prequel series to the groundbreaking Scott’s 1979 Alien and its successors.

It’s no secret that Hollywood prefers to make recycled versions of old movies rather than take a risk with something new—business is business, after all—but it is somewhat surprising that Scott, who has directed ground-breaking movies like Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) as well as the original Alien, would turn out a conventional sci-fi film so completely lacking in the spark that made his previous work so compelling.

The Covenant of the title is a space ship bearing passengers and embryos to a distant planet, where they will populate a colony. In the first of many echoes of the 1979 film, the crew are woken prematurely from hypersleep, in this case due to a freak electrical storm. The captain bites the dust in the process, so Oram (Billy Crudup) is promoted to captain. The crew has detected an electrical signal (a recording of John Denver’s “Country Roads”) from a nearby planet, which they take as an indication of human life and have the bright idea of sending a landing party to see if they could just set up the colony on this planet instead.

The story begins in 2104, an era in which interplanetary travel and human cloning are highly developed technologies, yet the landing party carries equipment that looks like they bought it at Walmart. It’s one of many incongruities in this film that take you out of the story when you should be drawn in. It’s impossible to discuss too many of these face-slappers without spoilers, so I will just say that the landing party takes fewer precautions when visiting an unknown planet than are observed in your average modern hospital.

The strongest aspect of Alien: Covenant is the set design. The film opens in a sleek, stylized room that reads like a parody of upper-class minimalism, and the space ships are all shiny technology. I’m not sure that’s an improvement over the “truckers in space” rust and grime of the original Alien, but at least the concept is well-executed. Exterior space shots recall Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, setting a precisely engineered spacecraft against the limitless expanse of space, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski capitalizes on the beauty of New Zealand’s Milford Sound in the landing party scenes. A mad scientist’s lair on the planet is also well-done, making him appear something like a 19th-century amateur naturalist a little too in love with his cabinets of wonders.

The cast is also strong, although most roles are so under-written that, after spending more than two hours in their company, you still have no idea who they are. The exception is Michael Fassbender’s dual role as the androids David and Walter, while the actors playing ordinary humans, including Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride, are given so little to work with that you never have the chance to care one way or the other about what happens to them.

The screenplay feels like it was constructed by committed, and given that six people have writing credits according to imdb.com, maybe that’s exactly what happened. Many incidents from the original Alien are repeated, but seldom to any good effect. Sometimes more is less, and that certainly applies to the proliferation of xenomorphs in this film. Maybe it’s been long enough that the money men assume no one has seen the original Alien series, and thus will accept this inferior product unquestioningly.

I will give Alien: Covenant credit for one thing: They’ve found the perfect way to employ James Franco in a film. Kill off his character before he has a chance to say a line, let him appear in a brief, bro-tastic flashback, and leave it at that. | Sarah Boslaugh

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