Five years ago, Ridley Scott brought the Alien franchise back with Prometheus, a nonsensical origin story that made a lot of money and left its audience with more questions than answers. It was, aggressively, the beginning of a new universe that was built to stretch. And now that we've got part two, the alluringly titled Alien: Covenant, it is clear that Scott is not looking to satisfy. He's going to keep adding onto this flimsy house of cards until it tumbles into the vastness of space.
Covenant opens like a traditional interstellar adventure: a dozen crew members are in stasis as they accompany thousands of colonists to a faraway planet in order to populate it and start anew. When the ship (named Covenant) is hit by a pulse wave and automatically wakes up the crew in response, the captain (James Franco, for some reason) is immediately killed and the new captain (Billy Crudup) struggles to reorganize his team. At the same time, a radio signal indicating nearby human life pings the ship, causing the acting captain to order a visit to this alternate world. The dead captain's wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), vehemently disagrees, but she's shouted down and we're off to the sketchy planet. Once there, as you might imagine, alien-centric trouble begins to brew.
Oh, and in between all of this, David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus returns and interacts with Covenant's android Walter (also Fassbender). He is clearly still up to no good and trying to seduce Walter onto his side, though it remains uncertain as to why David is going to these lengths. We're led to believe he's unhinged, even more so than the Alien franchise's other manipulative androids, but Scott once again doesn't take the time or effort to provide genuine motivations. David is the most fleshed-out character, and also the biggest blank slate. That's not a good sign.
The trials and tribulations of Alien: Covenant aren't as cut and dry as people think. It's easy to say, "The first half was good and Alien, the second half was bad and Prometheus," but that's just not true. Neither half is particularly stunning, though there's a false hope in the opening hour that this will be a genuinely engrossing sci-fi movie with Alien undertones. By the last hour, it's clear that the Prometheus mythos won't be ignored; in fact, it'll be amplified.
Despite all the hype that this is a return to Scott's original Alien style, there's very little horror in Covenant. It occasionally pays homage with dark corridors and sneaky attacks from out of nowhere, but that's mostly filler to accompany a confusing narrative and the philosophical conversations between David and Walter. And once again, unlike Alien, we're given a crew of solid actors and actresses who don't have shit to do. They lack defining characteristics, let alone names you can remember or reasons to exist other than "look scared and die." Beyond Daniels—another Ripley stand-in at best—and Danny McBride's Tennessee, they're a whole lot of nothing.
If the Alien franchise had rebooted with Alien: Covenant, which could've been a basic story about running into aliens on a planet and inadvertently carting them around the universe, we might have something here. But instead the Prometheus story is being shoehorned into everything, trying to provide a larger explanation as to why a series of big scary creatures occasionally appear and kill spacepeople.
Part of the joy of Alien, and even the more expansive Aliens, was their removal from a larger narrative. The goal was to keep these murderous creatures away from humanity as a whole; there was no creation backstory, and nobody was asking for one. But now that Ridley Scott has a bee in his bonnet about how the Xenomorphs came to be, a grand tale is needed to justify the existence of so many movies.
And it just doesn't work. The aliens were born because an android grew jealous of the human ability to create and put some magical goo in a guy's drink, who then had sex with his girlfriend and inadvertently used her as an alien incubator. This is the foundation that Alien: Covenant must build upon; this is what leads to a creature bursting out of John Hurt's chest.
They started small in 1979, and now they're forced to go massive in 2017. This would be fine if Covenant stood on its own, but consider the first word of the title. And consider the ineptitude of its 2012 predecessor, which tried to balance "being its own story" with "building to Alien" and, as such, fell flat on its face. The whole here is much worse than the sum of its parts, and if Scott is to be believed, we're just getting started. Sigh.