ALIEN: COVENANT

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ALIEN: COVENANT  * * * *

Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Amy Seimetz and Danny McBride. Screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper. Directed by Ridley Scott.

Well, this was unexpected. But then again I’m not sure what exactly one is supposed to expect from the eighth film (sixth if you don’t count those dopey Predator cage-matches) in a thirty-eight-year old franchise that hasn’t had an unqualified knockout since the summer of 1986. 2012’s Prometheus found the series’ originator Ridley Scott returning to the director’s chair and going back to the beginning –literally—in a muddled, philosophically-minded prequel marrying mankind and the alien’s origin stories to Chariots Of The Gods, the spectacular visuals undercut by screenplay choices so forehead-smackingly preposterous that watching it was like realizing the prettiest girl in the bar is too dumb to keep talking to.

So I’m thrilled to report that Alien: Covenant is a fucking blast. A rip-snorting scare picture with a deliciously sick sense of humor, it finds a reinvigorated Ridley staking an ownership claim on the series as a whole, mixing and matching elements from the previous pictures like the mad scientist genetic engineer at the center of this one. It’s a movie obsessed with authorship, chock full of revisions and refinements as directed by a legendary tinkerer who never does know when to leave well enough alone. (How many different edits of Blade Runner are we up to now?)

Michael Fassbender returns as David, the prim and sinister android who caused so much trouble in Prometheus. Here he’s become a stand-in for Scott, tirelessly recycling alien goo in his secluded laboratory while waiting for an audience. David finds one in the crew of the title ship, a hearty, blue-collar bunch of homesteaders lured to the surface of his empty, woodland planet by a distress signal that sounds suspiciously like a woman singing John Denver. I won’t tell you what happened to the pretty lady who recorded the song, but I’ll bet you can probably guess.

Katherine Waterston co-stars as our Ripley 2.0, recently widowed after a faulty hypersleep chamber fried the Covenant’s captain (an unbilled James Franco) into crispy bacon strips. In an inspired twist, the crewmembers are all husbands and wives (or in one too-discreet case, husband-and-husband) which adds an extra level of emotional panic to the almost immediately fraught proceedings. The replacement captain (Billy Crudup) is no replacement at all — he thinks the crew doesn’t like him because of his devout religious faith, but everybody really hates him because he’s an asshole.

There’s no room for religion here anyway, as David has already conquered the Engineers who created life on Earth and elsewhere in the first place. Besides, as someone who met his own maker and came away unimpressed, he’s got no time for humans and our messy flaws. David strives to create a more elegant species that will one day be rhapsodized about by Ian Holm’s fellow android Ash as “a perfect organism” in a movie that takes place many years after this one but was filmed four decades ago.

Fassbender is magnificent, as David he channels the fey magnetism of Peter O’Toole, while also pulling double duty as Walter –the Covenant’s resident robot, a more subservient model with a Midwestern drawl. Unsatisfied with just being a culmination of all the Alien pictures, Scott folds in a mini-Blade Runner sequel here as well, with these “synthetics” replacing the “replicants” from his 1982 film. I doubt there will be anything in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner 2049 to match the delirious camp spectacle of Fassbender literally seducing himself — David misattributing “Ozymandias” to Lord Byron as he tries to coax Walter into dreaming of electric sheep.

Of course it’s Shelley, not Byron, as this playfully literate blockbuster corrects him while calling to mind another Shelley — David was once Frankenstein’s monster but has now become the doctor. I guess I should probably stop here and mention that the movie gets into all this smarty-pants stuff between hair-raising, gut-bucket barrages of gore. If nothing else, it’s incredibly dexterous at alternating the splattery set-pieces and metaphysical musings.

I’ve heard from some viewers uncomfortable with the movie’s mixture of highfalutin’ philosophizing with charnel-house kicks – the film features both a recurring gag about Wagner’s Das Rheingold and a cheerfully exploitative shower sex scene that would feel right at home in a 1980s direct-to-video thriller. Personally I consider these to be two great tastes that taste great together, and it’s thrilling to see Scott – who turns eighty next year – so recklessly playing with such bold images and ideas. Unlike most franchise movies which are so fussily concerned with protecting a brand, Alien: Covenant feels energized, and daringly alive.

There’s a huge, honkingly obvious plot twist that Scott plays not for surprise, but for perverse delight. He knows that we know, and the movie teases you out for quite a nervy amount of screen time, adding an entire other level of suspense to the action while wickedly reveling in our anticipation of the reveal. When it finally happened I laughed myself sick, applauding the movie’s gasp-inducingly nihilistic conclusion. Bravo, Mr. Scott. Ozymandias would be envious.

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