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When the immature alien finally explodes out of a human torso, you may see, along with the awaited frightening jolt, a curious feeling of relief, even affection. So many things have changed in the world, and in films, since the first “Alien” scared audiences in 1979 that the revelation of a scrambling, fast-spawning alien predator seems like a visit from an old friend. Humanity may have slipped back into terminal boredom or overly-confident dullness, but that creature, with long, slender limbs and a skull like a sport helmet, rests fascinating.
We can say the same about Alien Covenant which happens after Prometheus in Ridley Scott’s 21st-century renovation of the series he initiated (with the essential contributions of Sigourney Weaver and the visual artist H. R. Giger) almost 40 years ago. It’s an intriguing film. I wish I could be more exuberant, but Alien Covenant for all its cosmic ranging, places itself above all to the nimble management of expectations.
To bewail about its lack of ambition would be to misunderstand its concepts. Rather than setting out to subdue new worlds or trigger initial fears, this Alien is able to relive a long-lived and well-respected brand. Correcting some of the previous film’s issues — not enough alien! Too much mythological nonsense best refer to films having “Star” in the title! — Mr. Scott carefully covers measured portions of fright, wonder and terror on the planned installment establishment. This films satisfies you just enough to ensure that you will come back for the prequels.
The story starts 10 years after Prometheus and completely put an end to a sequel that will pull us closer to the beginning of the cycle. As usual, a starship is traveling the far reaches of space. As usual, the crew is a unit of gifted actors following the compulsories of science-fiction solemnity. There are loads of married couples — James Franco and Katherine Waterston; Danny McBride and Amy Seimetz; Demián Bichir and Nathaniel Dean; Billy Crudup and Carmen Ejogo — and others with enough personality to leave us a little emotion when they die.
Most of them do. Mr. Franco’s character, the captain of the Covenant, is a goner at the outset, recreated in videos that provoke his widowed wife’s grief. The first mate (Mr. Crudup) assumes command and leads his subordinates onto the surface of the green but curiously dead planet, the same spot where some of the Prometheus crew members ended up. There they encounter a robot called David, who invites some of the members back to his cave to look at his etchings.
David — appeared in Prometheus and in a Kubrick-ish prologue here — is portrayed by Michael Fassbender. So is another robot named Walter, a slightly advanced model from the Weyland company. The differences between the two are noticeable. Walter has his hair parted on the side and has been created to speak with a Wisconsin accent.
David, on the other hand, has a sharp and clear British accent and an acquaintance with human culture that extends to Wagner and Michelangelo but is a bit shaky on romantic poetry. Audience who stayed awake through freshman English or the fifth season of “Breaking Bad” knows very well that Byron didn’t script “Ozymandias.” I’m telling you this so you aren’t tricked into spending a few minutes feeling smarter than the screenwriters, John Logan and Dante Harper. I don’t think that a spoiler. And Mr. Scott is an almost spoiler-proof filmmaker.
Even his weaker efforts are filled with enough craft and power to keep you anticipated and shocked, and Alien Covenant is no exception. The darkness and shadows of the unfavorable planet and the silence, antiseptic passages of the Covenant are elevated horror-movie environments, and the fact that you know more or less exactly what’s happening doesn’t reduce the thrill, or lessen the jolt when the thing you’re longing for arrives.
David, turns out, has contributed the years since Prometheus to the study and cultivation of our favorite alien, while also holding a grudge against the species that engineered him. Walter, on a another note, is more of a humanist, and the fight between them is similar to that between Magneto and Professor X in the X-Men franchise (speaking of Michael Fassbender) or Koba and Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (James Franco). I will let you decide who has the better argument, and who deserves to predominate.
The answer, in any case, can only be the Giger alien itself, a contribution to the temple of gods of modern design up there with the Coca-Cola logo and the Nike swoosh.