GUT-BUST­ING HOR­ROR

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - JAKE COYLE

Ah, the siren song of John Den­ver. Who among us can re­sist it? Cer­tainly, not the crew of the Covenant, a ves­sel pow­ered by a golden sail cruis­ing through space with 2,000 “colonists” in hyper sleep and years un­til they reach their des­ti­na­tion.

But when a shock wave from a so­lar flare jos­tles the crew awake, they soon be­gin hear­ing a faint trans­mis­sion of “Take Me Home, Coun­try Roads” em­a­nat­ing from a cu­ri­ously Earth­like planet. Such sonic waves would be ex­pected if this was “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but this is the “Alien” uni­verse — no place for sunny ’70s singer-song­writ­ers. When the antsy crew de­vi­ates from their care­fully planned mis­sion to seek the trans­mis­sion’s source, we know it’s only a mat­ter of time un­til cos­mic crus­taceans be­gin burst­ing forth from bod­ies.

“Alien: Covenant” is, it­self, a home­com­ing of sorts for a well-trav­elled fran­chise. Since Ri­d­ley Scott’s 1979 orig­i­nal — still the ul­ti­mate deep-space hor­ror — “Alien” has passed through nu­mer­ous di­rec­tors (James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Je­unet) and a pre­quel re­boot, Scott’s “Prometheus.” That film, more blood­less and brainy, sought to an­swer ques­tions of ori­gin with some au­da­cious back­story and — there’s just no easy way to say this — eye­brow-less colos­suses who cre­ated the uni­verse.

In Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” tak­ing place 10 years af­ter “Prometheus,” the so-called En­gi­neers are, thank­fully, nowhere to be seen. Back in­stead are ev­ery­one’s favourite ex­trater­res­tri­als, those acid­drip­ping drama queens so fond of mak­ing a big en­trance. Like some of the alien off­spring, “Covenant” is a hy­brid: part gory “Alien”-style scarefest, part chilly “Prometheus” ex­is­ten­tial­ism. It’s a tall or­der of thrills and the­ol­ogy that the ever gung-ho Scott, work­ing from a script by John Lo­gan and Dante Harper, comes close to pulling off.

But while “Alien: Covenant” has an ace up its sleeve — Michael Fass­ben­der times two — the sheer num­ber of tricks “Alien: Covenant” pulls out, some of them lifted from the five ear­lier in­stal­ments, adds to a gen­eral sense of déjà vu, which is no doubt made worse by the many “Alien” rip-offs that now adorn our galaxy. Yet what was once a slith­ery straight­for­ward mon­ster movie in space has mu­tated into an im­pres­sively am­bi­tious but overly or­nate saga. “Alien: Covenant” has plenty to of­fer, but un­for­tu­nately re­quires am­ple study of “Prometheus.”

The cap­tain of the Covenant (James Franco, for a heart­beat) doesn’t sur­vive the shock wave,

leav­ing the un­cer­tain Oram (Billy Crudup) to lead the crew that in­cludes Daniels (Kather­ine Water­son, our more de­mure, less im­pos­ing Ri­p­ley), the im­pru­dent pi­lot Ten­nessee (Danny McBride) and Wal­ter (Fass­ben­der), an up­graded model of David, the an­droid the ac­tor played in “Prometheus.”

It’s Oram’s de­ci­sion to de­tour for the John Den­ver-blast­ing planet, one that ini­tially looks smart. Once through the stormy at­mos­phere, they find a beau­ti­fully moun­tain­ous landscape com­plete with foggy lakes and fields of wheat. But there are omi­nous warn­ings, like an eerie si­lence be­cause of the lack of any an­i­mals or birds. And who planted the wheat? When one of the crew mem­bers says he’s go­ing to “take a leak,” he might as well be an­nounc­ing his im­mi­nent death.

When things go hay­wire, crew mem­bers freak out and make such poor, emo­tional de­ci­sions that you, as in prior Alien films, find your­self root­ing for the crea­tures with bike­hel­met skulls. They might not be pretty, but they’re not fool­ish.

The Alien films have al­ways been where our ide­al­is­tic ad­ven­tur­ing and world-con­quer­ing hubris are bru­tally brought down to earth, even in the deep reaches of space. That’s why the in­ser­tion of an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence has been fit­ting. The lone hu­man(ish) pres­ence on the planet turns out to be David, who has, à la “Apoca­lypse Now,” been liv­ing a god­like ex­is­tence, lord­ing over his cre­ations.

Not as in­tensely me­chan­i­cal as his newer model, he has clearly de­vel­oped some un­usual glitches. He quotes By­ron. He sings “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” while trim­ming his hair.

The scenes be­tween David and Wal­ter have a strange, erotic en­ergy. David, try­ing to un­shackle his fel­low an­droid from servi­tude, urges him to make mu­sic and teaches him how to play a recorder. “You have sym­phonies in you, brother!” he en­cour­ages. For Fass­ben­der, an ac­tor ca­pa­ble of pre­ci­sion and mad­ness in equal mea­sure, the dual parts are a feast.

There are mo­ments for Daniels and the Alien, too, as “Alien: Covenant” winds along. But by the film’s be­laboured end, the fran­chise has shed its host. This is no longer an Alien movie, it’s an an­droid one.

MARK ROGERS, TWEN­TI­ETH CEN­TURY FOX

The ill-fated crew of the Covenant in "Alien: Covenant."

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