How many times can you ride the same roller coaster before those initial feelings of terror disappear? Oh, it can be so surprising the first time around, when you don’t know exactly how fast you will go, how deep the drops will be, how loudly you’ll scream when you go into that hairpin turn.
But you’re a little better-prepared when you take that second ride, and you know the routine reasonably well by the third time you climb aboard. After the fourth or fifth ride, you’re probably thinking it’s time to try something new.
Such is the problem director Ridley Scott faces in "Alien: Covenant," which arrives a full 38 years after the original "Alien," the blockbuster that made Scott an overnight sensation in Hollywood and turned Sigourney Weaver into an instant icon. When it opened in the summer of 1979, "Alien" was a science-fiction shocker the likes of which no one had ever seen before. It was moody, dramatic, intelligent – and so bizarre and spectacularly gruesome, audiences couldn’t believe their eyes.
Since then, moviegoers have seen director James Cameron’s nerve-shredding "Aliens," as well as "Alien 3," "Alien: Resurrection," "Aliens Versus Predator," "Aliens Versus Predator: Requiem" and Scott’s prequel to the franchise, "Prometheus," which was released five years ago. By now, just about everyone knows what to expect when some ignorant astronaut leans down to take a closer look at one of those extraterrestrial eggs that look like oversized avocados. And there will always be some ignorant astronaut leaning down to get a closer look.
It happens again in "Alien: Covenant," of course, which unfolds 10 years after the events in "Prometheus." The movie starts with a seismic bang, as the interplanetary colonization vessel Covenant is rocked by an explosion that threatens the lives of the crew, all of whom are in hyper-sleep pods since their destination is still seven years away.
The captain is killed, which puts second-in-command Christopher Oram, played by Billy Crudup, in charge. Although Oram considers himself a man of faith, his shaky manner and self-doubts don’t inspire much confidence from the now-wide-awake Covenant crew, including Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." She’s the widow of the late captain, and she puts aside her grieving to argue against Oram’s first major decision: to follow a rogue transmission that’s emanating from a previously uncharted planet.
The broadcast seems to feature someone singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and really, how could anyone go wrong chasing John Denver? The first half-hour of "Alien: Covenant" is reminiscent of the original "Alien," as Scott builds up a quietly tense atmosphere, charged with tensions between crew members and ominous signs in the air.
But once the explorers touch down on the deceptively Earth-like world, we are entering typical monster-movie territory. In no time at all, crew members begin developing infections that quickly destroy their bodies, and if you’ve ever seen a previous film in the "Alien" series, you know there are oceans of gore in store, as well as the requisite horrible hide-and-seek games as Daniels and company hunt and are hunted by acid-spitting extraterrestrials.
Yet the movie’s major attraction turns out to be the magnetic Michael Fassbender, who takes on a dual role and proves to be far scarier and more intriguing than anything the visual effects department can conjure up. Fassbender plays both the mild-mannered but quick-witted Walter, an android assigned to assist the Covenant crew, and the harder-to-read, more sophisticated humanoid David, a holdover from "Prometheus."
Both performances are absolutely superb, with Fassbender continually keeping us guessing about Walter and David’s motives and capabilities. David considers himself a “perfect organism,” able to simulate human emotions, as well as having artistic talents; Walter is essentially a super-computer housed inside a body designed to look like a human.
By far the most thought-provoking aspect of the film is its warning that the day may come when artificial intelligence develops to a point where the so-called “synthetics” begin to sit in judgment of the mortals who created them. Fassbender, who is versatile enough to look like a gentle guardian angel one minute and Boris Karloff at his most menacing the next, completely steals the show.
Aside from the fascinating psychological tug-of-war between Walter and David, "Alien: Covenant" feels a little by-the-numbers, even though Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski give it plenty of style and slickness. There are a few respectable shocks along the way, but much of the action only serves to remind us that this all seemed a lot fresher and more frightening 30 years ago.