The sixth (or eighth, if you count the Alien vs. Predator films) installment of the Alien franchise is a direct sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to the original 1979 Alien; this is the second of Ridley Scott’s ongoing effort to fill in the years between the two films, which promises at least two more movies before we get to Sigourney Weaver.
1. What is it about?
The colony ship Covenant is on its way to a distant planet with a couple thousand cryogenically suspended colonists and embryos and a crew entirely made up of couples. When an accident forces sympathetic android Walter (Michael Fassbender) to awaken the crew, they locate an uncharted planet that’s an even better candidate for colonization, so they reroute the mission to what turns out to be the world where the Prometheus crashed in the previous film. They meet the only survivor of the Prometheus, android David (also Michael Fassbender), and then things go the way they always do in Alien movies. Lots of people die in gruesome ways.
2. Will I like it?
That’s entirely dependent on you. If you like the previous Alien movies, you’ll probably like this one too; it hits all the expected beats, and does it stylishly, as Ridley Scott is known to do.
3. Will my kids like it?
Are your kids accustomed to creepy and violent sci-fi/horror movies? Personally, I wouldn’t take a kid to see it if they aren’t in high school yet. Granted, some kids love scary movies and some parents have very broad boundaries as to what their children are allowed to watch, but that’s none of my business.
4. When is a good time for a bathroom break?
I don’t think you have to worry about that because you’re not going to bring little kids into the theater where they can get terrified and scream and cry and upset other people. Adults and teens have more control over their bladders.
5. Is the rating appropriate?
The MPAA says “Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.” That description really understates the violence, bloody (and otherwise disturbing) imagery, and really overstates the sexual content, which is just a couple of scenes, one involving a couple taking a shower and getting frisky before bad things happen. There’s some really gruesome stuff; aside from the old reliable face-hugger and chest-buster aliens, there are a couple of new variations, along with a beheading, a couple of maulings, somebody being burned to death (actually a couple of them), and a few dissected bodies lying around here and there. You get the usual jump-scares, the creepy stalking sequences, violent attacks, and lots of body horror, with really ugly alien variants emerging, not to mention the psychological horror sprinkled throughout. There’s also the usual sinister android. One of the parent watchdog sites says the movie drops the F-bomb 35 times, so, yeah, it earns its rating.
6. Do I need to have seen the previous movies in the series to enjoy it?
Well, I’ve only seen the first two, Alien and Aliens; I’ve never seen Aliens 3, Alien: Resurrection, the AVP films, or Prometheus, and I didn’t have any trouble following the story. There are several scenes involving references to characters and events in Prometheus, but you can figure out what came before from context.
7. How are the effects?
We’re at the point with CGI now that it’s all pretty seamless unless it’s really done badly; maybe people in the industry can spot flaws and be irritated by them, but for most of us, the question is really whether it’s effective and appropriate for the film. With the Alien movies, that’s an important question since the monsters are the whole reason anyone shows up in the theater. Ridley Scott is a good visual stylist, and H.R. Giger’s influence is still felt throughout. There are a couple of scenes that are a little obvious in their execution (the one involving a nose in particular) but they don’t really detract from the movie unless you’re easily annoyed by that sort of thing.
8. How are the performances?
There are a couple of standout players and at least one pleasant surprise. Guy Pearce returns as trillionaire Peter Weyland for a vaguely unnerving preamble that introduces (or re-introduces) David. Katherine Waterston is the female lead and brings that same mix of grim determination and vulnerability that made Ripley such a popular character; her husband, the ship’s captain, is killed off pretty quickly, and she has to survive on a hostile planet while mourning her loss, and Waterston does a good job of it. Billy Crudup plays an officer who is reluctantly promoted to Captain, and he convincingly plays a man who knows he’s out of his depth. I didn’t recognize any of the other cast members, but they all do what secondary cast members do in these movies: they make us want to know more about them, and then they die one-by-one. The one surprise in the cast is Danny McBride. I’ve always found him annoying and obnoxious, the kind of brain-dead redneck hillbilly that Jeff Foxworthy is talking about. Here he reins in the southern-fried schtick and plays a confident and capable astronaut, and is actually likable. Of course, the standout is Michael Fassbender, who has the ability to portray “the uncanny valley,” behaving in ways that are just “off” enough to convince us that he’s not a real human. To top that, he plays two identical looking but distinct characters, distinguishing them by only the slightest of inflection changes. He carries the movie.
9. Do I need to stay to the end of the credits?
No, unless you enjoy reading about focus pullers and clapper loaders. Staying through the credits will give you a few minutes to calm down from the scary stuff.
10. Do I need to see the next one?
Maybe, maybe not. The point of all these prequel films is to show where the xenomorphs came from. This film answers that question, but the next two movies should give us more of the how and why with surprising twists and turns along the way. This movie ends on a classic horror movie note, and there’s not really anything that feels like they’re setting up a sequel; it’s a complete film in itself, not just a segment of a much longer saga.