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Review: ‘Alien: Covenant’ can’t recapture the franchise’s signature horror

Human beings are frightened by what we don’t know. It’s why horror films like “The Exorcist” continue to scare audiences decades after their premieres. These films, and others like them, are designed around the horror of ambiguity. Characters run, hide and try to fight back against the unknown, leaving spine-shivering images to the viewer’s imagination.

Ridley Scott’s “Alien” thrives by adhering to this formula. Shot with long, unbroken sequences that peek around the corners of a cramped space vessel, the film is a masterpiece of suspense. The alien itself (later christened a “xenomorph” by James Cameron’s sequel, “Aliens”) doesn’t appear until the second half, and even then, it barely appears at all. The film doesn’t display everything to the audience, leaving viewers with a heightened sense of fear.

Three sequels and a prequel later, and the “Alien” franchise has evolved both aesthetically and narratively. “Prometheus” (2012) acted as a prologue to Scott’s first film, detailing the doomed mission of a handful of scientists as they search for the origin of life itself. And while beautifully shot, the plot’s unanswered questions and decision to shoehorn in an unneeded xenomorph to generate scares generated mixed reactions. Hardcore fans left vaguely satisfied; others simply scratched their heads, shrugged or left frustrated (case in point).

“Alien: Covenant,” touted as both a sequel to “Prometheus” and a return to grisly, suspenseful form for the franchise, manages to keep its narrative at least coherent. Katherine Waterston stars as Daniels, the second-in-command of a colonization mission into deep space. Things go horribly awry when a solar flare kills several of the crew members and incinerates the captain of the expedition, leaving an inexperienced officer named Oram (Billy Crudup) to lead repairs. When the pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) discovers a distress signal from an easily habitable world, Oram diverts course. Meanwhile, an android named Walter (Michael Fassbender) observes with empty stares.

Since his fantastic turn as David in “Prometheus,” Fassbender has taken on a leading role for the franchise. As both David and Walter (the latter a later android model) in “Covenant,” his role expands and takes a far more sinister direction. The result is a film that lives and dies on Fassbender; his performance allows “Covenant” to hint at introspective, powerful themes. The film’s scariest moments all involve his cold, mechanical gaze.

When he is offscreen, though, the film’s problems are much more noticeable. “Covenant” continues the “Alien” trend of presenting completely forgettable crew members, despite solid performances from Waterston and McBride. It’s difficult to care about people dying onscreen when the people in question are little more than sacks of meat lining up for the slaughter. Even by normal horror film standards, the decisions these characters make are mind-numbingly stupid. Their lack of logic is a groan-inducing distraction.

Still, Ridley Scott continues his streak of truly beautiful films. The cinematography, shot by his frequent collaborator Dariusz Wolski, is almost unspeakably gorgeous, emphasized by a wonderfully contemplative opening sequence and Wolski’s creative use of low lighting. If only that lighting was used to show less of the titular alien. The xenomorph appears onscreen blatantly and far too often. By the end, it feels less like a demonic, dangerous threat and more like a clunky animal — tough but easily disposed of.

As a result, “Covenant’s” attempts at horror often feel like a distraction from the film’s headier goals. The performances and visual beauty just barely manage to make up for its shortcomings. It is an intense and exciting film, but those looking to be truly frightened should look elsewhere.

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Watch the trailer for “Alien: Covenant” below:

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]