In a perfect world, there would just be Alien, the stripped-down jolt of a 1979 sci-fi thriller. But we got three sequels, the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs, and now we are trudging our way through a prequel trilogy. One purpose of this prequel, directed by Ridley Scott, is to trot out some dorm-room-philosophy questions about power, playing God and the mess that inevitably happens when humans misjudge the artificially intelligent help they’ve built. (Not for nothing does somebody in this film intone: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”) But this re-hash of ideas can be found in better sci-fi works; the primary goal here is very expensive fan service: to provide an origin story for the freaky creature that blasted onto the scene in the original Alien.
The plot is pretty basic: A spaceship, Covenant, is heading into deep space on a colonization mission, with everybody in hypersleep. But the crew gets woken up by a storm, and discovers they are near an earth-like planet which is sending a bizarre message. Ill-advisedly, the crew, led mostly by the co-captain (Katherine Waterston) and the ship’s android helper (Michael Fassbender), head down there to check it out. Bad idea.
You can figure the rest out, and also how this planet connects to 2012’s Prometheus, and likewise where it’s headed (classic Alien!). Most everybody dies horribly, but among the hardier, Waterston has a nice no-nonsense resignation, and Fassbender ably gives us android realness — and more. He is, after all, the half-man/half-machine vessel in which all the existential self-examination rests. Yet, despite lofty ideals, it’s hard not to process these add-on Alien films as just perfunctory gross-thing-attacks-space-worker, over and over, but in slightly different settings.