'Alien: Covenant' is Slick Return to Sci-Fi Horror Roots

The Alien franchise remains the best-looking sci-fi franchise out there, and likely the best-acted, too. In the latest addition to the collection (Alien: Covenant, out Friday), director Ridley Scott follows up on 2014's masterful Prometheus but returns to the franchise's darker horror roots. As in 1979's Alien, the goal in Covenant is not scientific exploration or even colonization: It's survival.

In other words, don't get too attached to the crew. Plucked from deep sleep by a technical malfunction – recalling last year's Passengers – the pilots and technicians of the Covenant, a colonizing vessel, begin our story in tragedy. Their captain (wait for the bizarre cameo) has perished. Under the leadership, then, of Oram (Billy Crudup), a deeply religious, if unsteady, second-in-command, they decide to respond to a rogue deep-space communication that sounds human. It's a recording of a woman singing John Denver, which, even in the late 2100s, a character played by Danny McBride recognizes as such.

Daniels (Katherine Waterston) registers her objections. The audio signal was sent from a planet that looks habitable, and Oram doesn't seem skeptical enough about this unlikely good fortune. He's got half a mind to forego seven more years of hyper-sleep and set up the colony on this new rock. But if this planet is so perfect, begs Daniels, why had earth's scientists completely missed it? Something's fishy.

Nevertheless, down they go to seek out the source of the communication. As one would expect, very bad things start happening. Per the franchise, aliens implant themselves in human hosts as either pathogens (or, more overtly, as face-hugging tentacled creatures) and then emerge from their hosts in what John Hurt made famous as the "chest-burster" sequence, which needs no further elaboration. There are several such bursts in Covenant, two of which include more blood and viscera than any the franchise has yet endeavored to stage. Deeeeee-sgusting.

In Prometheus, Noomi Rapace played Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. In that's film's most intense (and possibly best) scene, she had to perform an emergency caesarian to remove a face-hugger-esque thing that had implanted itself in her womb. She scampered away, bleeding from her stitches. There is no such ingenuity or Ripley-esque grit on display here. These are merely victims, outgunned from the word Go by Xenomorphs and their various offshoots – aliens in their most formidable physical mutations yet.

That's thanks to David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus, (an Academy Award-worthy performance, in my book) who here reveals himself as the author of the latest horrors. Covenant features Fassbender as both David and "Walter," an upgraded edition of the droid with a new persona – this one is less creative, more obedient, and speaks with a Texas drawl. The dynamic between David and Walter, including one Fassbender vis-à-vis Fassbender homoerotic flute lesson, make for weird, but good scenes – motives and origins are explicated. And the early mishaps aboard the Covenant make for rich, tense sci-fi drama. The rest of the film is pure hunter-prey stuff. The sensibility that abides throughout is dread.