Photo: Mark Rogers, Associated Press
Scientists are in a rush to create artificial intelligence, beings that can think and act human but that have no capacity for human feeling. In “Alien: Covenant,” the latest from Ridley Scott, we get a glimmer of what that would really mean — the mass production of potentially dangerous sociopaths.
In many ways, this new installment in the “Alien” series is a conventional horror movie, starting quietly and building in intensity, from the first hint of trouble to the thunderous life-and-death struggle at the finish. But its cinematic stylishness and its attention to modern-day anxiety raise it to something out of the ordinary.
The opening pre-credits sequence is a tribute to Stanley Kubrick, taking place in a spare, white room. It’s a conversation about the source of creation between a human (Guy Pearce) and the very human-looking robot he has created (Michael Fassbender). The whole feeling is cold and somber, full of a sense of loss that’s punctuated by the robot’s innocent observation that he is eternal but that the human scientist will eventually die. This brings an uneasy feeling, an inkling that humanity has bitten off a little more than it can chew.
Soon we’re in the midst of an outer-space emergency. The robot, Walter, is at the helm of a colony ship on the way to a distant planet. The human crew is in a state of suspended animation, but when a fire erupts, Walter wakes up the officers so they can pilot their way out of the crisis. Billy Crudup is the nervous, self-doubting captain, and Katherine Waterston plays his first officer. They lead an idiosyncratic and engaging crew consisting of Carmen Ejogo and Danny McBride, among others.
The emergency and the deaths of some of their crew members leave the survivors in an unsettled state that makes them ripe for rash choices. Unwilling to get back into their hibernation pods — where 46 of their company have been burned to death — they become intrigued by a human-sounding transmission from a nearby planet. This presents them with a choice: Either continue for another seven years to their planned and fully vetted destination or improvise. The shaky captain chooses to improvise — to send a reconnaissance team to the nearby planet and find the source of the transmission.
As anyone who has ever seen an “Alien” movie knows, winging it through outer space is never a good idea. But at first the alien planet looks perfectly nice. There’s water and sky and fertile-looking soil. Yet something is strange. “Hear that?” the first officer points out. “There’s no sound. No birds, no animals, nothing.”
For the uninitiated, the alien of the “Alien” movies is a particularly grotesque creation, not a single monster, but a species, with a head shaped like a bus, no visible eyes, and rows of little teeth. But what’s especially horrifying is its gestation: As tiny buds, they float into a human orifice, making the host very, very sick. And then they come busting out through the torso, ready to jump on to anyone’s face and start eating it.
It’s a testament not only to the movie’s aura of intelligence but also to its actual intelligence that the gruesomeness doesn’t overwhelm everything else. Though the scale is large and the action takes up a fair chunk of the screen time, “Alien: Covenant” remains grounded in its ideas and in the struggles of its individual characters. And the idea most present is that things are beginning to get out of hand, that the mechanistic future promised by science is one in which human life will become cheap and embattled.
Fassbender is at the center of the film, playing not one but two robots, Walter and his older and more emotional predecessor, David. Waterston takes on the traditional horror-movie heroine role — the good woman who must face down the monster — with a probity that transcends the cliche. But the best thing about “Alien: Covenant” is the feeling that comes through the frames.
Yes, the movie may be fantastic and outlandish, but the aura surrounding it is unsettling in its familiarity. It is one of unspoken, undefined dread, a dread that isn’t sci-fi and isn’t even fiction, but that is already inside the audience.
Science fiction. Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup. Directed by Ridley Scott. (R. 122 minutes.)