Ridley Scott stoops, milks nostalgia with ‘Alien: Covenant’

"Alien: Covenant" | Twentieth Century Fox Grade: B-
Mark Rogers/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
"Alien: Covenant" | Twentieth Century Fox
Grade: B-

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Neutrinos are subatomic particles produced in many nuclear reactions — and supernovae — and, as a fun fact, they are so noninteractive they can tunnel straight through a solid lightyear of lead as if it were empty space. A lightyear is really big.

So the fact that the starship in “Alien: Covenant,” while in deep interstellar space, is disabled by a “neutrino storm” caused by a “stellar flare event” is a little bit really obnoxious. Especially when it’s the solar sails — useless in interstellar space, incidentally — that get the most damaged, because, you know, the thinner the thing, the less chance a neutrino interacts with it.

Anyway. The point is that there’s 1 billion and one ways things can go horribly wrong in space, and there’s no reason to choose from the minority of things that are downright impossible.

The good news is that even for a stingy scientist, the annoyance of a scientifically unfaithful opening sequence is quickly brushed aside by Ridley Scott’s eminent grasp of grand spectacle, impeccable visuals and most critically, gripping sequences of sci-fi horror and action.

“Alien: Covenant” is a gorgeous film. It opens slowly, with not a hint of suspense or action, until an unaware sergeant steps on an incubating pod, infecting himself with a pathogen for which all familiar with the franchise know the inevitable outcome.

What follows this introduction can only be described as a perfect action sequence. It holds, unwaveringly, for a solid 10 minutes before suddenly releasing its tension — and the effect was audible throughout the audience.

Unfortunately, after that stunning sequence, the story descends into one of Hollywood predictability, bereft of the interesting existential questions of mankind’s creation that drove the film’s predecessor “Prometheus” — though admittedly, the intrigue of those questions didn’t make that a good movie either.

There’s no point in regaling the plot here, which unfolds like clockwork in lockstep with “Prometheus” and its true contextual predecessor, 1979’s “Alien.” The new elements it brings to the franchise’s universe are only ephemerally engaging, and hardly surprising. Sadly, unlike some of the best sci-fi of past ages, this isn’t a movie to be dissected and interrogated — it exists only to awe, to entertain and to, at moments, scare the shit out of you.

The problem is, Ridley Scott is capable of so much more than that. Just two years ago he shepherded the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s “The Martian” to a Golden Globe on the strength of both the source material’s fantastic story and Scott’s filmmaking ability. In fact, he could bring his skillset as a filmmaker to literally any new film, and it would have serious strengths to contend with as a work of art.

Instead, he’s made another “Alien” film — and, in fact, he is planning several more — exhibiting a steadfast commitment to beating this frankly dead horse until it stops spitting out money. Tragically, it won’t stop, because each film is just entertaining enough, just scary enough and definitely beautiful enough to keep raking in cash.

“Covenant” goes beyond relying on franchise for profit — it shamelessly repurposes the original “Alien,” a masterpiece that will remain in the heights of the sci-fi pantheon long after all other films in the franchise are long forgotten — all to milk it for nostalgia’s sake.

This film features not one, but several scenes that are direct, almost cut-and-paste transfers from “Alien,” and it drags each of those beats for many painful seconds longer than necessary for an audience of sci-fi fans who already know exactly what’s about to happen.

But the point of those scenes isn’t, in fact, to be suspenseful. The point is to weaponize nostalgia, to release that little euphoric “I get that reference!” tingling in the brains of everyone watching, to keep them coming back to film after film by rewarding them for their memories of the world created by the previous installations. And it’s shameful.

Ultimately, “Alien: Covenant,” is exactly what we expect, and Ridley Scott is reduced to a kid infinitely skilled at Lego-building, but who’s only got a single Lego set to play with — there’s only so many combinations to build.

‘Alien: Covenant’ opens Thursday at UA Berkeley 7.

Imad Pasha is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.

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  • Thomas H Cullen

    Alien Covenant is an equality between artist and art, which Alien wasn’t. Unlike the former, the latter was a need for self-awareness that it wasn’t able to reflect, and yet the paradox is that this inability didn’t perhaps exist until Alien Covenant. Therefore Alien Covenant is the reflection of David: to know hierarchy is to replicate hierarchy, which makes attacking hierarchy a perpetual problem