Michael Fassbender plays the roles of two androids, named Walter and David. (Supplied: Twentieth Century Fox)
It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Alien movie introduced us to close encounters of the chest-bursting kind.
Ridley Scott’s angry, paranoid and in-your-face film was a heavy metal power chord to the Star Wars space opera — but its simplicity was what lent it power.
Do a quick Google search and you’ll find all sorts of theories to explain Alien’s terror in gender terms, some put forward by Scott and his writers themselves.
Sigourney Weaver played warrant officer Ripley in the original Alien. (Supplied: Twentieth Century Fox)
Could it be an expression of the male fear of penetration and childbirth? Or even a “rape movie with male victims”, as suggested by critic David McIntee?
Scott is, at first glance, an unlikely feminist — at 80 years of age, he’s a hardened veteran and a beneficiary of Hollywood’s notoriously macho culture.
But the first Alien was ground-breaking for the way it foregrounded a kind of extreme feminine experience. It’s worth noting, also, that he agreed to two female interns on this movie, whose positions were financed by Screen Australia.
Sigourney Weaver might have been the first action hero to become synonymous with skimpy underwear, but if it wasn’t for Scott she would have been a man — and probably a whole lot less interesting.
So it’s significant then that Scott — making his third Alien film, after 2012’s Prometheus — seems to be turning his attention to men.
Country tunes in outer space?
Alien: Covenant was made predominantly in Australia, thanks to a generous Federal Government cash injection.
It opens with a distorted image of a father and son.
A scientist inventor (Guy Pearce) converses on the origin of life with his android creation, or synthetic, David (Michael Fassbender).
It’s an opening that suggests the film’s vocation as an origin story.
The film opens with an inventor (Guy Pearce) talking to his android (Michael Fassbender). (Supplied: Twentieth Century Fox)
Cut to a scene many years afterwards aboard a long-haul space ship and Fassbender is playing a different synthetic named Walter, presiding over a sleeping crew and their cargo of 2,000 human colonists, en route to an earth-like planet.
When a sudden electrical storm causes the death of the ship’s captain (James Franco) and yanks the crew from their slumber, the next in line to lead — a devout Christian with a brittle ego played by Billy Crudup — is soon facing another disruption to plans.
Someone is beaming country music to them from deep space.
It’s still got critters bursting from rib cages
There are certain conventions in sci-fi movies that point unambiguously to danger ahead, and receiving a glitchy audio signal (in this case John Denver’s down-home ballad Country Road) is certainly one of them.
But the Covenant crew are nothing if not curious.
They trace the signal to an uncharted planet of green mountains and abundant rivers (the exteriors were shot in New Zealand), unaware it’s also home to something decidedly more sinister.
Scenes from the mysterious planet the ship lands on were shot in New Zealand. (Supplied: Twentieth Century Fox)
It’s only a matter of time before those ivory-skinned critters are bursting from rib cages and people are slipping over bloodied floors to the find the next hatch door.
But there’s another encounter that’s just as significant — the meeting between the two synthetics, Walter and David.
David first appeared as the immaculately groomed, Lawrence of Arabia obsessed android in Prometheus.
His reappearance here further inspires the Frankenstein themes hinted at in the prologue.
These androids are projections of men unshackled from the weakness of human biology and conscience.
The difference between them, which Fassbender plays in subtle shades, is a sense of ambition.
You couldn’t have an Alien film without one of these pale and unsightly things. (Supplied: Twentieth Century Fox)
For a film that’s about the nightmarish consequences of male ego and overreach, Alien: Covenant defines its protagonist as female, pragmatic and emotionally authentic.
Katherine Waterston is Daniels, a scientist and the wife of the ship’s captain.
After the early death of her husband she wanders the film in angry despair — practically eye-rolling at Crudup’s evangelical frontier zeal — but events conspire to bring out her inner warrior, leading to the inevitable human versus alien showdown.
Subdued power, but no visceral shock
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, it’s true.
Alien: Covenant is the kind of film that would send a lesser director to their hotel room to cower in the foetal position.
Scott, however, manages to grasp the reins tight enough not to let either the film’s philosophical explorations or hardcore thrills overpower each other.
The trouble is the result hovers in the middle ground, lacking impact.
Even an early scene where someone burns alive in a cryogenic sleep chamber falls short of the intensity you’d expect.
By attempting — and succeeding — to hold the film together, Scott has ended up with a picture of subdued power.
It will do, and it’s far from a misfire.
But it’s also far from the visceral shock that made the very first Alien such a standout.