Following the success of “Star Wars” and its generally positive take on space adventures in the late 1970s, director Ridley Scott took a grim and claustrophobic look at life in outer space with his horror film “Alien” in 1979. The title creature was hardly something that would wind up as a children’s toy, utterly shredding a crew of astronauts on a deep-space mission until one tough-as-nails woman named Ripley managed to save herself and live to fight on in three sequels directed by others.
That role made Sigourney Weaver a major star, and Scott moved on to an impressively varied career, including his Oscar-winning turn helming “Gladiator.” But he returned to his roots five years ago to start a prequel trilogy with “Prometheus,” and this weekend he’s back to reveal more of how the aliens originated with “Alien: Covenant.” But with less memorable humans in the battle, it’s getting harder to care about their fates.
The film opens with a flashback to an unspecified time decades before when David (Michael Fassbender), the android who played a key role as part of the crew in “Prometheus,” was being trained by its creator, Dr. Weyland (Guy Pearce). As they discuss God and creation, there is a brewing air of tension between the two as David seems to bristle at the idea of being controlled.
But most of the film takes place in 2104, about a decade after “Prometheus,” and features a giant spaceship called Covenant with a 16-member crew in charge of 2,000 people and hundreds of embryos all hoping to colonize a distant planet. All are in cryogenically suspended sleep for the decades-long journey, under the care of an android named Walter (also Fassbender), and another android in the mold of David.
When the Covenant gets caught in a space storm that cuts off some of its power, the crew is forced awake. The captain (James Franco in what has to be the shortest cameo in years) dies in the havoc, leaving Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge amid tensions wrought by the fact he orders them to fix the ship with no real time to mourn the death of their former leader.
The ship suddenly receives a video signal of a woman speaking English, and Oram orders the crew to go off-course and explore the planet it came from. As they land, they are surprised to find it so similar to Earth that Oram tells them to consider it as an alternative place to simply stop and colonize instead of their original destination.
What they don’t yet realize is that the planet is where the Prometheus ship of the prior film disappeared, and everything is covered with alien pathogens. When one unfortunate crewman is infected, they soon find themselves under attack by alien creatures that start out small and morph ever further into the grisly beasts that fans have come to know and fear.
They also stumble across David, who has been living there in darkness for the past decade — leading to tension between Walter and David that could affect them all.
Director Scott continues his tradition of brewing slow-building tension and an intense sense of atmosphere, with the film taking at least 45 minutes to have its first big alien encounter. Once they start, however, the battles come fast and furious, with plenty of inventive ways for the crew to die.
While “Covenant” features a certain interest in engaging philosophical ideas about the nature of creation, the film is lacking in charismatic characters like Ripley and suffers somewhat as a result. By comparison, the victims are mostly interchangeable pieces of meat here, leaving the film to be less tasty than it might have been for all but its core fan base. n Grade: B
Stars: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Christopher Meloni, Ike Barinholtz
Length: 90 minutes
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
The return of comic icon Goldie Hawn after 15 years away from the big screen teams her with current comedy superstar Amy Schumer as a mother and daughter who take a disastrous vacation to Ecuador.
While Hawn has some solid moments and there are funny turns by supporting actors, too much of the writing veers from crude to lazy and uninspired. Grade: C
GUARDIANS OF THE
GALAXY VOL. 2
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker
Length: 136 minutes
Directed by: James Gunn
The sequel to the quirky 2014 superhero smash finds the ragtag band of antiheroes dealing with family issues beneath all the laughs and action, as Kurt Russell shows up as a god named Ego, claiming to be Peter Quill’s (Pratt) long-lost father. Whether his intentions are noble is a big question, Gamora (Saldana) has to contend with her evil sister as well. Punchier and funnier, the film defines swagger. Grade: A
Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt
Length: 110 minutes
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
“The Circle” follows a young woman (Watson), who thinks she’s hit the break of a lifetime getting hired by a giant Google-like company led by a seemingly benevolent guru (Tom Hanks). She rises quickly when she offers to let a webcam be attached to her at all times, not realizing consequences are coming. Poorly paced and saddled with a truly terrible performance by Watson, this is a huge dud. Grade: D
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS
Stars: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell
Length: 136 minutes
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
The eighth film in the “Fast and Furious” franchise is also the first to arrive fully without original star Paul Walker as Brian, leaving a key level of humanity out and resulting in mostly mayhem throughout. Loud and frenetic as always, the wheels are starting to come off with a near total lapse in logic and Charlize Theron is utterly wasted in her role as this edition’s villain, a super-hacker named Cipher. Grade: D
GOING IN STYLE
Stars: Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman
Length: 96 minutes
Directed by: Zach Braff
This remake of the 1979 George Burns/Art Carney heist comedy follows three lifelong friends who suddenly learn that their former employer has ended their pension fund, leading to their robbing the bank that stores the millions. A fun caper with the three Oscar-winning veteran actors displaying sterling chemistry and an underlying reminder that society needs to treat its elderly with compassion. Grade: B