It’s a very bad omen for a sci-fi blockbuster when the first time you become aware of the majority of the characters’ names occurs during the closing credits.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely the predicament that weighs down, and ultimately suffocates, “Alien: Covenant,” acclaimed director Ridley Scott’s second entry into the Alien prequel series following his 2012 effort “Prometheus.” In this second go-around, it’s difficult to say which is more lifeless — the desolate planet where the majority of the action takes place, or the characters inhabiting it.
The story revolves around an expedition team that has joined forces with a human-like synthetic android named Walter (Michael Fassbender) on a massive, Titanic-in-the-sky spaceship called the Covenant in hopes of establishing human life on an unknown planet. The crew’s erroneous arrival on an uncharted planet quickly takes a turn for the disastrous when mysterious airborne particles infect two crew members’ bloodstreams and, in two relentlessly gory sequences, accumulate into two feral aliens that tear through the bodies of the ill-fated crew members.
Luckily for the rest of the bewildered Covenant crew members, they are rescued by a synthetic android, nearly identical to Walter in appearance, named David (also played by Fassbender, pulling double duty here). He has been inhabiting the planet for some time, and shares the bad news that the vicious aliens they encountered are just two of many populating the planet.
Though David initially appears to come in peace, it is quickly revealed that it was he, in fact, who unleashed the lethal substance into the air. And he’s got a whole bunch of sinister plans (not to mention superfluous, malapropos musings on creationism that fail to gel with the film’s otherwise action-driven narrative).
Katherine Waterston (yes, the daughter of Sam) turns in a solid performance as the Covenant’s intrepid de-facto Captain Daniels Branson, who must overcome the tragic death of the Covenant’s original captain (who was also her husband, played by James Franco, making a brief cameo) and eventually steps into his role. And Danny McBride, known mostly for his comedic roles, such as in HBO’s “Eastbound and Down,” brings some much-needed personality to the table in his portrayal of Tennessee Faris, the Covenant’s cowboy hat-wearing chief pilot.
The remaining Covenant crew members, however, feel as nameless and interchangeable as the aliens attacking them, drifting from your memory almost as soon as they enter. Fassbender, to be fair, portrays an android who lacks human emotion; what’s everyone else’s excuse? A fine ensemble, which includes the severely underrated Billy Crudup, is let down here by the story’s thinly drawn, cookie-cutter characters.
It could be worse. There is, perhaps, enough “popcorn value” here — i.e., science fiction elements, action-packed violence, exploration of intelligent life in outer space, special effects and all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a movie in the Alien franchise — to appease sci-fi genre fanatics. Heck, maybe there’s even enough fuel in the Covenant’s tank to sustain moviegoers simply seeking a brief summer escape from reality.
But, as we watch the proceedings evolve into an intergalactic “And Then There Were None” ordeal and culminate in a “twist” ending you can see coming from a galaxy away, we’re pestered by an ugly truth — we don’t really care.