The spaceship Covenant, director Ridley Scott's latest flying deathtrap, carries 15 crew members, 2,000 colonists, 1,400 embryos, and zero pandas. Pandas insist on eating empty-calorie bamboo — they’re bears denying their carnivorous biology to chow down on 20-foot celery — and procreate so apathetically that cubs become Earth celebrities. Clearly there's no sense in shipping self-destructive animals to colonize new planet Origae-6; as a species, they're almost suicidal. Instead, the Covenant packed humans. But in Scott's Alien franchise, humans are no smarter. Yet again in Alien: Covenant, the sixth film in the series, a crew sniffs after a mysterious ping and sticks their collective nose in a deadly larva pod. Are our astronauts learning? God no — they’re still hell-bent on their own extinction. And if the audience expected a different plot, we're not learning, either.
No wonder genius android David (Michael Fassbender), whose severed head survived 2012's Prometheus, is frustrated with mankind before he even meets the Covenant's crew. They're dumb even by the standards of Alien vs. Predator — and thank heaven. Prometheus’s philosopher-astronauts suffered as much from mouthing Scott's sermons as from the killer Xenomorphs. Covenant steers the series back toward its origins as a space slasher. It's more pulp, less pulpit: These doomed souls spend half of their dialogue screaming. Sure, devout Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) wonders if his crucifix is why the others doubt his ability to "think logically." But God's not to blame for his snap decision to land the ship on a different planet than the habitable one vetted by his bosses. His deadly mistake is all human hubris, the overconfidence of a leader convincing himself that "this is good judgement based on all the data available." Never mind that the data is a fuzzy transmission of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," mulled over for less time than it takes to microwave a frozen burrito.
Oram's second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the film's mandatory short-haired brunette, is the only underling who objects. He doesn't care. Like Sigourney Weaver, Waterston is a towering 5-foot-11, though her squeezable baby cheeks make her seem a half-foot shorter. She starts the film sobbing — her husband is offed so fast he's dead before I realized that face was James Franco — and her soft, wet eyes make you want to reach into the frame and pull her in for a hug. Unlike Prometheus star Noomi Rapace, Waterston seems like one of our species. Of course, sweet Daniels will eventually strip to a tank top and grab a gun, because after all, Scott's as predictable as a line of BASIC code: 10 IF "alien" THEN "tomboy heroine." Even so, our first glimpse of those strong muscles propping up Waterston’s spindly neck is a shock. And her intelligence makes us want her to survive, if just to spite her coworkers who get themselves killed like Friday the 13th fools forever skipping off to take a shower, or have sex in a shower, or pee in the woods. In one life-or-death chase, two of them slip in the same pool of blood 30 seconds apart. What are they, the Canis Major Kops?
At least the casting is terrific. A mix of indie darlings (Amy Seimetz and Demián Bichir) and ascending superstars (Carmen Ejogo and Jussie Smollett), it’s even got Danny McBride, playing a redneck named Tennessee who wanders the ship in a torn-up cowboy hat, in there for comic relief. If you're ditching civilization to farm a galaxy far, far away, wouldn't you at least pack a new hat? The script has most of the crew married to each other, I suppose as a shortcut to spawning new human life. Imagine jockeying with 2,000 colonists for a Tinder date. Pairing them off doesn't add much to their character development — they act like acquaintances until forced to bleat, "My wife!" But the romantic loyalties prove to be yet another human weakness. A man will risk ruining the mission to save his spouse. A robot knows that's illogical.
The Covenant has its own robot too: Walter (also played by Fassbender), who at the command of the computer network, Mother, roams the halls dutifully tending to the ship's precious embryos like an intergalactic Mike Pence. The humans don't value Walter's intelligence. He and Mother are accused of mishandling a neutrino burst that wakes up the crew. Is this how a zookeeper feels tending to a pair of pandas whose asinine bamboo diet costs 25 times his annual salary? But Walter doesn't have the backbone of his bot twin, David, who lords his preprogrammed perfection over our lesser species. In a flashback, Covenant shows us the moment David sparks to life. Billionaire scientist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) watches his android blink awake, with the ability to play Wagner on the piano and the ego to name himself for Michelangelo's masterpiece (which just happens to be loitering in Weyland's living room).
Alas, Weyland didn't code David for tact. "You're going to die," the machine chirps to his inventor, triggering the mortal panic that got everyone killed in Prometheus and cleaved David's head from his body. David's healed now, and in the 10 fictional years that separate that prequel from Covenant's prequel-sequel, he's sprouted a scraggly blond mane that he'd deem très Iggy Pop, if he knew any pop culture references more recent than 1869. (One of the irritations of the script is that 79-year-old Scott and his writing team ignore that Peter Weyland, who according to their timeline was born in 1990, is a millennial tech-bro. Instead of hailing Das Rheingold and Percy Bysshe Shelley, David should reference Kanye West and Grumpy Cat.)
"What was Weyland like?" asks Walter, when the robots meet on David's new home, a statuary hellscape decorated with calcified Engineers, crucified aliens, and a bone-white Xenomorph corpse that sags like the Pietà. "He was human," David quips, "entirely unworthy of his creation." Then to awaken his clone's poetic soul, David sticks a flesh-toned flute in Walter's mouth and coos, "I'll do the fingering." All the pervs in the audience get their own electric jolt.
Scott still has a talent for lovely details, like the Covenant unfurling four large, copper solar sails, and the thick plastic fingers of the spacemen's yellow suits. He's always used awe as a tool. Scott's art direction is so precise we assume he also obsessed over the script. Surely a spectacle like this has gotta mean something. Like the intelligent-design argument, his eye is too advanced to be an accident. That same insistence on meaning is the question that fixates Weyland. "I refuse to believe that mankind is mere molecular biological happenstance," he declares. But in the four decades audiences have spent watching Alien movies, all we've seen is a species lead itself to the slaughterhouse. What if the franchise's real question isn't why do humans exist, but why should they?