There's a knockout scene in the mind-bending space thriller that is Alien: Covenant in which David, an android played by Michael Fassbender, teaches Walter – the upgraded 2.0 model, also played by Fassbender – how to play a flute. "Watch me ... I'll do the fingering," says David with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. Can art, science, spirituality and rampaging ego be embodied by a machine? Can humanity still survive in an alien world? Can an android be gay? Can the amazing Fassbender, playing god and devil and all stops in between, be any better? "You have symphonies in you, brother," David tells his student. I'll say. And so does this funny, fierce, sometimes exasperating but always compelling new chapter in a franchise designed to scare us shitless.
All these provocations and more find a home in the script by John Logan and Dante Harper, but the fact that this movie challenges audiences as much as it terrifies them is a credit to the man behind the curtain. That would be director Ridley Scott, who's pushing 80 and still pushing our buttons. Scott, a giant of cinema, gave us the first Alien in 1979, then ceded the franchise to other auteurs including James Cameron and David Fincher. He then returned to the Alien universe in 2012 with Prometheus, a polarising prequel that introduced Fassbender as David and left some audiences feeling cheated by favouring the cerebral over the visceral. Alien: Covenant picks up where that prequel left off, but the balance between brain teasing and hardcore terror has been restored.
Set in 2104, a decade after Prometheus and 18 years before the original Alien, Scott's franchise newbie is a deft blend of something familiar and something peculiar. The good ship Covenant, carrying over 2,000 souls in cyro-sleep, is hurtling toward the distant planet of Origae-6, where they can settle and propagate the race. Then, boom, a storm fucks up the mission's delicate, seven-year balance.
OK, yes – you can see what's coming. But at least Alien: Covenant doesn't pull a Passengers and have Fassbender's new American-accented android Walter wake up a sleeping hottie for a space hookup. After the death of its captain (James Franco in a mini-cameo), the Covenant must right its course. The captain's widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), agrees to help the new chief, Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of faith with a shaky belief in his own ability to run the show. Crudup does wonders with a role that questions the role of God in the universe, a theme built into the DNA of the entire six-film series. Crisis comes when the captain decides to land at a nearby planet that shows promise of speeding up the mission. While the Covenant's pilot Tennessee (a terrific Danny McBride) stays aloft, Oram goes down for a peak with a crew, including Tennessee's wife, Farris (Amy Seimetz) and Walter. The place seems like paradise. That feeling does not last.
Without resorting to spoilers, let us say that what you think you know doesn't dent the killer suspense, the truly disgusting goo of the alien effects (damn those facehuggers!) or Scott's skill at making us jump out of our seats while planting disturbing seeds of discussion that stay with you long after you leave the multiplex. It's true that the film is covering old ground – the shocking originality of the first Alien is a one-time thing. No worries. I'd rank Alien: Covenant with the best of the series, right after the first two chapters. Fans are going to freak out. Join in.