Early on in "Alien: Covenant," before any spleens have ruptured or any Xenomorphs have reared their hideous heads, a large ship glides through outer space and unfurls its golden sails, like an ocean vessel catching a light breeze. The purpose of these sails is to harness energy and recharge the ship, but as elegantly imagined by director Ridley Scott, they resemble nothing so much as the gently billowing drapes of an enormous canopy bed.
In a sense, a bed is precisely what the ship is. The 2,000 souls on board, plus a large stash of embryos kept in deep freeze, are on their way to a distant planet called Origae-6, where they intend to establish a new home for humanity. It will take them seven years to arrive, and until then they will remain in deep cryosleep, one that the audience may initially be tempted to share. And why not? In space, no one can hear you snore.
But rest assured (or not), Scott has every intention of disturbing his characters' slumber, to say nothing of ours. A freak accident kills several people on board in what feels like queasy foreshadowing of the many more deaths to come. Before long the ship, known as the Covenant, will be diverted to a much closer planet whose clear blue lakes and misty mountains would seem inviting to anyone who hasn't seen "Prometheus," which unfortunately includes every member of the crew.
Set in 2104, a decade after the events of that earlier picture, "Alien: Covenant" is a sleek and suspenseful reclamation of a science-fiction franchise that launched to huge success with Scott's 1979 masterpiece, "Alien." After the thrilling contact high of James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986) and the progressive downward spiral of "Alien 3" (1992) and "Alien: Resurrection" (1997), the series lay dormant for years, give or take an "Alien vs. Predator" flick, before reemerging in 2012 with "Prometheus." That Scott-directed film, a stealth "Alien" prequel, tossed off some intriguing ideas about the origins of life before devolving into lazy, half-hearted splatter.
Both the ideas and the splatter are held in much more confident balance this time around. The grand metaphysical rumblings have been wisely kept at a low background hum, so as not to drown out everything else, and Scott's genre instincts are in much sharper form. Unlike "Prometheus," which seemed almost reluctant to embrace its B-movie roots, "Alien: Covenant" is a full-bore horror movie that proudly bears the franchise name, complete with old-school '70s title treatment. The bloodletting begins early and rarely lets up.
Before all that, however, an austere prologue shows us a silky, British-accented android named David (Michael Fassbender) in an all-white room, calmly discussing creation, humanity and Wagner with his human "father," Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). You may recall David from "Prometheus," though the next time we see Fassbender, he is playing a Midwestern-accented android named Walter — a complication that will be explained in due course by screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper (working from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green).
Walter is the lone synthetic member of the Covenant's crew, and he watches with calm but not complete detachment as their mission is derailed by a fatal combination of human error and nonhuman malice. It's hardly a spoiler to note that the planet they land on is already inhabited by some very bad things designed in the sharp-fanged image of H.R. Giger's original Alien. The men and women flee into a network of caverns that provide a temporary refuge as well as an eerie testimony to the existence of an earlier, long-vanished civilization.
Not helping matters is the Covenant's newly installed captain, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of faulty instincts and dubious people skills. His crew consists largely of unmemorable fang fodder played by the likes of Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Demián Bichir and Nathaniel Dean, though Danny McBride brings a measure of real gravitas to his role as one of the ship's pilots. Katherine Waterston is also on hand as a crew member named Daniels, who smartly pushes back against Oram and at one point dons a gray tank top, just in case her status as this movie's de facto Ripley figure were in doubt.
But just as Waterston's effective performance can't hope to provide as iconic or magnetic an anchor as Sigourney Weaver, so "Alien: Covenant" never really rivals "Alien's" nerve-shredding supremacy — and not just because the sight of a chest-bursting gremlin is less a jolt these days than a reassuring sign of brand consistency. The beauty of Scott's original, whose eerie slow-drip pacing now feels closer to a Hungarian art film than to today's slash-and-dash blockbusters, lay precisely in its ruthless irrationality, its cool disinterest in deeper questions of why and how. Life is horror and pain and death: That was all the philosophy it needed.
"Alien: Covenant" does a more coherent job than "Prometheus" of having it both ways, of preying on our fears of what we can't see while teasing us with questions about what we don't know. But on some level, the impulses at work here — to explore the mysteries of life, while also indulging a furious spectacle of death — are at fundamental cross-purposes. Both threads holds your attention while they're on-screen in front of you, but with the exception of one stunning, nightmarish sequence of a genocidal cataclysm in progress, they never succeed in merging and breathing as one.
By movie's end, however, you are left with the chilling sense that at some point, they might. Although likely to spur some comparisons with "The Martian," Scott's much more upbeat 2015 space outing, "Alien: Covenant" actually bears a richer resemblance to two of the director's underappreciated recent projects, "The Counselor" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings," sharing with them a coolly distanced and unsentimental view of humanity and its place in the grand scheme of things.
One of the most poignant details of the movie's premise is that the crew consists mainly of married couples, in keeping with their mission to populate a new human colony. If "Prometheus" was the franchise's spin on the creation story, then consider "Alien: Covenant" its vision of Eden despoiled, full of all-too-fallible men and women who are like futuristic versions of Adam and Eve (plus two Adams played by Bichir and Dean, though their status as significant others is barely addressed).
That leaves Fassbender as the snake in the garden, the synthetic outsider who possesses a deadly form of higher knowledge. The movie's finest scene casts this superbly protean actor opposite himself, and Fassbender rises to the occasion with a dual performance that transcends its stunt-like conception. The rapport between his two androids — same make, different models and radically distinct worldviews — is by turns witty, intimate and breathtakingly perverse. And it serves to recalibrate our sense of whose perspective, exactly, is governing this particular story.
If human life in "Alien: Covenant" often seems cheap and disposable, that may be less a bug than a feature, a sign that we are being encouraged to regard humanity from a superior, less sentimental plane of existence. This movie may be a convulsively entertaining throwback to Scott's glory days, but to look upon Fassbender, with his icy and seductive post-human gaze, is to behold this franchise's future.
MPAA rating: R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: In general release beginning Thursday