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The 'Alien' prequel has remarkable sights and superb suspense

This much we all know: The moment, in 1979, when the alien monster exploded out of John Hurt's belly in Ridley Scott's "Alien" will always remain one of the scariest and most horrifying jolts in movie history.

That brings up an interesting subject, now that Scott's first-rate new prequel, "Alien: Covenant," is ready to keep audiences in suspense for two hours.

What is generally forgotten about Sir Ridley in his 79th year and long revered as a "visionary and a badass" (forgive me quoting my own review of "Prometheus") is that he comes from television. And not just television either but TV commercials.

Yes, his life work has made him one of the most honored filmmakers alive. That will happen to a man who has made "Blade Runner," "Thelma and Louise," "Gladiator," "The Martian," "Hannibal" and "Blackhawk Down." But he has never forsaken television; his company with his late brother Tony, Scott Free, was the company that brought "Numb3rs"  and "The Good Wife" to CBS prime time.

Back when he was starting out in the film world, film cognoscenti practically tripped over themselves to be condescending about his TV commercial background.

It's a very new world now. People know a lot better. Television routinely impresses the most discerning audiences as much as film, if not more often. No one thinks twice about Scott taking one of his biggest successes -- and one of the greatest sci-fi horror numbers in movie history -- and treating it the way TV people treat the first season of a TV hit: a template to fill in with creative new ideas that, if not as original as they were once, are almost as artful and sophisticated as they were to begin with.

Veteran "Alien" watchers will know all about the slimy creatures originally conceived by H.R. Giger. We know that it can be a bad idea to explore planets you know nothing of just because they happen to be hospitable to "life." (Yeah, we scoff, what KIND of life?) We know that if you inhale that planet's microbes or get any of its dust in your ear canal, bad things are likely to happen that no general practitioner or internist can help you with. (An entire division of your country's military might be more apt.)

This time around, we've got our space travelers, with their cargo of hypersleeping space colonists. It's 2104. Michael Fassbender who was the android "David" in "Prometheus" has been replicated again as himself and as the new, improved android. The latter is the resident Spock-figure on the new starship named the "Covenant." Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride and Demian Bichir are the new crew, the ones we all want to warn to watch what they eat and breathe.

It's going to take them so long to get to their original far-flung extraterrestrial destination (years) so, hey, why don't they take a nice little side jaunt to a planet they just discovered that is, in every way, hospitable to "life?" That's especially persuasive when they hear a transmission from the planet that sounds like John Denver's "Country Road."

At this point, megaplex devotees will remember the jolly Tarantinesque use of "Country Roads" in the bullet-riddled "Free Fire" and marvel at how the same record has been seized by ironic Brit film smart alecks to epitomize American pop dorkiness at its purest.

So there they go, exploring this dandy new planet and getting more bad news about alien life forms that we just don't have on earth.

Scott is a great filmmaker. The sights, as always, are remarkable. The suspense is superb -- even more than it was the last time in "Prometheus."

That Fassbender plays two roles as near-identical androids will give every plot-savvy watcher of this a fair idea of its narrative trajectory. He is awfully good at smirking insufferably and being Spocklike -- just as McBride in cowboy hat, face fuzz and the nickname Tennessee is very good as the resident crew good old boy.

Literary smart alecks will know the movie is setting the audience up the minute they hear a character recite the poem "Ozymandias" and claim that it was written by Byron, not Shelley. But it's all cleverly worked out.

It's the newest episode in the "Alien" saga about the perils of flying to very distant places where you might not be invited.

What Scott was originally doing was making a brilliant movie counter-argument to Kubrick's "2001" made 10 years earlier. It shouldn't surprise a living soul that no filmmaker wants to make any spinoffs of the quasi-religious cosmic hallucinations in "2001."

The "Alien" story is another matter. When Sir Ridley is in charge, the saga is always fresh and new enough to continue being scary as all hell.


"Alien: Covenant"

3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bechir and Carmen Ejogo

Director: Ridley Scott

Running time: 122 minutes

Rated: R for horror violence, gore, language and some sex and nudity.

The lowdown: The newest prequel to the classic "Alien" finds astronauts and slimy aliens playing hide-and-seek on a distant planet.


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