Please note: this review contains a light spoiler, something that’s been revealed already in the film’s promotion. But just flagging it here in case you’ve managed to avoid everything so far.
Prometheus was a lot of things, but one of the things it seldom felt like was an Alien movie. In some respects, this was a positive; rather than offer a straight retread of his 1979 hit, director Ridley Scott went off in another direction – broadening out the Alien universe with tales of humanity’s origins and ancient gods on the other side of the galaxy. There were slithering monsters and moments of psycho-sexual menace, but the beast from Alien was nowhere to be seen.
Alien: Covenant, on the other hand, feels like something of a response to the criticisms levelled at Prometheus. For one thing, it’s a more direct prequel to Alien – the proof’s right there in the title – and there’s less time spent on pondering over the motivations behind a race of eight-foot-tall, godlike aliens and more time running in terror from creatures with big teeth and claws.
A decade after the events of Prometheus, another Weyland Yutani vessel sets off for the depths of space. This time, it’s the Covenant – a ship destined to start a new colony on a distant, Earth-like planet called Origae-6. As well as the crew piloting the ship – among them terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), space cowboy Tennessee (Danny McBride) and somewhat ineffectual leader Oram (Billy Crudup) – there’s a cargo of some 2,000 deep-frozen colonists whose job will be to go forth and populate their new world. But a chain of events soon leads the Covenant to switch course to another planet, also Earth-like, but this one the home to rogue synthetic David (Michael Fassbender, back from his antics in Prometheus) and maybe a monster or two.
We’ll come right out and admit it: from the opening credits, we were cheering Alien: Covenant on. Prometheus had its problems, yet The Martian, Scott’s superb 2015 adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, proved that the director could still serve up a hugely exciting sci-fi movie when working from a solid script. If Alien: Covenant could follow suit, we thought, with Scott weaving his visual magic from a script by John Logan and Dante Harper (replacing Prometheus’ Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof), then maybe we could wind up with something at least approaching the brilliance of the genre-defining Alien.
For the first hour, Alien: Covenant doesn’t disappoint. To the strains of Jed Kurzel’s music, which both reworks the fractious tones of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score and adds its own throbbing, unnerving melodies, Scott crafts a familiar yet intense story of exploration, survival and slithering nightmares. The Covenant is a much more angular, workmanlike vessel than the Prometheus; still full of gadgets and holographic displays, but closer to the “oil rig in space” feel of the Nostromo. The Covenant even has its own Mother (or MU-TH-UR 6000) – the artificial intelligence which guided the ship in Alien.
The most gratifying thing to note in Alien: Covenant’s first half, though, is that the ship’s crew are a more natural-seeming bunch than the neurotic lot that blundered about in Prometheus. Their dialogue and interactions feel low-key and unforced, with the writing here echoing the earthy, semi-improvised feel of Alien. Katherine Waterston, in particular, is excellent as Daniels, the ship’s terraforming authority and planetary explorer; there’s a great chemistry between her character and McBride’s Tennessee, who plays his role completely straight – anyone fearing that he might bring some forced comedy to the Covenant can rest easy.
Alien: Covenant’s problems only really begin to tell in the second half. While the movie doesn’t lose its coherency in the way that Prometheus did, the story does delve into similarly awkward, faintly kitsch storytelling territory. One of the issues is, surprisingly, Michael Fassbender, who plays two roles here. As well as David, the actor also appears as Walter, a newer model of synthetic with fewer personality malfunctions than his predecessor.
Walter’s a likeable enough character – he has a hint of the sad-eyed restraint of Bishop in Aliens – but Fassbender’s attempt at an American accent isn’t likely to win him many awards. His turn as David, meanwhile, is served up with an unexpectedly thick slice of ham; the android-turned mad scientist now acts like Vincent Price in one of Roger Corman’s old Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, wafting in and out of the shadows with a passage of romantic poetry or an awkward one-liner on his lips.
Fortunately, Alien: Covenant still has it where it counts in the action-horror department. Some of the plot developments may not convince, exactly, but the pace is terrific – once things start to go south on the planet Paradise, they go south at a startling speed. We won’t spoil things by talking about the monsters in detail (the trailers have already given more away than we’d have liked), but the events in Covenant a far gorier and more disturbing than they were in Prometheus.
Alien: Covenant isn’t, therefore, a perfect specimen. But in the now quite large run of Alien movies – which takes in four main films, two prequels and two spin-offs – Covenant still ranks as one of the better ones. Not a classic like Alien or Aliens, but less compromised than Alien 3, less outright goofy than Alien: Resurrection or the weaker moments of Prometheus, and in an entire league above the quite dreadful Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem.
The title monster may be too familiar to really terrify us these days, but Alien: Covenant nevertheless has more than a few moments to quicken the pulse and still the blood.
Alien: Covenant is out in UK cinemas on the 12th May.
Also, Alien: River Of Pain is available on Audible now. Find out more here, and get a free 30 day trial.