NB: The following contains a few spoilers for Alien: Covenant’s first act. Nothing massive, but do turn back if you want to watch the movie cold.
Bad weather. Body horror. Terrified mortals fleeing in terror from a slippery nightmare. In some respects, 2012‘s Prometheus had plenty of things you’d want in an Alien movie. But like a distorted reflection in a hall of mirrors, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror prequel felt somehow askew: its characters had little of the earthy believability of the 1979 movie that ignited the franchise, and while some of the scenes were undoubtedly intense, Prometheus was, for the most part, more kitsch than terrifying.
Like us, you’re probably feeling a bit cautious about Alien: Covenant. The title, and the various bits of advertising put out so far, suggest that it’s moving closer to the tone of the classic film it’s supposed to lead into. Returning star Michael Fassbender has said that Covenant will be much scarier than Prometheus. But despite the decent-looking trailer – released, for some reason, on Christmas day – we’ve resisted the temptation to get our hopes up about Scott’s latest opus. As we’ve seen countless times in the past, it’s easy to cut a great trailer from a mediocre movie.
At a recent press event, however, 20th Century Fox showed off approximately 15 minutes from Alien: Covenant – and while we’re still keeping our expectations in check, what we’ve seen so far suggests that this year’s prequel-sequel really is a step into pure horror territory.
In terms of raw plot, it’s all time-worn stuff. Another Weyland-Yutani vessel, the Covenant, is bound for the same planetary system the doomed Prometheus mission visited in the last movie. Along for the journey you’ll find the tough, Ripley-esque Daniels (Katherine Waterston), an assorted bunch of pilots and captains – Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, James Franco – and, most ominously of all, another android played by Michael Fassbender, this one named Walter.
The Covenant’s been despatched to find new, Earth-like planets to colonise, and the world they find seems perfect at first glance: lush vegetation, breathable atmosphere and, unlike LV-426 or LV-223, the weather isn’t too bad, either. What the crew haven’t reckoned on is that David, now fully repaired following his brush with a belligerent Engineer in Prometheus, is also on the planet – and he’s clearly been up to no good.
We aren’t going to throw out any major plot twists here, since the mysteries posed by the trailer remain largely intact: we’ve still no clue how David was repaired, how he got to this leafy planet or where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomie Rapace) has gone. But what we did glean, from the few minutes of footage we saw, is the kind of tone Ridley Scott’s going for. Alien: Covenant appears to be a far more rough-edged and gritty film than Prometheus. Where that earlier film had a slick sci-fi sheen to it – vaguely akin to a JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot – Covenant has more of the grubby oiliness of Alien.
In one sequence, we see the Covenant make its descent through thick cloud to the planet below, and just as it did in Alien, the ship’s cockpit feels cramped and utilitarian. From a production design angle, the argument probably goes that the craft in Prometheus was a luxurious vessel for Weyland-Yutani’s executives – complete with Swarovski chandeliers – while the Nostromo and the Covenant are more pared-back and workmanlike. Yet cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s camerawork also takes a more gritty turn in this movie; locked-off shots of landscapes are matched by grainy close-ups with a shaky, handheld feel. Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music from the original Alien also makes a surprise comeback, and those high, fractious strings still cause a shiver after all these years.
There are more shivers in store when the shuttle despatched from the Covenant lands on the planet surface. As a search party begins wandering around, it isn’t long before one or two members get struck down by something nasty. As you might remember from the trailer, one very ill explorer is dragged back to the shuttle’s sickbay, and actresses Amy Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo look on agog as a tiny monster emerges from a stricken victim’s back. We got to see a much longer version of this sequence, where the monster – dubbed a neomorph by Alien: Covenant’s filmmakers – lands on the floor with a squelch and attacks Carmen Ejogo’s character.
Unlike the chestburster from Alien, these little critters don’t scurry off down the nearest corridor – when cornered, the neomorph will immediately attack whoever’s closest, and despite their diminutive size, they’re surprisingly strong. They’re also extremely difficult to hit, as Amy Seimetz tries to take the newborn out with her trusty space rifle – a gambit that leaves the rest of the landing party staring from the sidelines as their shuttle vanishes in an orange ball of flame.
The surviving explorers don’t have much time to ponder how they’re going to get back off the planet; a second stricken victim starts to convulse and, in a shower of gore, yet another neomorph springs forth.
It’s worth pausing here to talk a bit about blood and guts. Prometheus had its moments of body horror, but you may remember that its makers hedged their bets a little bit during its making. Unsure whether they were going to go for a PG-13 or R rating, Scott shot two versions of Elizabeth Shaw’s now infamous “Caesarean by UFO grabber” scene – one with generous lashings of claret and ooze and one without. Whether the movie would’ve got past the MPAA with a bit less blood or not is a moot point by now, but the fact remains that Prometheus wasn’t necessarily designed from the ground up to be a violent, nasty space horror.
Alien: Covenant evidently has. The monster births are joined by splashes of crimson; Carmen Ejogo’s ill-advised knife-fight with a neomorph is toothsome and nasty. Scott’s clearly going for a much harder edge with Covenant; while we’ll have to wait and see whether this results in a properly scary film, it undoubtedly looks intense.
Some of our beefs with Prometheus do make a return, though. Most glaringly, Weyland-Yutani employees still haven’t learned that, when visiting alien planets, it’s advisable to wear some kind of protection from deadly microbes. Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) couldn’t wait to get his damn helmet off in Prometheus; in Alien: Covenant, the landing party seem to turn up on an unknown world with little more than a series of hats and hoodies for protection.
From what we’ve seen so far, we’re still not sure whether the characterisation is better in Covenant than Prometheus, either. Katherine Waterston’s character only gets a line or two, if memory serves, and some crewmembers seem difficult to tell apart in all the confusion. The full movie will, we’re sure, spend time fleshing everyone out and establishing their motivations. The allegiance of Fassbender’s new android Walter, for example, is kept under wraps, and unless we blinked and missed him, James Franco’s character was nowhere to be found. Likewise the big, bad xenomorph itself – a character we know from the trailers is waiting in the wings somewhere, ready to pounce.
As a sample of Alien: Covenant’s style and tone, however, Fox’s preview did its job. Ridley Scott’s latest puts the emphasis back on horror, and we’re cautiously optimistic that the old Starbeast will emerge once again as one of cinema’s scariest monsters.