Ridley Scott’s latest return to the Alien universe attempts to span the gulf between the space-horror of the 1979 original and the ponderous philosophising of 2012’s Prometheus.
The result is a film bursting at the chest with ideas, but which never quite marries its smorgasbord of narrative and visual styles.
It’s a sizeable step up from the torturous world-building of Prometheus, which played out like a $130m piece of fan-fiction. Covenant is beautiful, in the way that William Blake’s paintings of tortured souls are beautiful, whether it’s the immaculately rendered gloom of a windswept planet, the warren of HR Geiger-inspired bio-mechanical tunnels, or Scott’s now-famous retro-futuristic space-stations.
And it’s superbly acted; Michael Fassbender’s dual roles as two models of the same android are second only to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in terms of franchise-best performances. His movements and mannerisms perfectly reflect the uncanny state of being of his twin “synthetics”, and there’s a fascinating sexual tension between the two (it will justify the entry fee for many to learn that the two Fassbenders kind of make out).
The titular Covenant is a starship filled with colonists destined for a distant planet. Its crew are awakened from cryo-sleep after their vessel is ravaged by some intergalactic malarkey, after which they receive a distant signal that sounds suspiciously like Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver.
They trace it to a habitable planet nearby, and rather than go back to sleep for seven years, they decide to check it out. It’s no spoiler to say this is a Very Bad Idea. The religious overtones of Prometheus carry over here, with Billy Crudup’s pious captain taking this as a sign from God; in the Alien universe, though, mankind has been well and truly forsaken.
Much of the action takes place on this new planet, a Miltonian hellscape filled with petrified Engineers (the giant, hairless albino race from Prometheus), which is home to a million unpleasant ways to die.
But it’s the later scenes where Scott really plays it for the fans, with the action transferring back to familiar blood-smeared medical bays in which the Covenant’s hapless crew members erupt into horrific crimson fountains for our viewing pleasure.
It’s a glorious homecoming for the franchise, even despite the pervading sense of deja vu. It does, however, lack the slow-burning tension of the first film, those moments of palpable dread when the alien is out of sight, stalking its prey: in Covenant it’s always right there, snapping away with its pharyngeal jaws and otherwise making a nuisance of itself. Like James Cameron’s Aliens, it’s all climax and no foreplay.
Covenant is also crawling with the kind of body horror that’s come to define the franchise, preying on our fears of penetration, unwanted pregnancy and bodily infestation; these scenes lack the shock factor of yesteryear, but they do put a creative new spin on the “alien eating its way out of your stomach” trope.
Another disappointing prequel may have invited comparisons between Scott and Star Wars creator George Lucas, whose incessant tinkering wrought untold harm upon his beloved franchise (both have an instinct to over-explain – just as we didn’t need to know that The Force worked through microscopic “midi-chlorians”, we gain nothing by knowing that the Xenomorph originated as a virus; the demystification robs it of its otherworldly terror). But Scott is a far more adept filmmaker, and the Alien franchise feels revitalised, even if we’ve seen it all before.