Of all the big blockbusters coming out this year Alien: Covenant has got to be the one with the most riding on it. It’s a monsters-in-space horror about faith, humanity, creation and the end of the world, directed by Ridley Scott – the guy who made two of the most influential sci-fi films ever (Alien and Blade Runner) – but following on from his disappointing prequel Prometheus. The nervous anticipation around Covenant was almost unbearable.
Breathe easy then. It’s better than Prometheus.
And while obviously it’s not as good as Alien or Aliens, it absolutely feels part of that world.
Scott has delivered an incredibly spectacular philosophical chiller as gory as it is high-minded, packed with shocks, set pieces and several surprises. Especially if you haven’t seen the multiple spoiler-filled trailers that have been shown everywhere for months.
The year is in 2104, 10 years after the events of Prometheus, and the colony ship Covenant is traveling to new planet Origae 6 which they hope will prove a hospitable environment for the 2,000-odd bodies in cryo-sleep for the journey. But something goes wrong and the crew wake early to find a signal that sounds human coming from a planet much closer to where they are.
Of course they must investigate. And of course they must do so without wearing helmets. Which does not go well.
Our Ripley/Elizabeth Shaw substitute here is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a “space gardener” and second in command to Billy Crudup’s man of faith Oram. The crew of the Covenant is made up of couples, pilgrims starting a new world together. The cast is large and there’s no time for backstories but we really get a sense that these people know and like each other, adding a welcome emotional heft that was missing from Prometheus.
With them is Walter (Michael Fassbender), the Synthetic looking after the ship and its crew. Also playing Prometheus‘ Synth, David, who makes a reappearance, Fassbender takes a dual role and he is extraordinary. Never less than absolutely distinct as the two A.I.s, he’s empathetic, though he’s unable to empathise, tragic though he’s immortal and absolutely at the dark heart of the film.
As the human counterpoint, Waterston is vulnerable and highly sympathetic. Supporting cast are strong too – Danny McBride is a surprise standout as pilot Tennessee in a heroic role which is against type, while Amy Seimetz is pleasingly panicky as the first crew member to encounter the alien pathogen.
While spoilerish trailers and formulaic beats mean Covenant could be accused of being predictable, Scott keeps us hooked anyway with stunning visuals. It’s a masterful piece of world building, epic in scale, with new monsters which will likely delight Alien freaks and HR Giger fans alike.
It’s a horror movie at heart and Scott gleefully goes for the grue. When two not-very-famous crew members ingest some dubious looking spores on this new unexplored planet, we know it’s only a matter of time before something icky will burst from their chest (or back. Or mouth). And Scott doesn’t make us wait, nor does he scrimp on the carnage.
What Covenant lacks in surprises it compensates for in set pieces though unfortunately it’s… not very frightening.
While Alien was a suspenseful haunted house movie that chilled us to the bone, Covenant is more of an existential body horror mixed with a stalk n’ slash gorefest: icky, sticky, splattery but not all that scary.
One of the big problems audiences had with Prometheus was that it left us with far more questions than answers. That’s partly rectified here. Those frustrated by Prometheus are unlikely to find closure, while Covenant comes with its own set of “Wait, but how did…?” and “But we still don’t know why…”.
Scott has talked about there being one, or two, or even more Alien movies before we join the Nostromo for the first Alien film – and perhaps he’ll address some of our questions in later instalments.
For our money though, we suspect not. Covenant is canon, packed with links, easter eggs and teasers for the franchise, but it’s also something of a reboot in the style of The Force Awakens. The Xenomorphs and Neomorphs are slick CGI, the crew is multicultural and there’s at least one gay married couple among them. But Covenant is still, essentially, a conflict between a woman, an A.I. (or two) and a monster. Ridley Scott’s haunted house movie may have evolved, but Alien‘s DNA is all there.