Ridley Scott’s 2012 return to the Alien franchise wasn’t what many expected or indeed hoped for. Prometheus, the first of several prequels to Scott’s original 1979 film, took something of a left turn by concerning itself more with philosophy and weighty creationist themes, as opposed to the “haunted house in space” premise the saga had been built on. Over the years, even the film’s staunchest defenders became Prometheus apologists rather than outright Prometheus fans. With hopes somewhat dashed the first time round, Alien: Covenant was a chance for the sci-fi maestro to steer the good Weyland Yutani vessel to scarier depths of space and to bring the 38-year old franchise back to its blood-curdling roots. What a relief it is then to say that this new instalment is a convincing return to form(ula).
Set 10 years after the events of Prometheus, the action this time round focuses on the titular vessel Covenant, which contains a cargo of sleeping colonists and drawers full of human embryos. Its plans to set up a new colony on the Earth-like planet Origae-6 are thwarted by an intergalactic hiccup and the crew are prematurely awakened from their cryosleep. They are left with two possibilities: limp on with the original plan, or divert the ship to land on a nearby planet which seems inhabitable, following a mysterious radio transmission they’ve received. Will they resume the mission, or take the more ominous-sounding option: go for an exploratory jolly on an uncharted planet without protective helmets or regard for the hazards potentially posed by a new ecosystem? Predictably, the Xenomorph fodder opt for the latter and will soon meet a familiar face, as well as plenty of easily triggered phallic-shaped beasties.
This sixth official film in the series is far from perfect but does too many things right to get hung up on blemishes, and is a clear improvement over its frequently frustrating predecessor. Scott and his team have learned from the errors of the past and made a conscious effort to splice high-minded sci-fi musings with all the chest-bursting, face-hugging action one could have wished for. The script by John Logan and Dante Harper is far stronger: the film continues to wrestle with compelling, Danikenian-riffing ideas from Prometheus, but polishes it into something that feels less ponderous. Add some viscerally upsetting body horror, eyeball-meltingly gorgeous production design and Michael Fassbender, who steals the show – twice – as unnerving synthetic David and his upgraded android counterpart Walter, and you’ve got yourself a revitalised saga.
So, look past the predictable final act and overt fan-service, excuse all those Shelley references and choose to forgive the sometimes skewed pacing, as well as an unintentionally hilarious line about fingering; Alien: Covenant is a familiar but grandiose sci-fi romp. It might also just be the strongest film in the franchise since James Cameron’s 1986 sequel. Get ready to hear some screaming in outer space once more.
Alien: Covenant | Directed by Ridley Scott (US, 2017), with Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup. Starts May 18
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