When Prometheus, a prequel to the Alien franchise, released in 2012, it was met with a somewhat mixed response from fans and critics, with many pointing out unresolved plot elements and questionable dialogue. Others, myself included, were won over by its stunning visuals, creeping atmosphere and strong performances. Five years on, and the follow-up, Alien: Covenant, improves on its predecessor in many ways, while retaining a few of its flaws.
In 2104, the crew aboard the colonisation ship Covenant are awoken from stasis by their monitoring android, Walter. The ship has been damaged by a neutrino burst, resulting in the death of the captain and several of the two thousands colonists still in stasis. While repairing the damages, the crew receives a radio transmission originating from a nearby planet, a planet that appears to be even better suited for colonisation than their original destination. Faced with the option of several more years in stasis, the crew decide to investigate the new discovery and, as you might have guessed, things go slightly awry.
Following the franchise’s history of strong female protagonists, Katherine Waterston puts in a convincing lead performance as Daniels, widow of the Covenant’s original captain. The extended cast, which includes Billy Crudup and Danny McBride, are also solid, but the clear standout is Michael Fassbender, who delivers an outstanding dual performance as androids David and Walter. The fact that the film’s most memorable scene is an extended sequence in which his two characters talk in a room, is a testament to just how good his performance is.
With Blade Runner, Alien, Prometheus and The Martian under his belt, Ridley Scott has proven himself to be a master of science fiction, and his expertise shines through here. Beautiful cinematography; detailed sets; and stunning vistas all add up to a cohesive and vivid world. Back is the body horror that the original is so well known for, and there’s definitely been an effort to up the scare levels with more suspense, gore, and jump scares than last time around. It’s not the scariest film in recent memory, but at a time where blockbuster heroes are seemingly invincible, it’s perversely refreshing to see a big-budget movie kill off its characters without hesitation.
After attempts to establish new mythology in Prometheus mostly alienated (pun intended) fans, Covenant returns to more familiar territory. Ironically, I found the Xenomorphs to be the weakest aspect of the film. The fear of the unknown is a large part of what makes the creature so great, and I would’ve preferred that they expand further on the new additions (namely, the Engineers) instead. That said, I really liked the direction taken with the origin of the Xenomorph, and the film’s ending left me very excited to see where the series will go next.
I like it when science fiction deals with big ideas, and Covenant shows signs of this with Christian symbolism and literary references littered throughout the film, but they don’t have much of an impact on the story. I would’ve liked to see these concepts expanded further, but I wouldn’t be surprised if repeat viewings reveal greater depth.
In many ways, Alien: Covenant feels like a compilation of the franchise’s best bits: combining body horror and suspense of Alien, the action and intensity of Aliens, and the intrigue of Prometheus. Some will complain that the film treads familiar territory, but, like any good sequel in a long-running movie franchise, Covenant takes a well-worn formula and makes it feel fresh.