In the early 22nd century the colony ship Covenant is in the middle of its long journey to a new planet when a stellar phenomenon critically damages the ship and kills its captain. While the surviving crew conduct repairs they receive a mysterious human signal from an uncharted planet just three weeks away. Once there, their hopes of a closer planet to colonise turn to sheer terror as they stumble upon an inexplicable nightmare world of ruins and monsters.
In 1979 Ridley Scott directed the groundbreaking horror classic Alien, a film that as much as Star Wars re-imagined the aesthetic of science fiction cinema. In 2012 Scott returned to the franchise – with three sequels and a pair of spin-offs in between – with Prometheus, a much-hyped prequel that purported to reveal the back story of the mysterious alien vessel discovered in the original film and the origin of the deadly xenomorphs contained with it. That film, while commercially successful, was met with widespread derision from Alien fans; in some cases with good reason, and in others simply because once fan outrage starts stacking on it tends to run wildly out of hand.
It feels as if the executive level of 20th Century Fox took note of the reaction among franchise fans. Alien Covenant spends as much time replicating the plot beats of the 1979 film as it does providing a follow-up to Prometheus. It is an approach that could go either way. A return to the style of film that made the original so popular will only please some viewers. At the same time this is the sixth film in a series that has been running sporadically for almost 40 years. It is possible that audiences have had as many mysterious alien signals, creepy eggs, treacherous androids and insectoid killing machines as they need. To me Alien Covenant does not feel like the sort of progressive and provocative new direction that the Alien films likely deserve. Instead it feels like the Alien equivalent to The Force Awakens: a self-conscious attempt to right a listing ship and return it to the identity that its nostalgic viewers remember before moving forward on a surer heading.
Certainly any faults in Alien Covenant are not in what is not screen. The film is predictably beautiful to look at, utilising strong production design and excellent cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (who also shot Prometheus and The Martian). The cast are very strong, notably Katherine Waterston as terraforming specialist Daniels and Danny McBride in an unexpected dramatic role as the Covenant’s pilot Tennessee. Prometheus star Michael Fassbender returns, not only repeating his performance as the unsettling and manipulative android David but also an identical and subsequent model named Walter. Sadly the screenplay does not successfully flesh out these characters. In one sense it seems unfair to compare it to Alien, which is close to the gold standard for establishing well-realised and three-dimensional characters in these kinds of films, but of course Alien Covenant chooses to follow it and therefore cannot help but be judged on the same level. While David remains these prequels’ best creation, no one else comes close to a Ripley, or a Dallas, or a Kane.
When an action sequence comes it is well shot and wonderfully tense. The nature of the story – which I shall not reveal here – is such that there are successive styles of alien creatures before the classic 1979 version arrives. They are all individually quite intriguing and dramatic variations on a theme, but it does feel that the film rushes through each variety too quickly to give any individual monster its due.
Between the action the film takes a slightly stop-start approach, with occasional lulls that could benefit from a tighter edit. One surprise is just how well the film integrates the plot threads left hanging at the end of Prometheus. This is a rare sequel that actually improves its predecessor in retrospect by giving some of the weirder elements of that film an ultimate purpose.
Come to Alien Covenant in search of something new and you will be disappointed. Come to it hoping for the religious fixations and genetic obsessions of Prometheus to be abandoned and you will be similarly unhappy. That said, it is a surprisingly solid follow-up and a significant improvement in quality, and if you love the Alien films enough to be happy seeing another bunch of scary creatures kill some terrified humans then Covenant definitely has you covered. It is the fourth-best Alien film in the series – but it’s important to remember that after the first three there is a pretty big drop-off.