Alien: Covenant - back with a bite
Alien: Covenant was partly filmed in New Zealand, and is set to be unleashed upon the universe. Darren Bevan checks to see if the new arrival has teeth
38 years after the original Alien delivered the perfect blend of sci-fi and horror in space, director Ridley Scott continues to mine the world as he follows up the muddled pretensions of Prometheus, a film that looked to expand and explore the origins of the xenomorphs.
This time around, Scott tries to once again blend cod philosophy with abject moments of horror as he takes a new crew and plunges them against the perils of planetary exploration and the unknown.
Centring on the crew of the Covenant, an Ark-like project that's hurtling toward a new paradise home with 2000 colonists asleep on board, things start to go awry when the crew are awoken by the effects of a "random localised event."
With an uncertain, newly-appointed captain at the helm (Billy Crudup), the ship's taken off its course when it receives a transmission that hints at a better planet than the one they've had their sights on. Despite the protestations of Katherine Waterston's Daniels, the ship heads towards the potential new Eden - but on landing, survival becomes anything but certain.
Alien: Covenant mixes both the good and the bad as it tries to unspool its terror-among-the-toetoe story.
But by shifting away from the claustrophobia of the likes of Alien and Aliens, the jump scares end up a little predictable (although nonetheless scary) and almost feeling like they're trying to hit beats and scenes we've seen before with more successful characters.
Continuing the prequel vibe that was so brilliantly realised in 2012's Prometheus, pristine white spaceship corridors and wondrous lighting give Alien: Covenant an inescapable sense of style while it's in space. But it's when the film shifts to the murky Milford Sound setting that its darkness starts to come through, as large portions are swathed in muddied execution and lighting, as well as familiar tropes.
It's also on the ground that one such trope, - "sensible people doing stupid things" - begins to manifest and the action, such as it is, takes a mind-dumbing turn. It's not massively helped by a a CGI alien that while modelled on HR Giger's original creatures, is less successful in its digital execution. (Subsequent scenes with the alien white make it look like a cross between Xenomorph and the horrifying internet sensation, Slender Man.)
But to be fair, an early culling of relatively rote and underwritten crew members proves to be a blessing in disguise, an effective tonic to clear out the narrative chaff that would have undermined the story as it went on. However, in doing so, the deaths prove to be inconsequential in terms of emotional heft, and serve only to showcase the body horror elements of the alien's MO.
There are nice apocalyptic touches that will fuel a lot of the fan debate after the lights have gone back up.
Elsewhere, while the cod-philosophical elements and talk of Byron/Shelley/Ozymandias. et al continue to push the "who am I, where do we all come from, playing God" debate that began in (and over-stuffed large parts of) Prometheus, it's Fassbender's aloof and generally creepy synthetic that pushes a lot of the story forward (in ways that are many and spoilery here) as the story tries to build the myth of the Engineers and their place in Creation.
Fassbender works well as the nightmarish exploration vibe plays out, and Scott works his usual deft touches in the build-up of suspenseful moments that are peppered throughout. Waterston is initially quite fragile, a soul ripped apart by grief, but whose delicacy becomes hardened by the end, as she channels Ripley. (Though, this is also a problem as there's really little else to do with the nuances of the character). And McBride does solid dramatic work as the pilot Tennessee, proving that Scott at least can turn expectations around - even if the script doesn't serve the characters as well.
By stripping out parts of the claustrophobia and trying to mesh parts of Alien with the sequel, Aliens, and mixing it with exposition, Alien: Covenant is a jerky film. It loses the primordial fear that the originals instilled, and while its technology and the execution thereof is second to none, the basics of what makes a solid Alien film feel lacking.
The back half, though, soars with the confrontations that have been wanted and desired.
While it's fair to say the alien elements have teeth once again, the very essence of what made their virulence so terrifying is only slowly coming back to what makes the Alien franchise such a benchmark in sci-fi horror.
At the end of the day, it's simply a case of man versus the unknown that made the first films so iconic; adding layers of mythology and delusions of creation is stopping the series from going back to its most terrifying basics.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 120 minutes
* This review previously appeared on Darren Bevan's blog