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Alien Covenant - Review

Alien Covenant

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

IF Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s first return to the world he created with the original Alien, flattered to deceive in terms of overall satisfaction, then his follow-up, Alien Covenant, returns the bite to this beloved horror franchise.

That’s not to say that Scott has abandoned the ideology behind his first prequel. Far from it. Rather, with the help of co-writers John Logan and DW Harper (replacing Damon Lindelof), he has found a better, richer balance between the crowd-pleasing, adrenaline rush terror of Alien and Aliens and the more philosophical intelligence that Prometheus clearly aspired to.

There are glitches, almost inevitably. By attempting to explain so much, Scott and company open themselves up to hole-picking, while some of the more mainstream touches undermine the film’s credibility and feel like trailer-bait.

But for long periods, Covenant engages the brain and delivers a white knuckle ride that delivers on the living hell the trailer promised.

Set 10 years after the events of Prometheus, the film primarily focuses on the 15-strong crew of the spaceship Covenant who are transporting colonists and embryos to a new planet in the hope of saving humanity.

When a freak electrical storm awakens them prematurely from their artificial hibernation and causes a tragedy, they are soon faced with a dilemma: whether to return to sleep for another seven years or investigate the possibilities posed by another, closer planet that is only weeks away and looks even more sustainable. To make it more enticing, the planet seems to be transmitting a possibly human distress signal.

Led by newly promoted Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), the crew – including his immediate subordinates Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and Tennessee (Danny McBride) – investigate the planet, only to find unimaginable horrors lie in wait.

Intrinsic to this are the dual characters played by Michael Fassbender. In one guise, he is Walter, a newly created robot with limited scope for free-thinking, who is there to serve the crew of the Covenant. In the other, he is David, of Prometheus fame, now living on the planet the Covenant finds. But what has he been doing all this time? And what is his agenda?

Scott’s film is arguably at its most compelling when focusing on Fassbender, whose portrayal of David, in particular, is in some ways more terrifying than watching the various xenomorphs themselves. David’s inability to emote gives rise to uncertainty whenever he is around, making him almost impossible to read. Can he be trusted? What is he plotting? And what has he already done?

One scene, in which David teaches Walter how to play a flute, is mesmerising: an exercise in extreme tension that somehow also manages to draw in elements of absurdist, sexual humour as well as informed debate about creativity and choice. It transfixes completely and shows how the Alien franchise still has room to surprise and evolve.

Alien: Covenant

It also renders some suggestions that Covenant is merely a greatest compilation rather mute. For while Scott does have a certain amount of fun ticking boxes and self-referencing, there is plenty of original thought at play too.

When it comes to the horror, meanwhile, Scott knows how to deliver a jolt or too, even if this particular Alien incursion relies more on the grotesque than the suspenseful. It means body horror is used a lot, with Scott finding more than one way to birth a beast. While the aliens themselves, which mark a welcome [and long overdue] comeback for HR Giger’s original extra-terrestrials, are as nasty and agile as ever.

Scott ensures that tension is maintained throughout and may even leave you gasping for breath on a couple of occasions.

It’s just a shame, therefore, that Covenant can’t always sustain its own higher standards. For while arguably the best the franchise has had to offer since Scott first disgusted and impressed way back in 1979, and James Cameron then matched in 1986, Covenant is far from that kind of perfection.

The film’s characterisation sometimes falls short. Hence, while Fassbender is towering in dual roles, and Waterston, Crudup and McBride acquit themselves really well with limited material, the rest of the crew struggle to rise above being mere alien bait – despite the presence of a talented ensemble that further extends to Demian Bichir, Carmen (Selma) Ejogo and Jussie (Empire) Smollett.

But then Logan’s screenplay does render some of their actions rather silly when the terror takes hold, with many falling prey to genre convention rather than anything strikingly original or clever.

Similarly, some of the plot developments from Prometheus still leave more questions than answers (and not everything still makes sense). Scott’s decision to crowd-please also gives rise to some ridiculous gestures, including a completely unnecessary shower scene that feels like a cheap ‘eeew’ tactic. It’s during these moments that die-hard Alien fans may find themselves pining for the clinical efficiency of the originals.

With all things considered, however, and bearing in mind that this is the sixth film in the central Alien franchise, Scott deserves a lot of credit for getting things back on track and overseeing something that still manages to exhilarate, gross-out and give occasional pause for intelligent thinking. Alien Covenant is therefore a huge success when taken on its own terms.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 3mins
UK Release Date: May 12, 2017

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