Alien: Covenant film review – Gods and monsters

Does Alien: Covenant improve on Prometheus by going back to basics?

With a lonely ship full of doomed humans, a threatening alien world and a cavalcade of monsters, there’s a real sense of a franchise returning to its roots with Alien: Covenant.

But that doesn’t mean that Scott has abandoned the Prometheus story, not by a long shot. Katherine Waterston’s plucky Daniels is our hero but Michael Fassbender’s David has emerged has the franchise’s new focal point, and the truth about what he’s been up to is the driving force of the second half of the film. The script’s attempts to combine these separate strands of DNA (monster movie thrills, grand philosophical questions and full-Giger body horror) are undoubtedly much more successful than they were in Prometheus, but there are still problems.

The Covenant, complete with 14 crewmembers, 2000 colonists and freezers full of human embryos, emerges from a deep space jump into a violent ion storm that damages the ship and kills several of its hypersleepers, including the captain. Unpopular believer Oram (Billy Crudup) is next in line for command, and when they receive a John Denver-infused transmission directing them to a seemingly perfectly habitable planet, he overrules Daniels’ concerns and decides to investigate.

It all seems too good to be true: breathable air, lakes, forests, even suspicious wheat. It is, of course, and these people searching for a new home soon realise why there’s no birdsong…

Whatever your feelings about Prometheus, the opening scenes on board the Covenant will pull you straight back in. It seems like the complaints about characterisation have been heard, and there’s a well-written group brought to life by an excellent ensemble. Danny McBride and Amy Seimetz have a great easy chemistry as the bickering husband and wife pilots and Crudup gives Oram a wounded sensitivity that stops him from becoming insufferable.

Waterston immediately stands out and her sensitive, strong performance is crucial. Daniels is the sceptical voice of the audience as well as the film’s heart, and when things go south, she’s the one who we believe can make it out alive. She’s why we stay invested even as Scott’s focus drifts onto Fassbender’s dual android roles as David and nice, reliable Walter.

The first half follows the Alien playbook: a large group lands on a planet, finds warning signs related to their predecessors, and is decimated by roving ravenous beasts. There are some mildly irritating logic gaps demanded by the plot (if no one poked things on an alien world, no one would be violently birthing monsters), but it gets the ball rolling early and a gruesome set-piece in the shuttle’s med bay is genuinely scary and gripping. Scott has also ramped up the gore levels, with buckets of blood, body-bursting shocks and all the creatures going in and out of people that we demand.

When David makes his grand entrance at the film’s halfway point, things get a little shaky. Scott’s fascination with this AI’s self-contemplation means that the Covenant crew suffers, and occasionally remembering to send characters wandering off alone to keep the body count up doesn’t really cut it.

The ideas at play here are certainly interesting (it’s easy to see the hand of Penny Dreadful writer John Logan in David’s musings on the Romantic poets, Biblical references and recorder lessons), but their prioritisation is so firm and immediate that it makes us take a step back, and it’s here that another of Scott’s films springs to mind.

Just as Scott’s Hannibal saw that franchise take a swerve into gruesome dark comedy, so too does Covenant become more cerebral, self-referential, ghoulish and (very, very, very darkly) funny, pushing Fassbender’s excellent dual performances to centre stage. It’s never dull, in fact it’s occasionally brilliant, but it’s patchy. The script also becomes disappointingly predictable, which robs the twisty final third of much of its tension despite a strong finish.

Covenant is certainly an improvement on Prometheus and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking against it as ferociously. It’s a well-made, well-acted monster movie with some interesting ideas that should hold up to repeat viewings, and while its uneven second half stops it from being a complete success, it’s a lot of horrible fun.