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D: Ridley Scott / 122m

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Siemetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich

When the Alien franchise was given a new lease of life with official prequel Prometheus (2012), audiences were teased with the idea that they would finally learn just where the series’ chief villain, the xenomorph, came from. Prometheus, though, raised far more questions than it provided answers, and while it introduced the Engineers and went some way to showing the xenomorph’s origins (though not the reasons for its creation), the intended link between this first prequel and the original Alien (1979) remained obscure, and still far from being revealed. With Alien: Covenant, audiences could be excused for believing that some of those unanswered questions would be addressed, and the connecting story expanded on. But with at least two further prequels (sequels to the prequels?) planned, and possibly a third, the message here is frustratingly clear: don’t expect to learn anything you didn’t already know.

After the cod-theological leanings of Prometheus, the latest in the saga opts instead for cod-philosophical leanings, and spends time musing on notions of creation and acknowledging one’s place in the scheme of things. But the movie – scripted by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green – isn’t interested in exploring these notions in relation to the human contingent of the story, but instead in relation to two androids: David and Walter (both Fassbender) who represent opposite ends of their creationist cycle. David is the prototype, while Walter is the later model built to surpass the limitations of the original. Together they talk about their creator’s expectations for them, and then their own. But while on the surface these musings appear in keeping with the wider story of the xenomorph’s creation (whatever that may be), they don’t add as much depth to the material as may have been intended. Instead, they provide a basis and a reason for a third act “reveal” that exists purely to set up the next installment.

Before then, we’re introduced to the latest group of dinner dates for the murderous xenomorph. Only this time it’s either a neomorph (“infant” version) or a protomorph (“adult” version), but either way it still behaves like its forebear(?), has acid for blood, screeches like a banshee, and kills anyone in its path. This time around, the movie’s motley band of victims is the crew of the colony ship Covenant. A group of terraformers en route to an Earth-like planet called Origae-6, their cargo consists of two thousand colonists all in cryo-sleep, and a thousand embryos all in cold storage. While the crew also enjoys their cryo-sleep (they’re seven-and-a-half years away from reaching their destination), Walter carries out a variety of assigned tasks and monitors the ship and its personnel. A blast of unexpected solar energy damages the ship, and Walter wakes up the crew – all except for the captain, whose cryo-pod refuses to open. Thanks to the damage to the ship’s systems, the captain burns to death in his cryo-pod, which leaves Oram (Crudup) in charge.

A distress signal picked up from a planet that apparently doesn’t exist on any celestial maps reveals a human origin, and prompts Oram to redirect the Covenant to check it out. With the planet appearing to support human life, and being only a few weeks’ to get to, the reservations of chief terraformer Daniels (Waterston) are acknowledged but unheeded. Leaving chief pilot Tennessee (McBride) and two other crewmembers on board, Oram, along with Daniels, Walter, and the rest of the crew descends to the planet’s surface. There they find an anomaly in the form of wheat, a crashed spaceship, danger in the form of spores that infect two of the crew, and an unexpected rescuer when said spores precipitate the deaths of more than the infected. With a massive magnetic storm hindering their return to the Covenant, Oram and the remaining crew must find a way to survive the deadly intentions of the protomorph, and a more sinister danger lurking in their midst.

Those who found themselves dissatisfied with the direction taken in Prometheus will be pleased with this return to the series’ more basic roots, but even though it’s a step in the right direction, the problem with the movie overall is that it doesn’t offer anything new, and it doesn’t come close to replicating the tension and sense of dread that made Alien such an impressive outing. It tries to, and the script is clearly designed and constructed to provide gory set pieces at regular intervals in honour of the series’ abiding commitment to shocking audiences with jolts of body horror, but for anyone who’s seen all the previous movies in the franchise, this is a retread of scenes and set ups that were far more effective the first time round. Likewise the introduction of the various characters as regular joes, a device used to very good effect in Alien, but which here is truncated in favour of getting on with the action. Inevitably this means that when the crew starts to be whittled down, it doesn’t have the same effect as in the past, and Waterston’s plucky terraformer aside, it’s difficult to care about anyone as well.

In many ways, Alien: Covenant is a stripped down series’ entry that concentrates more on reliving old glories than advancing the franchise’s intended long-form narrative. Whatever happens in Alien: Awakening (2019?), it’s to be hoped that it reverts to telling the story begun in Prometheus and which should eventually connect with Alien. Here there are still more questions to be answered, and there’s a suspicion that the writers are already painting themselves into a corner, and that the decision to make a handful of prequels instead of just one all-encompassing prequel is beginning to look more than a little unsound. This has all the hallmarks of a movie made in response to the negative reaction afforded Prometheus, and if so, you have to wonder what this movie would have been like if the reaction had been positive. More of the same? Further exploration of the Engineers and their motivations? More pseudo-religious theorising? Less rampaging alien attacks and gory killings? It looks as if we’ll never know.

With the characters reduced mostly to alien-bait, only Fassbender and Waterston make any impact, though it is good to see McBride playing it completely straight for once. Fassbender is a mercurial actor but he always seems to have a stillness about him that seeps through in all his performances. Here as both David and Walter, that stillness is used to tremendous effect, and whether he’s waxing lyrical about art and music as David, or looking concerned as Walter, Fassbender provides two endlessly fascinating portrayals for the price of one. Waterston is equally impressive in a role that will inevitably draw comparisons with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, but Waterston is canny enough not to make Daniels as strong-willed as Ripley, nor as valorous. Though she’s the movie’s nominal heroine, Daniels retains a vulnerability that Ripley didn’t have at all, and Waterston is a winning presence, her last act heroism borne out of desperation rather than determination.

Third time around, Ridley Scott ensures the movie looks as beautiful and darkly realised as his other entries, but somehow fails to make the movie as tense and compelling as Alien, or as intellectually portentous as Prometheus. He does ensure that the movie rattles along at a fair old lick, but with the script providing a series of “greatest hits” moments for him to revisit, Scott’s involvement doesn’t always appear to be as purposeful as in the past. There are too many moments where the movie’s energy seems to flag, and the tension dissipates as a result, leaving the viewer to wonder, if a director’s cut should be released in the future, will it be shorter than the theatrical version? And not even he can avoid making the movie’s coda look uninspired and predictable, all of which begs the question, should someone else sit in the director’s chair for the rest of the prequels?

Rating: 6/10 – a fitful, occasionally impressive second prequel/first sequel, Alien: Covenant revisits the haunted house horror tropes that made the first movie so successful, but finds little inspiration to help it fulfill its intentions; another missed opportunity to make the series as momentous as it was nearly forty years ago, where the story goes from here remains to be seen, but in continuing Scott et al really need to remember that a satisfying mystery requires a satisfying answer, something that this entry seems to have forgotten about entirely.