Movie Review: Alien: Covenant - gripping and entertaining, partly Kiwi-shot horror
Alien: Covenant (R16)
122 mins ★★★★
One can't assume that Star Wars started it, but there's certainly a fashion emerging for movie franchises to start producing prequels and gap-fillers to the stories that have been around for several decades.
Following Ridley Scott's seminal Alien in 1979 there were three continuations of the story (with 1986's Aliens generally considered one of the few sequels in film history to be superior to its predecessor), then five years ago Scott returned to the fold to helm Prometheus, an enthusiastically-anticipated let-down of a movie which sought to set up the Alien origin story.
Alien: Covenant follows Prometheus along the timeline and thankfully does a much better job, although some viewers may still lament the 79-year old Scott's insistence on exploring the "where did they come from?" myth and rather wish he'd just get on with James Cameron's style of "how can we destroy them?" action. (Rumour has it there are at least two more prequels in the works before we're brought up to that pivotal moment when Ripley's crew decides to divert its course in search of a mysterious distress signal.)
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This episode begins with an ethnically diverse crew plunged into crisis when they are woken prematurely from cryosleep. The ship Covenant is en route to a new planet where its 2000 colonists and hundreds of embryos will forge a new life. Plans upheaved, the crew decides (here we go again) to divert its course in order to "chase a rogue transmission" from a hitherto unexplored planet. They land, they don weapons, they explore.
The fact this new place looks awfully like New Zealand's Milford Sound (because it is) may be mildly distracting for local viewers or aficionados of Lord of the Rings, but more worrisome for the characters is the indigenous tribe of murderous Xenomorphs they discover there.
As usual, the crew consists of mostly faces you won't recognise, or actors who seldom get to play main roles, and thus are adept at playing second fiddle to the aliens. Billy Crudup (Jackie, Spotlight) is largely unaffecting as the insecure captain and Fantastic Beasts' Katherine Waterston ticks the boxes as a Ripley precursor, but Covenant rapidly reveals itself to be Michael Fassbender's film, the Irish-German Oscar nominee reprising his role as David the synthetic from Prometheus.
No one does emotionless quite like Fassbender (his having proved this as the titular IT nerd in Steve Jobs) and Scott gives him plenty of screen time, lots of exposition and all the surprising reveals.
Interestingly, the original films revealed less of the horrific beasts (chest-bursting entrances aside) and left us to be freaked out at the merest whisper of the alien's clack-clack throaty gargle. Covenant gives you oh-so-much-more-Xenomorph, which may raise or lower your personal terror threshold depending on your suspension of disbelief.
It is also a double-edged sword that Scott's insistence on fleshing out the backstory, presumably in acknowledgement that you can't expect audiences to pay to just watch headless chickens run around an infested spaceship any more, means that Covenant often feels like two intertwined movies rather than one. While one scene between two synthetics is extraordinary for its technical prowess, and also delivers a fascinating intimacy seldom seen from androids, nothing beats the heart-racing terror of a character being chased by the literal jaws of death.
With high-and-mighty dashes of classical culture and fittingly scored to Wagner, favourite composer of that most famous of dastardly race-creators, Alien Covenant goes to great lengths to produce an intelligent action-thriller which, despite the occasional unfortunate evocation of LOTR, manages to be gripping and entertaining throughout.