Bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, the crew of the colony ship Covenant discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world — whose sole inhabitant is the “synthetic” David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.
For a franchise to make it to film number eight, it must be doing something right. And yet, for much of the Alien saga, most of what the franchise did was remind audiences of earlier, better films. The first was a monster movie classic, a masterpiece of shock, tension and deft characterisation; the second proved it wasn’t a fluke by expanding the concept from haunted house to war movie. Since then, no-one’s been able to figure out how to graft anything new onto the basic concept – dark corridors, gory deaths, H.G. Geiger’s brilliant creature design – that’s worked. A robot Winona Ryder didn’t work, two movies with Aliens fighting Predators didn’t work, and Charlize Theron being chased down a hill by a giant rolling spaceship didn’t (really) work. So with Alien: Covenant director Ridley Scott has thrown all that out: this is the closest thing to a straight-up Alien remake the series has seen yet.
The year is 2104, and the colony ship Covenant (15 crew, 2000 colonists, all in hypersleep) is on its way to settle the planet Origae-6. They never get there: when an overactive solar flare hits while the ship’s solar sails are extended during a recharge cycle, synthetic crewman Walter (Michael Fassbender) wakes up the crew to tackle the emergency. Not all of them make it – if you were hoping to see more of James Franco as the captain after he was introduced in an online teaser, there’s some bad news ahead – and during repairs crew member Tennessee (Danny McBride) picks up a strange but clearly human signal. After the captain’s demise, no-one’s in a hurry to get back in the sleeping pods; with the signal coming from relatively close by, new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) overrides the concerns of his 2IC Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and sets a course for the strange signal’s source. This is, of course, a very bad idea.
"But is it scary?"
As a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus, this largely abandons the big questions about humanity’s origins that the earlier film posed. But while it’s presumably just the franchise sloughing off elements that didn’t work yet again – drop the waxy-faced gods, focus once again on aliens exploding from human flesh – it also underlines that this is first and foremost a series built on horror. High and mighty ideals are corrupted and brought low here: the dream of Weyland (Guy Pearce) to find the gods has devolved into a mad scientist’s butcher shop where a scheme to exterminate all life is born.
But is it scary? With over a dozen crew there’s plenty of fresh meat for the sometimes startling slaughter here, but meat is all most of them are as even with a leisurely-verging-on-slow opening this never gets around to giving any of the characters any real character. It’s a near-fatal flaw: without anyone to care about the rapid dispatch of some and the lingering doom hanging over the rest carries very little weight. The basic set-up does contain some tension, with Tennessee and a handful of others in orbit but edging closer to the storm-tossed atmosphere to try and pick up a signal while Daniels and company are on the surface in a ruined city full of corpses chatting away to the Norman Bates-esque David (Fassbender) from the previous film. But the humans here are expendable, their gory deaths pre-ordained, and at times the film itself seems impatient to cut them down so it can move onto other things.
It’s up to the droid double act of Walter and David to give this film life. Both more human than human, their strikingly different yet equally weird temperaments are the only remotely playful elements in this otherwise grim universe of the devourer and the devoured. There’s little drama around their fate – as synthetics, they don’t seem of interest to the aliens, and what exactly could kill them remains unclear – but while everyone else in this film exists solely to die, they’re the only ones who ever seem truly alive.
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