Alien: Covenant: A scary sequel that makes its predecessor better
James R | On 25, Sep 2017
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Almost 40 years after terrifying the life out of audiences with Alien, Ridley Scott comes full circle with Alien: Covenant. But, in a suitably perverse twist, that’s partly thanks to the fact that this isn’t really an Alien film at all: it’s a sequel to Prometheus.
2012’s divisive prequel was a misunderstood beast – misunderstood, perhaps most of all, by its own writers, who were so busy following the Alien formula that they didn’t realise their main character wasn’t the Ripley-esque Elizabeth Shaw, but the uniquely creepy android David (Michael Fassbender). Alien: Covenant, though, is a wonderful, welcome correction to that misstep, giving Michael Fassbender his own stage. And boy, does he rule over it.
Here, he plays Walter, the helpful, loyal android on the spaceship Covenant, which is ferrying 2,000 hibernating souls to Origae-6, where a new human world will be established. It seems a bizarre switch of roles at first, but one that makes increasingly clear sense, as the Covenant’s voyage of birth slowly becomes tainted with the insidious, inevitable discovery of death.
Like Prometheus before it, Covenant’s script (and even its title) rings with religious portent and the God-like formation of life – and part of the fun lies in seeing the seeds of Prometheus sown and harvested with brutal efficiency, almost literally, as John Logan and Dante Harper’s screenplay presents us with a planet teeming with pods, plants and seemingly perfectly nature, an Eden in all but name. It’s almost enough to redeem Prometheus in retrospect, as it becomes a necessary prologue to this operatic horror.
An opening flashback to David and his maker (Guy Pearce), meanwhile, reminds us of the mildly fanatical robot who once was, a being so angry at his creators’ indifference to his existence that he essentially brought about their downfall, shedding his outwardly mortal skin to fashion himself a God in his own image, unleashing a hellish chain of parasitic evolution to undo any well-made plans of mice, men and even their Messiahs. Just based on that intro alone, the idea of a franchise based entirely around David is one to relish with a devilish grin.
Walter, on the other hand, is a kindly servant with stricter safety protocols and, as a result, a more compassionate perspective of the humans around him – particularly, Daniels (Katherine Waterston). When he smiles, it’s a restrained, robotic smirk, not the manic, wide, glinting expression that plays across David’s pained visage. Which of them is more human? That’s the question that makes Covenant more Prometheus than Alien, as the franchise moves on from its survival roots to become a deeper study of philosophy, theology and – yes – psychosexual beings that go bumping things off in the night.
The opening gives Fassbender a chance to tease out the contrasting sides of the same coin, portraying the two androids with a painstakingly detailed performance that extends all the way to the smallest physical gestures. And this duality of man and machine, mortality and immortality is so beautifully inhabited by Fassbender that he’s worth seeing Alien: Covenant for alone.
There’s a lot to enjoy elsewhere, as our unwitting crew discover an alternate planet nearer than Origae-6, which has all the signs of an Earth-friendly atmosphere – and promptly decide to plonk themselves down. The resulting parade of critters recalls moments from earlier Alien films, but finds a fresh terror in each new encounter, as life cycles infect life cycles and mouths open up where they shouldn’t be, spraying blood and bodily limbs all over the place. The production design’s superb, opening up the claustrophobic interiors of the franchise’s past to something almost Jurassic Park or Hunger Games-like in scale, while still retaining the same disturbing imagination – from the moment the crew touch down, you bite your nails waiting for things to go wrong.
Scott is in his element, rigging up tension like he’s in his heyday, and that precise focus filters down into the cast. Waterston is a hugely likeable, resourceful female lead, but she studiously avoids entering Sigourney Weaver territory, while Danny McBride impresses in a relatively serious role, bringing just enough lightness to offset the darkness. Billy Crudup as the overtly religious captain is the only character who doesn’t quite ring true, but even he feeds into the overall themes of faith, sacrifice and evolution to grimly dark effect.
But there’s no doubting who’s the main attraction, and the movie embraces Fassbender as its Wagnerian star. Over it all looms the shadow of David, a Frankenstein’s monster who wanted to be Frankenstein – and, as Jed Kurzel’s unnerving score scrapes through your nervous system, that’s how you know that Covenant has, unlike Prometheus, outgrown the risk of being a mere Alien clone: in trying to explore the origins of the Xenomorph, it’s found something even scarier.