Ridley Scott takes the Alien franchise back to its roots with horror thrill-ride Alien: Covenant
Critic David Thomson once described Alien, Ridley Scott’s celebrated 1979 sci-fi, as “basically a haunted house film,” and at its core it is exactly that, complete with a scream queen. Thomson recognised that while the action took place in space, the real thrills were to be found in gazing on as a Xenomorph stalked the dark, dank corridors of the spacecraft Nostromo, picking off members of the crew. All the while you hoped and prayed Sigourney Weaver’s kickass heroine Ripley would survive.
Nearly four decades on, Ridley Scott is back with Alien: Covenant, the first real Alien movie since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s much-maligned Alien: Resurrection in 1997. Between then and now we've had two brainless spin-offs (Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) and Scott's own high-minded prequel Prometheus. With this new installment, the franchise once again returns to its roots as a haunted house movie in space.
The philosophising of Prometheus has been balanced with the heart-pounding thrills of Scott's first installment. That's not to say he doesn’t still attempt to expand the universe, but he does seem less worried about crowbarring in mythology. Instead, Scott offers up traditional jump scares and, most surprisingly of all, a few laughs, which feel more in line with an 80s horror flick than a CGI-riddled spectacle musing on the origins of life. His penchant for religious symbolism does still remain, however, and continues to be deployed with all the subtlety of a Pentecostal preacher.
Much like that 1979 original, we are introduced to the crew of a ship – the Covenant – heading into space on a colony mission with a cargo of some 2000 humans suspended in hypersleep, destined to populate the planet Origae-6. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go to plan.
The ship is struck by a solar flare, forcing the on-board synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) – not to be confused with Prometheus' David (also played by Fassbender) – to wake crew members, many of whom haven’t survived the crash, including James Franco’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Captain Branson.
In the aftermath of Branson's death, bible-thumper Oram (Billy Crudup) seizes command and the Covenant receives a ghostly distress call from a nearby planet. Oram leads them on a rescue mission to the surface, much to the consternation of Branson’s widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston). This ill-advised rescue mission is where Covenant dovetails with the events of Prometheus, and we discover the fate of that film's two survivors: David (last seen with his head liberated from his body) and Noomi Rapace's plucky Elizabeth Shaw.
Keeping its horror credentials front and centre, the scenes between David and Walter, his brother from another motherboard, offer some of the most unnerving scenes in the film, drawing on horror classics as diverse as The Island of Dr Moreau and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Their interplay provides the most comic moments too – it will be up to audiences to judge how intentional this is – with some deliciously camp dialogue as both synths happily rebut each other with classical references ranging from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to who wrote Ozymandias.
Scott has remembered that the Alien films are above all else monster movies, and with Covenant he treats us to them in multiple forms. HR Giger – the man behind the biomechanical look of the alien creature – may have died in 2014, but the Swiss surrealist's iconic designs live on and still engender fear at every turn, in both shadow and sunlight. In fact, Giger’s fingerprints are everywhere, including moments set within a monolithic necropolis that builds on the history of the engineers introduced in Prometheus.
While Scott kicked off the Alien series, the franchise's initial policy saw a new director take on each subsequent chapter (James Cameron, David Fincher, Paul WS Anderson and the aforementioned Jeunet all had a stab), and for the most part they were permitted to shape the universe as they saw fit, giving each entry its own, unique energy. Here, Scott is attempting to reclaim ownership, and the result is a crowd-pleasing chapter that marries his own preoccupations while giving fans what they want.
These goals don’t always sit neatly alongside one another and can't touch the richness of the original trilogy, but the sci-horror blockbuster Scott has crafted will still have you screaming into the void of space.
Released 12 May by 20th Century Fox