“In space no one can hear you scream” -- That’s where it all began: as a science fiction/horror crossover that became Ridley Scott’s 1979 iconic classic. It’s important to remember just how much that has been forgotten over the many years and films. Cameron’s Aliens succeeded in 1985 because although it incorporated more action elements it still retained those horror roots (and to this day is still my all time favourite film). Yet from there onwards, the memory started to fade. In 3 films, the horror tension gave way to slasher film-like kills. By the time Resurrection came around, all horror elements were abandoned in favour of more popcorn style/almost comical action only to be pissed on and stamped into the dirt those unholy AVP outings. Even Scott’s 2012, improved if not ideal, franchise return for Prometheus showed little interest in scaring or thrilling its audience..... prepare to remember. While it’s certainly not Covenant’s only theme, make no mistake, this is a science fiction horror film that harks right back to where it all began. It’s one many reasons why this is the Alien sequel many have been waiting for.
After receiving a strange transmission, the human colonisation ship, Covenant, including acting Captain Chris Oram (Billy Crudup – Watchmen), 2nd officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston – Fantastic Beasts) and android Walter (Michael Fassbender – Assassin’s Creed), land on a strange new planet. It looks like a paradise.... it quickly turns into hell.
First up, I really liked the story structure of Covenant. Prometheus frustrated me because the crew spent half the film mindlessly going in circles. This story is not only clearly linear but excellently sectioned into location-based acts that allow the film to encompass its different themes. The first act prior to landing feels like a classic space adventure as it familiarizes us with the crew and ship with jaw-dropping visual effects of the Covenant ship both inside and out. Then once we touch down on the planet, it becomes a mini 85 Aliens as it slowly builds tension and unsettling feelings before unleashing some pulse racing action/horror scenes. Only to change gears entirely as the plot thickens and calls back to the philosophical and religious themes of Prometheus and the outright horror of Alien. In many ways, Covenant is an awesome mix compilation of franchise greatest hits. While this is welcome, it does have occasional draw backs of predictability. For instance, we see the last survivors heading back to the ship thinking it’s all over.... we’re all damn sure that it isn’t. However, Covenant still brings enough originality to the table to prevent it feeling like merely a remake. The most fascinating of which is Scott delivering on a promise: that these Alien prequels would explore and reveal just who created the Xeonomorphs.
A slightly weaker area is characters. I don’t mean to keep beating the dead Prometheus horse but there is a clear sense of positive evolution from that film. That crew was too large and its members were given to little meaningful or endearing screen time before they started getting killed off removing all impact and significance from their deaths. Covenant does improve on this. It still has a sizeable 15 strong crew but puts more time and effort into developing the majority of them before any guts start flying. The trouble is that this doesn’t apply to the group’s red shirted opening casualties which does detract from their loss as we’re struggling to remember their names; remember we were well versed with John Hurt/Kane long before anything came bursting out of him. However, these moments are rescued somewhat the shock factor of their graphic nature and some excellent creativity in their execution. Still, as the film progresses, even when the group has been thinned a couple members still feel like little more than disposable NPCs. There is a colossal character win though and for the second film running its Michael Fassbender.... both of him.
The biggest Prometheus to Covenant link is reuniting with the strange horseshoe shaped spaceship from which the android David is the only survivor. The Covenant has an upgraded android model, Walter, who's designed to be more machine and less human (apparently David’s model scared people for that reason). Seeing the pair converse and interact from such different perspectives is absolutely fascinating (even if the flute scene double entendre kills the mood briefly). Giving an Alien film a token strong female lead has become a bit of cliché but to Waterson’s credit, she delivers with Daniels. We see every stage of weakness and vulnerability from her following early tragedy only to watch her dig deep and soldier on which really endears her.
Finally, let’s talk about this action. The most impressive aspect is not any singular moment but the sheer range of material the film utilises. From more intimate hunting and stalking based-kills that inject that all important horror back into the franchise to big elaborate CG fuelled set pieces. Now in some parts the latter lets the side down as some overly computerised moments make everything feel too artificial. Yet others are unexpected success stories. In the final act, there is a planetary escape involving a loading platform like ship. At first glance, this feels like it will be the Michael Bay sponsored section of the film but through inventive use of both the scenario and the feature creature a stunning and engaging sequence emerges. Big action does not have to be dumb if handled correctly as this great Scott is fully aware. The final showdown was a bit weak though. It really felt tacked on. While I’m never a fan of gore for the sake of gore, this film returns the franchise to a hard R-rating and is all the better for it: showing these “dumbass colonists” (RIP Paxton) getting appropriately sliced and diced by such perfect killing machines.
For any big franchise that’s been many different things, you’ll never get a sequel that pleases everyone (just look up the uproar over what Star Wars or Bond film should be upon every new release) but Covenant feels like the best possible appeal to each generation of franchise fans whether old school horror, bigger CG action or philosophical space opera orientated. While each type will find things they don’t like the parts they do will more than make up for it. If you’ve ever any enjoyed any past Alien movie, then you need to see Covenant. Scott is hinting at two further films to connect this story back to Alien (the first has already been written and goes into production in 2018). If Scott maintains this level of quality, that will be a journey worth taking rather than a slog for sake of completion. Just remember, in the cinema, people will hear you scream.