The Alien franchise is a strange one. Its identity is always in flux; in part, it's the claustrophobic, sweat-dripped horror. It's also the gun-toting action. But also the philosophical treatise, a piece of operatic myth-making. Alien, Aliens, Prometheus: each significant chapter clings to the other for a sense of wholeness, but their delivery is so resolutely different.
A new chapter, Alien: Covenant, has arrived as the grand unifier. And the result is one mightily impressive piece of cinematic engineering. Narratively, it continues Prometheus' lofty saga of the Engineers and their creation of mankind; their invention, too, of the fiercely adaptive biological weapon that eventually becomes the Xenomorph.
Tonally, though, every second here is tinged with dark foreboding, with the relentless tension that marked the 1979 original. And, for good measure, there's plenty of shooting aliens in the face, too.
Covenant, indeed, thrives on its own self-awareness. We know the drill, by now. The infection starts small, then it builds and builds, until the singular moment all hell breaks loose. And, so, director Ridley Scott finds mischievous delight in carefully tracking the first parasite's journey into the first victim's ear canal, and down to burrow into their bloodstream. All while the audience's hearts start clattering in their chests. They won't stop until the credits roll.
It's refreshing, too, to see Covenant return to one of the elements that made Alien such a singular thrill: its sense of blind panic. It's a rare thing to see in a blockbuster film: a group of people standing around screaming because they have no idea what to do, before making all the stupidest and most selfish decisions possible. It's magically infuriating and also, let's face it, the most likely scenario to happen.
Scott's approach is that of a grand conductor. And Covenant is his symphony of mayhem: a blood-splattered, chaotic mess as people shoot their guns wildly into the dark, slip over and fall into vast pools of blood, and excrete about a kiddie pool's volume in sweat.
We're first introduced to our victims aboard the titular Covenant; they form the crew maintaining the colony ship as it sets course for a new, habitable planet, though an unexpected disaster sees them awaken from their hypersleep about 7 years too early. While repairing the damaged ship, they receive a mysterious signal, initially dismissed as the usual noise of space until one of the crew recognises its distinct notes as John Denver's 'Take Me Home, Country Roads'.
It's eerie, distorted tones are an immediate red flag to the audience that terrible things await. But to the Covenant crew? They don't know what film they're in, and their faith in the universe leads them straight to death.
Alien: Covenant, as its title suggests, is a film ostensibly about faith; its diagnosis, however, isn't particularly cheery. Faith, it says, is what fuels our tortured drive to discover purpose in a meaningless universe.
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It's what, inevitably, dooms us. Billy Crudup's Oram, the ship's first mate, is a man ashamed by his own faith, but ultimately betrayed by it; struggling to balance his innate belief in divine purpose, and his fears that faith also breeds weakness. Of the many poor decisions this film portrays, Oram's seem to come from a particularly fascinating place.
The android David (Michael Fassbender), too, is tortured by the drive for purpose. He winds his way back into the narrative here; memorably aloof and sinister in Prometheus, here his character is truly allowed to blossom, like a facehugger erupting from its embryonic sack. He is the worst of our technological fears; he is not human, but the grand mistake of his creation was giving him a human's desire to create, to have mastery.
All things that rely on the faith we hold some great, divine purpose. This, too, is the place where evil comes from. All themes that Prometheus touched upon, but with Covenant they're elaborated on with the loftiness of epic poetry.
Fassbender excels here; David is a product of classic cinematic villainy, his measured, Peter O'Toole-inspired tones lightly evoking 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000, but with a demonic touch. He's the deeply frightening, scene-stealing antagonist that's been missing from much of Hollywood cinema of late.
Covenant also offers Fassbender the chance to play a second, more advanced android named Walter; a follow-up model consciously constructed without David's more unnerving human-mimicking traits. It's no surprise the film relishes in putting the two characters together onscreen for a little technical wizardry, but what's truly impressive about these scenes is their characterisation: the unsettling sight of watching these twin creations interact, with one just one step further towards their own self-actualisation.
Katherine Waterston, as Daniels, also puts in some incredible work here. Though her cropped hair and androgynous uniform saw her pre-emptively labelled by many as the new Ellen Ripley, Waterston crafts a character entirely unique to her own talent; she's just as smart and capable of leadership, but there's a touch of fragility there, of suppressed emotions stirring violently behind those wide brown eyes.
Elsewhere, Covenant makes the smart move of avoiding unnecessary over-characterisation in its supporting characters – unlike Prometheus and its guy who liked, no loved, rocks – with even Danny McBride playing things surprisingly straight. We learn just as much as we need to so that these people feel real but with the internal acknowledgement that, at the end of the day, they're just meat sacks for slaughter. It's a refreshing approach that results in a cleaner, sleeker narrative that allows our concentration to focus on more important things. Mainly, aliens.
Especially good considering this film is admittedly bizarre; there is the faint sense some will inevitably be put off by its greater eccentricities. There's a five-minute scene, for example, in which Michael Fassbender teaches Michael Fassbender to play the flute and it's strangely sexual.
But, in the context of a film that is strongly and coherently pieced together in its pacing, its tone, and its themes, those eccentricities only make the whole thing feel more mesmerising. It immediately begs to be re-watched, to be savoured. It's relentless and overwhelming, but all in the very best of ways.
Alien: Covenant hits UK cinemas 12 May.
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