What to Watch Verdict
— Michael Fassbender gives a stunning performance.
— Not scary enough!
— A lot of the characters are easy to forget.
Four decades on from the epochal Alien, Ridley Scott returned to the primal terrors of face-huggers, chestbursters and slavering xenomorphs with the series’ sixth installment (his third).
A direct sequel to 2012’s Prometheus, Alien: Covenant looks stupendous, as you’d expect from Scott; it chews over some hefty philosophical ideas, and it has a stunning dual performance by Michael Fassbender. But for all the new film’s strengths, the qualities that made the 1979 original (check out our how to watch the Alien movies in order guide) so effective are largely missing. Here, if no one can hear you scream, it’s because the movie just isn’t that frightening.
For all that, the story’s narrative skeleton does resemble the first film. Once again, a luckless space crew takes a detour from their mission to investigate a mysterious radio transmission and experiences a nasty extraterrestrial encounter on a distant planet. This time the setting is 2104, ten years after the events of Prometheus, itself a prequel to the 1979 Alien. The colony ship Covenant is en route to the far side of the galaxy until a freak emergency caused by a solar flare awakens the crewmates from their hibernation-like stasis.
They then pick up a signal from a nearby planet that sounds awfully like John Denver’s folk-rock song "Take Me Home, Country Roads". If the film had been set in the present day, the choice of tune would presumably have been an Edwardian music hall standard like "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" or "Any Old Iron".
Naturally, they respond. The planet is Earth-like and seemingly hospitable. It even has fields of wheat. What could be more inviting? We, however, know exactly what grisly encounters lie in store for them.
And that’s Covenant’s main problem. This may be terra incognita to the Covenant crew. We've been here before. It is, however, all new to this band, which includes Katherine Waterston’s terraforming expert Daniels, Billy Crudup’s queasily insecure first mate Oram and Danny McBride’s good old boy pilot Tennessee. Also on board is eerily competent synthetic android Walter, a more advanced version of Prometheus’s creepy blond android David, whom we have already seen here in the film’s prologue sequence, newly created and engaging in existential chat with his "father", trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce).
Brilliantly played by Fassbender, not-quite doppelgangers David and Walter are by far the best things in Alien: Covenant. Unfortunately, the film’s human characters are nowhere near as memorable. Waterston’s heroine is resourceful and resilient (naturally), but she is no substitute for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, despite the matching singlet she strips down to when things get hot.
Most of the other characters are so nondescript they blur into one another. Mere alien fodder, their fates are all too predictable. They may be new to the Alien universe, but we are not. When a crewmember gapes curiously at the pulsating membrane inside an alien egg, what happens next is an unpleasant surprise for him, déjà vu for us. Thank goodness then for Fassbender’s David. Forget being chased down a spaceship corridor by a xenomorph for the umpteenth time. It is David’s chilly, uncanny assurance that is really terrifying.
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.