When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien mythology in 2012, he came armed with Prometheus, a beautiful, bold and often bewildering sci-fi blockbuster that felt far removed from the chapter that launched a wildly successful franchise. Released 38 years ago, Alien was, of course, a trend-setter, magnificent in its own lean and menacing way; Prometheus posed bigger questions, expensively assembled and wondrous to look at.
Scott and his team were initially coy about the relationship between Prometheus and the wider canon, referring to shared DNA and obvious overlaps. Once the film opened, however, those doubts were cast aside. Prometheus may have trained its focus on other aspects of that universe – namely the mysterious Engineers and their part in the creation of both humankind and the iconic xenomorphs – but its ultimate trajectory was clear.
There can be no pretence now. Alien: Covenant is every inch a descendant of its forebear. Yes, it is in effect a sequel to Prometheus, boasting the big-world milieu and direct timeline, but a grimy sense of dread, the weathered cosiness of its central crew and the spectre of that titular killer all appear strikingly familiar. Some of the series' enviable tension may well be lost in the opening up of time and place, but it nevertheless satisfies in scope and ambition.
It begins not with the standard motif of space explorers hurtling through the vastness of the cosmos (that will come later) but the sort of exquisite futuristic minimalism that underscored much of the Prometheus aesthetic. Flashing back to a day long before those of that picture, Michael Fassbender's watchful, quietly subversive android, David, fresh and still pliant, conjures Wagner on a piano in a blanched salon and discusses the meaning of existence with sire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the industrialist whose presence hovers in the background of the entire Alien landscape.
Cutting from there to the confines of the Covenant – a starship (featuring Alien's onboard computer, Mother) transporting over 3000 hyper-sleeping souls and human embryos, along with the team of spouses responsible for its passage, to the virgin colony of Origae-6 – Scott anchors his narrative in recognisable surroundings.
When a random energy surge damages the ship, its awakened crew – including Walter, an updated model of David – must make repairs. In doing so, a faint communication is detected, the broken strains of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads drawing the Covenant to a nearby planet.
As he did with Prometheus, Scott introduces a desolate and Earth-like destination, all mighty valleys and mountain lakes, where obvious danger lurks from the moment the visitors touch down. He finds new ways to play on the icky fears that have always marked these films: infection, infestation, penetration, purging. Malevolent spores quickly invade ears and nasal canals; gestating fiends tear out of torsos and vomit from mouths with equal swiftness. As a means of revisiting the more recognisable aspects of the mythos, the director succeeds. Indeed, at its best, the franchise weaves a fabric comprising arresting savagery and an atmosphere of nightmarish terror. Early on, such a mix is never lacking.
A middle section is slightly less assured, yet cannot be wholly faulted for crafting a grander tale. David resurfaces, his previous chronological contribution being alongside Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) at the conclusion of Prometheus. Last seen shooting off for the homeworld of the Engineers, the pair reached their destination, though Covenant's weighty screenplay (penned by John Logan and Dante Harper) leaves a number of questions hanging, even as it explains the events between the two movies, as well as the genesis of the ravenous xenomorphs.
In its latter stages, Covenant is surefooted enough to combine classic tropes (the alien bursts from its terrible womb; the adult form hunts in scarlet-lit corridors) and updated elements (one sequence involving a flying cargo lift is impressive, as is the scale of the Engineers' ghostly metropolis). The creature itself feels refreshed also, a sleek CG-rendered update on the shadow-cloaked original, complete with a point-of-view framing device straight from the mind of the beast. Where animatronics and men in suits once seemed to stunt the visualisation of the alien's full physical capabilities – though the same cannot be said of its terrifying impact – this present iteration is a thrilling, marauding apex predator.
As far as its prey is concerned, the cast offers a mixed bag. In the role of terraformer Daniels, Katherine Waterston excels in conveying a woman who is much more than Ellen Ripley lite. Carrying a heavy burden, she is the voice of caution in a leadership pairing with Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), a devotee of religion who confuses risk and faith. While the price he pays for switching destinations is steep, the resonance of his fate fails to land.
He and his fellow travellers are largely drawn in broad strokes, with only Danny McBride's wisecracking pilot, Tennessee, escaping those limitations. McBride is more familiar to audiences as the boorish alpha idiot in any number of modern comedies but he turns in a layered performance here and places a lid on his goofy sensibilities. It is a display that should not be ignored.
The show, however, ultimately belongs to Fassbender. David retains his ability to unsettle and it is a testament to Fassbender's ability as an actor that he can paint in so contrasting a fashion two characters sporting identical physical traits. David, fixating on creation and fond of quoting Byron, exhibits a human-like personality replete with curiosity but lacking even a hint of empathy. Walter is a gentler article, a straight shooter whose fondness for Daniels could be mistaken for love in any other context. Beautiful moments flickering between them throughout are distilled in the dying moments and put to darker use, arguably the most profound emotional moment in a film that does not shy away from the ties that bind.
If there is an obvious flaw it is that Covenant opts for contemplation over hallmark ferocity. The onslaughts that characterised Alien and Aliens never arrive, shoved aside to placate Scott's desire for world building. That which emerges is worthy of a place in the pantheon, no doubt, but opportunities for greatness will need to wait for the scheduled next instalment.