The less that’s said about the Alien franchise post-James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, the better. Alien3 is just about passable, mainly because of David Fincher’s striking direction, and 1997’s Alien: Resurrection is so bad that I wish it had remained dead. Then you have Ridley Scott’s return to the series, 2012’s Prometheus, a two-hour set-up for a Xenomorph punchline, which was cloaked in so much mystery as to how it was tied to the franchise that it was always going to end up disappointing. Now, Scott returns with another chapter in the sci-fi horror anthology, Alien: Covenant, which, away from all the secrecy and hype, quite easily takes its place in the top three Alien films made to date.
Continuing to bridge the gap between Prometheus and Alien (Scott has said we have at least another two prequels before we arrive at the original 1979 film), ‘Covenant’ is caught somewhere between the frustratingly flawed mythology of the former and the terrifying horror of the latter.
Opening with a scene in which Michael Fassbender’s robot, David (one of two robots that the actor plays here) discusses God with his own creator, it’s immediately apparent that Scott isn’t quite done with the huge themes of creation that made Prometheus such a slog.
Of course, dealing with such ideas isn’t unusual for a sci-fi film. Some of the greatest sci-fi films ever made have had some kind of political or religious subtext – the original Alien dealing with sexual politics and rape – but it’s all about the way in which these ideas are handled that can make all the difference between a masterpiece and disaster.
Here, Scott mishandles the wider story with clunky exposition that deeply affects the pacing of the drama. For the first third, any kind of subtlety is thrown right outside the air lock with the film telling, as opposed to showing, us what it’s really all about.
However, once the facehuggers and Xenomorhs are introduced (I’m still convinced the new CGI creatures are far less frightening that the original man-in-a-suit approach) and ‘Covenant’ starts to do what the franchise does best, the final two acts are as thrilling as any other instalment in the anthology to date.
There are a number of jump-out-of-your-seat set pieces, the best of which being a battle on top of a flying space craft, that are everything you could want from a summer popcorn movie. The visuals are remarkably stunning, with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski returning with the same visual stamp that made Prometheus somewhat worthwhile. And then you have the terrific cast, led by the hugely talented Katherine Waterston in the strong female role and Michael Fassbender who is twice as brilliant in his duel performances.
The elements for a successful ‘Alien’ movie are all there, but sadly dragged down to some extent by the weaker writing. When ‘Covenant’ is a film about a space crew trying to survive the ultimate killing machine in a claustrophobic location, it is a great piece of blockbuster entertainment. But with an unnecessary backstory that takes away from rather than improve the original films, with yet another two chapters on the way, you can’t help but wish Ridley Scott would have done less than more.
Fans of the series should be left adequately impressed by all the facehugging, head-chomping goodness, and Scott has certianly redeemed himself for his previous effort. But if you’re expecting anything nearly as good as the original two films (and frankly, why would you be) you may just end up bitterly letdown.
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