Review | Alien Covenant

MOVIE | Ridley Scott's latest take on the sci-fi classic puts the franchise back on the map

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Alien: Covenant has put the fun back in the Alien franchise. Prometheus, with its pacing issues and convoluted plot is a distant memory. Here we follow the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship, dispatched from Earth to terraform and populate a new world. The ship is hit by a freak accident, awaking the crew from hyper-sleep. Whilst conducting repairs they receive a distress call from a nearby planet. On investigating they find more than they bargained for, in the form of back-bursting aliens, the wreckage of a mysterious ship, and a long-marooned android called David…

What's perhaps most impressive about this film is that Ridley Scott and company are able to acknowledge the existence of Prometheus and the events that occurred in same, and yet also not be beholden to them in any way. They have kept the only element that was unanimously praised from the last film, in the form of Michael Fassbender. But apart from that, and a few minor plot details, this film feels completely different.

This is a far more focused story than its predecessor. The stakes are established quickly and effectively, as are the film's characters. Scott's chief concern is then ramping up the tension. He does this perfectly, and, what's more, in the face of the challenge of audience expectations. We've seen the posters and the trailers, we know what is going to happen here eventually. And yet Scott is able to create enough mystery from other sources, and use known elements of the film so creatively, that when we finally do see aliens exploding from people's bodies, it feels earned and fresh. Put simply: Alien: Covenant is a damn good survival horror flick.

Michael Fassbender is the MVP of the actors camp, and the producers are certainly getting their money's worth out of him. He plays both synthetic humans in the movie, David (formerly of the Prometheus), and Walter (the Covenant's designated plastic droid). His differentiation between the two parts is subtle and masterful, best demonstrated in his scenes between himself and himself. David, as a character, has grown a lot since we last saw him, in some strange and interesting ways. To say more would be telling, but it needs to be acknowledged that his presence in this film is both hilarious, and brilliantly severe. Contrast that with the more innocent, by-the-numbers Walter, and the scenes just catch fire.

Surprisingly, humor is a big part of this film. I quickly lost count of the number of laughs that came out of the audience as a pressure release of nervous tension. Particularly with regard Fassbender's David. The film is not funny, per se, but its understanding of the viewer's comprehension of horror film storytelling and the Alien franchise allows it to play with expectations in a way that seems to say: "We know you know what's coming. We do too. Let's enjoy this together." Besides which, there are a few Michael Fassbender lines here that are likely to become instant internet memes. You have been warned…

Katherine Waterston does great work as our protagonist Daniels. It's nice to see the franchise staying committed to strong female characters. Despite seeing the love of her life incinerated before her eyes in the first few minutes of the movie, she persists, even in the face of killing machines, mad robots, and masculine insecurity. She butts heads with Oram, who assumes command when Daniels' husband (the captain) is killed. He is played (by Billy Crudup), and written (by John Logan and Dante Harper), as a bit of a pain in the ass, with a slight religious bent to him and makes for an interesting, and sympathetic, tertiary antagonist. The rest of the cast are also fun, in particular Danny McBride's character Tennessee, who brings some expected levity, and some, perhaps less expected, gravitas.

Overall, Alien: Covenant is an excellent piece of work. With the bar for these films being set so low after Prometheus, all this film had to do was be passable. Instead, it has revitalized the franchise, reminded us all why we loved the Alien films in the first place, and given us a picture that is both intellectually and gutturally satisfying. Although there are a few plot niggles, you don't think about them until you're well on your way home from the cinema. Fassbender continues to be one of today's most watchable working actors, Waterston is slowly but surely defining herself and her abilities as a blockbuster actress, and Ridley Scott reminds us we he is a four-time Oscar nominated director. If you like the Alien films, survival horror, sci-fi, or just good films in general, go give this one a look. It will be well worth your time.

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