Alien is one of the few franchises that survived it's weaker chapters. Nearly 40 years on and, despite the saga's misfires, we're still eager to put ourselves within drooling distance of cinema's most terrifying creations. How were we to know that boarding Prometheus would be the disappointing voyage it turned out to be (even with the architect of the universe, Ridley Scott, at the helm)? So, it's with understandable trepidation that we prepare for launch with Alien: Covenant. It's clear that lessons have been learned. While it stays faithful to the universe retrofitting in Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is careful to pay homage to it's legacy.
There's a few reassuring elements to Alien: Covenant and there's a enough in the opening to fill the Nostromo shuttle. Firstly, there's the gaze into the emptiness of space - a reminder that, still, no one is going to hear you scream. Then there's the slowly fading runes that spell out the title - it's almost as if the lettering itself is in cahoots with terrifying manipulation in store. However, it's the haunting Jerry Goldsmith signature from Alien, that really puts you back into the familiar cosmos. While Scott is careful not to be too obvious, there's more hallmarks of the Alien saga woefully missing from his last stab in Prometheus. An earlier than planned awakening from hyper-sleep, leading to an unplanned landing on an uncharted planet. Landing gear that causes a hull breach and even a loader to fend off a beastie.
However, it's always been the unlikely group that's successfully completed the DNA strands of this saga. While there is a sprinkling of the space trucker vibe, there's also a number of interchangeable members that are frustratingly nondescript. One of the strongest elements of each instalment has been how loyalties shift as the circumstances bring out the coward/hero/pragmatist in each character. There's not quite so much of this in Covenant. While we learn the relationships have been set before we join the crew, Scott is a little heavy-handed in setting up dynamics and motivations. The moments of ham-fistery may not ruin the proceedings, but they do draw you out of the well-oiled familiarity. Even the creator theme from Prometheus (and you could argue from Scott's Bladerunner) is equally interesting as it is pronounced. Where it should be a subtly added layer, it sometimes feels like obvious botching. When Weylan (Guy Pierce) awakens/activates David (Michael Fassbender) there's a suspicious element of David playing a part rather than instructed by programming. As if the metaphor for creators weren't enough, Wagner's Entry of the Gods into Valhalla is played with "anaemic" precision on the piano. Yet there's a moment when Walter (cleverly differentiated by Fassbender) is defiant in his sarcasm to a ranking officer. It may not carry the lofty inference of a classical composer, but it's just as effective in it's point of a creations defiance to it's maker.
Thankfully, it's when Scott guides rather than pilots that Alien: Covenant is at it's most compelling. The potent elements of horror are still here; the sickening intrusion and "birth" or the terrifying chases from the most hostile force in the universe. Yet it's the situational gloom that really lays the groundwork for the desperation that comes later. If the ill-advised landing on an undiscovered planet wasn't bad enough, there's a succession of bad luck that's hand-wringingly tense. Add to that the most terrifying extra terrestrial ever and you'll be looking for the nearest airlock.
It's to H.R. Giger's credit that the Xenomorph is as capable of stopping hearts as it was back in 1979. Even now that technology has brought the Alien from the shadows, it's full form is both beautiful and horrific. So, even when we see a little more of the Xenomorph than we would probably like, the aesthtic is matched by it's gripping hostility. Yet, we also have a new introduction into the ever-evolving pantheon with the Neomorphs. Unsettlingly more human than their Xeno brethren and a little more vicious in their modus operandi. They're an intriguing addition to the species eviscerating evolution.
Overall, it's a lot more successful in building the world than Prometheus ever was. Scott takes time out to build curiosity before giving some straight forward answers, some of which are breathtakingly vengeful. He also remembers to build some straight forward terror. That is, after all, the foundation of the world he built.
4* - Promethean Ressurection