December 2104. The colony ship Covenant is on its way to Origae-VI to establish a new settlement. A neutrino burst damages the ship in interstellar space and kills several crewmembers in hypersleep. Awoken by the ship's synthetic, Walter, the crew effect repairs and discover a signal emanating from a nearby star system, from a planet that is a much closer match for colonisation. Arriving on the planet, the crew find signs of life...and an answer to a mystery from a decade earlier.
Alien: Covenant is Ridley Scott's sequel to his 2012 movie Prometheus, itself a semi-prequel/semi-spin-off from his 1979 horror masterpiece Alien. As the titles suggest, Prometheus was much more of a stand-alone movie sharing some DNA with the rest of the franchise but not focusing on the titular creature. Covenant instead brings back the traditional xenomorph and establishes how it was created, whilst resolving some of the questions left dangling from Prometheus.
The result is an interesting hybrid movie which feels like it's trying to do several things simultaneously. It's trying to be an action-horror movie in its own right, a sequel to the more weighty concerns in Prometheus and a prequel to the events of the original movie. Considering a prequel to the original movie, let alone two, was never narratively necessary, this was an controversial decision, but one that ultimately pays off.
Covenant has a familiar set-up: a starship picks up a distress call and diverts to investigate, finding a ruined alien ship harbouring something nasty, something which can infect humans and turn them into the incubators for monstrous creations. Things quickly go wrong and mayhem results. The film borrows its basic structure from Alien, although it does mix the ingredients up to keep things more unpredictable without descending into the sheer randomness of Prometheus.
What helps keep all of this intriguing is that Ridley Scott is, even at the tail end of his career, still a masterful director with a tremendous sense of visual power and a strong design aesthetic. The Covenant and the various locations in the film are all impressive pieces of design, if less striking than Prometheus. Scott can also build tension like few other directors. This time around he's helped by a script which doesn't rely on the characters being quite as monumentally stupid as the ones in Prometheus, based on the fact these guys are engineers and colonists having to work way out of their comfort zones, rather than the alleged first contact specialists and biologists of the previous movie.
The film is paced pretty well, with the action unfolding continuously from the landing on the planet to the final confrontation with the creature, and handles a distinct shift in storytelling when David, the android from Prometheus, shows up and effectively shoehorns a follow-up story from that movie into the middle of this more traditional Alien tale. Mostly propelled by Michael Fassbender's superb performance (as both David and the Covenant's synthetic of the same class, Walter), this actually works to the film's benefit, providing a shift of pace and perspective which changes things up and keeps things fresh even as we begin to move away from the focus of Prometheus (the Engineers and the black goo-ex-machina) and back towards the franchise's star creature.
The final part of the movie - the human crewmembers versus the xenomorph with the androids serving as wild cards - is a bit more standardand and you can feel Scott checking out a little bit in the final battle with the creature in the Covenant's hanger bay (which viewers familiar with both Alien and Aliens may find dully predictable), but it's all well-handled. Less forgivable is a blatant sequel hook which, given Covenant's modest box office performance, may have been a bit optimistic. As it stands there's still a lot of unanswered questions on how the events of Prometheus and Covenant lead into Alien, but some of the revelations in Covenant make this perhaps a more interesting question than it appeared from Prometheus alone.
Most of the cast are pretty good, with a surprisingly effective dramatic turn for Danny McBride and a strong leading performance with Katherine Waterston, with a good supporting turn by Billy Crudup. Fassbender with his dual roles steals the film, however, providing an icy new antagonist for a franchise that urgently needed one, having all but burned out the threat level of the xenomoph through over-exposure.
Alien: Covenant (****) is an effective action-horror movie which overcomes over-familiarity with some excellent performances and superb direction and design work, although the soundtrack is at best forgettable. Stronger than Prometheus, if not on the same level as Alien and Aliens, it shows there is some life left in this franchise. The film is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA).