WHEN Prometheus came out back in 2012, it had already painted itself into a corner. If it was too much like the original Alien, it would feel like a copycat. If it strayed too far, it would disappoint those looking for old-fashioned thrills. It ended up more of the latter, representing a headier and over-reaching but visually stunning and admirably ambitious sci-fi epic.
Now we have a sequel to that film which brings things back in line to the majesty of intense, bloody space thrills while still finding enough room for ambitious scope and thought-provoking questions.
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The year is 2104, 10 years after the vessel Prometheus disappeared. Colonisation vessel Covenant is carrying more than 2000 colonists, crew members and embryos on the journey to Origae-6, a habitable planet seven years away from Earth. After an unforeseen disaster forces the crew to wake up, they soon discover a seemingly even more liveable planet that their initial projections missed.
Despite the trepidation of terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), newly appointed Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes a risky, but to his mind reasoned, decision to go down and take a closer look at this mysterious planet. This puts them on a course for the remnants of an ancient civilisation and a series of blood-thirsty extraterrestrial creatures.
To its immediate strength, Covenant is a film that gets back to what made the first Alien in particular so effective: the tension and thrills in space where no-one can hear you scream. While the ideas of Prometheus are still there – it still functions very much as a follow-up to that unfairly derided film – it often ramps the tension back up to nailbiting heights and has a lot of fun with a steady procession of intense, bloody shocks elevated by some terrific practical make-up and gore effects.
However, as much as director Ridley Scott is making a crowd-pleasing sci-fi thrill ride, he’s not averse to chucking in the odd, fascinating curveball of a scene every now and then, such as Michael Fassbender’s synthetic Walter taking part in a flute-playing lesson awash with Freudian overtones. It’s a weird scene which show there are still some creative juices left in this franchise yet.
The crew are all a little bit more fleshed out this time, even if it does carry over the dumb character decision issue that plagued Prometheus; most of them may ultimately be there in service of the “who will die next?” slasher-in-space scenario but we’re invested enough so that we care if and when it happens.
Fassbender gives an utterly electrifying performance in a capacity too spoilery to delve into here, Waterston makes for a compellingly strong but sensitive heroine in the de facto Ripley-esque role, and Crudup gets an interesting part as the only crew member with strong religious faith. The film’s many ponderings include the issue of where belief fits into a mission driven by science and hard data.
Covenant is a flawed, scrappy instalment in the long-running franchise that is always far from perfect but with bundles of interesting ideas and visuals. It’s not the best of the lot and not the worst, but strikes a perfectly enjoyable balance along a familiar intergalactic path well-travelled.
Warts and all, it’s a welcome return to old-school thrills never afraid to showcase the bloody terror of it all.