★★★☆☆

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.

Loading article content

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.