Film review: Alien – Covenant

The Aliens are back – and they’re more grotesque than ever. So does that make the latest film in this blockbuster franchise more terrifying?

May 11, 2017, updated May 11, 2017
Katherine Waterson as Daniels in Alien: Covenant.

Katherine Waterson as Daniels in Alien: Covenant.

Re-watching Ridley Scott’s original 1979 sci-fi horror flick Alien, there’s a couple of things that strike you.

Firstly, it’s a surprisingly quiet film compared with the booming, fast-paced, audacious action movies that are now standard Hollywood fare.

Secondly, aside from a couple of particularly gruesome scenes – including that crew dinner with an unwelcome gatecrasher – there’s a lot less blood, gore and slime than you might remember.

Yet almost 40 years later, Alien is still as scary as hell.

That’s testament to the originality of the production and the fact that in the pre-CGI era, filmmakers had to rely on careful pacing, the slow escalation of psychological tension, strong performances and a forceful soundtrack to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Fear of the unseen fuelled viewers’ terror as much as the pictures projected on screen. In Alien, the claustrophobic setting amplified the horror.

Sadly, there’s little that’s original in the latest instalment of the saga.

Set in 2104, Alien: Covenant is a sequel to Prometheus (also directed by Scott), which was a prequel to the other films in the series. (Confused about the timeframe already? The video below will help.)

The crew on the spaceship Prometheus came unstuck while on an expedition to investigate an ancient civilisation; those on board the Covenant are on a seven-year journey to establish a new colony on a remote and seemingly idyllic planet where one might dream of building a cabin in the woods with their lover.

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Covenant begins with a prologue – a sinister scene featuring the android David (Michael Fassbender), a survivor of the Prometheus mission, and his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). The exchange foreshadows what’s to come and is arguably the most controlled and menacing of the film.

On board the spaceship Covenant are 2000 colonists, more than 1000 human embryos, and the crew, including new-generation android Walter (also played by Fassbender, who has the robotic thing down pat), first mate Oram (Billy Cruddup) and second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterson), who is clearly inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character.

The first disaster occurs when the crew gets a rude awakening mid-hyper-sleep.

No one is in a hurry to nap for a few more years so, despite the protestations of the intense and stoic Daniels, Oram decides they will veer off course to investigate a message from another planet – delivered to the tune of a John Denver song – that may offer a shortcut to Utopia.

After a bumpy landing, it does indeed seem that there’s much to like about this alternative planet (and if you think it looks a lot like New Zealand, it’s because that is where principal photography took place). But of course things soon start to go wrong … in a spectacularly messy fashion.

There are shades of several previous Alien films in Covenant, but the restrained direction and gritty tension of the original are replaced by an explosion (literally) of violence and grotesquery, with one or two surprises along the journey but far too much predictability for fans of the franchise and the genre. Despite a few literary references and ruminations about creation and the dangers of emotions, Alien: Covenant feels, at times, like the space version of Piranha 3D.

That’s not to say the visual effects (in which Adelaide’s own Rising Sun Pictures had a hand) aren’t impressive; they are. The problem is that too much of a good thing, consumed too quickly, can leave you feeling queasy.

Terry Rawlings, one of the editors of the original Alien, has been quoted as saying that much of that film was edited to deliberately create a slow pace and build suspense, before “attacking” the audience: “I think the way we did get it right was by keeping it slow, funny enough, which is completely different from what they do today.”

Ridley Scott is already working on a sequel to Alien: Covenant. Hopefully he might take the slow road.

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