A little bit of nostalgia never killed anybody…except in the case of the Alien franchise. Ridley Scott has reinvented modern cinema a few times-Blade Runner and Gladiator come to mind- but he did it first with Alien. He dipped into his beloved universe once more in 2012 with Prometheus but Alien: Covenant is where he finally gets to play with the xenomorphs once more. Before I begin to slice and dice the film, I must shamefully admit I have yet to see the original but I know enough about it to understand how Covenant relates to it. Having seen Prometheus, however, I came into this movie as its sequel. And it is. Alien: Covenant is very much both a Prometheus sequel and an Alien prequel, acting as the missing link between the two. But forget all that because Alien: Covenant is sci-fi horror at its glorious goriest.
Remember what I was saying about nostalgia? Well Alien: Covenant is to Alien what Stranger Things is to E.T. In the grand tradition of 2010s Hollywood, it’s the greatest hits album of a beloved franchise, but it was a smart idea giving it to its original creator. The story follows the crew of an interstellar ship, The Covenant, on a colonising mission to a distant planet but they become distracted when they find a previously unknown habitable planet along the way. In a brilliant strategic manoeuvre for all involved, the crew then decides to investigate this planet instead. Then some xenomorphs happen. It’s not pretty. Well, actually it kind of is but I’ll come to that in a moment. Sticking with the story, it is the weakest element of Alien: Covenant. Being both a sequel and a prequel makes for a few odd tonal shifts throughout the movie, going so far as to often feel like two separate films were spliced together. And yet both parts are excellent.
While the Prometheus elements elevate the sense of mystery and continue that film’s philosophical examination of humanity, the Alien parts are just pure, old-fashioned horror and gore. Both are cinematically gorgeous, and both build tension the way Scott’s films do best. Michael Fassbender returns as David the android and is the standout of the film; without him, Covenant probably would have become boring halfway through the second act. He has so much screentime that you’d be forgiven for thinking him the main character, but he never overstays his welcome. As for the main character herself, Katherine Livingston is also excellent as Daniels. What makes or breaks a horror film is often its cast of characters. We have to want them to survive to be invested in the suspense. With Covenant, we want Livingstone and Fassbender and, hell, even Danny McBride to make it through. As characters, they aren’t anything groundbreaking but they’re just likeable enough that we care about them. Granted, some of the lesser characters do some stupid things, but the xenomorph-fodder is necessary too and it’s in keeping with the genre. It’s morbidly satisfying watching the aliens tear these people apart, as horrifying as that sounds. There are some terrific horror scenes, courtesy of the xenomorphs, and the camera never shies away from the gore.
The Alien movies have been going on forever at this point, virtually 35 years without a significant hiatus. Yet Alien: Covenant shows that there are plenty of deadly alien planets left to explore. The xenomorph remains an iconic monster and for good reason. Storywise the film falters, and Covenant never truly finds an identity of its own, but I loved it anyway. If you like any of the other Alien movies, you’ll find something to enjoy here.