Saturday 23 September 2017

Movie review - Alien: Covenant: Carnage on a lonely planet

Ridley Scott's gory sci-fi prequel is a welcome return to form

Paranoid android: Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant
Paranoid android: Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant

Paul Whitington

When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise in 2012 after a gap of 33 years, people got pretty excited. His 1979 original was one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, and while James Cameron's all-action 1985 sequel was a very respectable follow up, things went down the toilet pretty rapidly after that. Alien 4 is one of the worst - and most anatomically disgusting - films I've ever seen, and Scott seemed the perfect man to rescue this moribund enterprise.

But Prometheus was dull, deadly dull, an overblown prequel that knitted the aliens' story to a preposterous search for the extraterrestrial origins of mankind. It wasn't terrible exactly, but it was pretty boring, and it seemed an age before one finally got to watch the monsters eviscerating smug astronauts with their usual panache. Expectations, then, have been somewhat muted in advance of this next Scott instalment, a sequel to Prometheus and prequel to the 1979 film. But Alien: Covenant takes the series back to its roots in action and horror, and is all the better for it.

Scott is a wily old stager, and has wisely retained the most interesting character in Prometheus, the supercilious android David, who was played with such skill by Michael Fassbender. But that's not Fassbender's only job here, as he also plays another android, Walter, a less egocentric robot who's on board a huge ship called Covenant that's bound on a seven-year voyage to the far side of the galaxy when something goes wrong.

It's 2104, and the Covenant is carrying a cargo of colonisers to a distant and potentially habitable planet when a solar storm wakes them all from their hyper-sleep. When their captain (James Franco, in a refreshingly brief cameo) is burnt to death inside his pod, first mate Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes over, but doesn't seem like a natural born leader. The captain's wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), is still coming to terms with her loss when her grief is interrupted by a faint human distress signal from a nearby planet that also appears to be in the habitable zone.

Oram decides to divert the ship's course and go investigate a planet that could provide a new home much closer to Earth, but Daniels sternly advises him against it. And you won't be surprised to discover that she turns out to be right.

The landing party is tentatively exploring a lush, mountainous land that looks a bit like New Zealand when one of the crew steps on some innocuous looking spores and inhales a fine haze of extraterrestrial dust. Pretty soon monsters are popping out of people's chests, and the team faces annihilation. Then David appears from nowhere, bearing a burning torch, and leads them to a high, stonewalled lair where he assures them they'll be safe. But you know what? They won't be.

Fassbender's David is a glorious creation, a robot with a massive superiority complex who expanded his vocabulary by watching Lawrence of Arabia over and over and now sounds like Peter O'Toole. Trapped for decades on this lonely planet after the bloodbath at the end of Prometheus, he now has a bit of a god complex, and the conversations between him and his more streamlined lookalike, Walter, provide the film's most interesting existential moments.

But Covenant is all about action, and the aliens explode into the viewer's consciousness in a series of very nicely orchestrated set pieces. There's a suggestion that the aliens we meet here are not yet the finished product, and that the creature in the 1979 film was such a horrifically efficient predator that someone must have genetically engineered it.

But this lot aren't half bad either, and one scene in which a creature emerges from an unfortunate crew member's back makes that original 1979 John Hurt scene look like an out-take from Mary Poppins.

There's a sort of soul to these films at their best, and here it's provided by the excellent Waterston, whose character seems like a gentler version of Ripley in the orginals. This isn't the last we'll hear from those thoroughly disagreeable aliens.

Alien: Covenant

(16, 122mins)

4 Stars

Films coming soon...

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana, Katie McGrath); Inversion (Alireza Aghakhani, Sahar Dolatshahi, Ali Mosaffa); In View (Caoilfhionn Dunne, Ciaran McMenamin, Stuart Graham, Gerard McSorley).

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