In the space of just three years, Ridley Scott made two films that changed the face of modern cinema. Alien in 1979 and Blade Runner in 1982. Later this year, Blade Runner officially changes hands as the director’s baton passes to Denis Villeneuve – and this week’s trailer gives us an indication of what to expect. Alien, however, is firmly back in Scott’s grasp: after its three sequels were put in the hands of other directors – let’s not bother with the AVP franchise – he returned with the prequel Prometheus (2012). Now he gives us the sequel to the prequel.
The Covenant of the title is a colony ship, bound for a planet some seven years away and carrying 2,000 pioneers. Most of the crew are couples, also looking to start new lives and, while they’re all asleep in pods that put you in mind of Passengers, the ship is being run by Walter (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic similar to David from the previous movie. The ship runs into trouble, so they’re all raised from their induced sleep to put things right, but the problems result in the death of the captain. His replacement, Orom (Billy Crudup) hears a voice from a nearby planet, one that appears able to sustain human life, so he decides they should investigate. This turns out to be the planet where the Prometheus disappeared and, as the crew finds out, there’s a familiar reason why.
There’s a lot that’s familiar about Alien: Covenant, perhaps more than you would expect, given that the original was nearly forty years ago. But what Scott can never do is to replicate the true terror that went with the original: we know what the enemy looks like and have done for years, so now he has to do the next best thing. Pile on the action and the gore and create as much suspense as familiarity will allow. There’s certainly no shortage of any of them this time round: deaths and births are equally grisly and there’s some powerful action sequences, especially in the latter stages.
The women crew members are on an equal footing with the men and, once again, one of them emerges as a natural born leader. For Ripley read Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who also provides the film with its emotional core: as the deceased captain’s wife, she spends the early part of the film grieving but then has to take on that familiar adversary more or less single handed.
But we’re also taken in a different direction, through Michael Fassbender on double duty as Walter, and as David, the synthetic from Prometheus. It takes an actor of considerable skill to play two characters who look pretty much identical and make it transparently clear which one is which. And he unquestionably succeeds. If the film belongs to anybody, it’s him. And Scott can’t resist a reference to his other movie about replicants/synthetics. “That’s the spirit!” exclaims one of them, when the two resort to fisticuffs.
As to where this new path will lead us in terms of more sequels – or prequels – remains to be seen. The same applies to how much more Scott can make out of what is now a very familiar story. Alien: Covenant stands up happily on its own as a piece of gory sci-fi. The horror that characterised the first films has gone, replaced by tension and action to keep you watching right to the end. But, in the end, you just can’t shake off the feeling that you’ve seen this all before.
Alien: Covenant opens in UK cinemas on Friday, 12th May.