It’s nearly been 40 years since Ridley Scott captured that raw unfiltered fear of his unsuspecting cast, witnessing the chestburster exploding from John Hurt’s body, arguably one of the greatest cinematic moments ever. Luckily for production runners, cow organs and sheep intestines are no longer needed to create satisfying horror-thrillers, as clearly evident in Alien: Covenant.
Taking place on the “Covenant” spaceship destined to colonise an Earth-like planet far away, an unexpected electrical storm prompts ship's android Walter (Michael Fassbender) to awaken the crew from hypersleep. Tragedy strikes and the crew faces the conundrum of redirecting their colonising mission to an unvetted nearby planet which seems more than sustainable of human life, or chance staying on their planned trajectory and risk the tragic events occurring again.
The crew chooses the former with unbridled optimism, bar lead protagonist Daniels (Katherine Waterson). They land, everything is fine and dandy, until, you guessed it. Aliens. They have never looked better thanks to some stellar CGI and are unsettling and macabre as ever, but too often Covenant relies on its well-worn franchise formula to provoke. Jump scares and panto-esque scenarios run amok. The issue of a faceless and indistinguishable crew mean ship members are merely fodder for gruesome slaughters, with set-ups anticipated from a mile off. There's nothing wrong with this of course, and indeed their harrowing plights are thrilling to watch, but any empathy felt to the characters is notably absent, with the gravitas of each systematic butchering becoming ever so slightly more hollow. Even Daniels feels somewhat ambivalent and disposable at times
Instead, director Ridley Scott focuses the development to one character; extending the horror beyond the emetic bloodshed and into a new being to be truly fearful of. David (also Fassbender) – the prototype synthetic android who preceded Walter in terms of specification and who also featured in the underwhelming Prometheus – returns, but this time his sinister motives are far more fleshed out, fuelled by egotistical tendencies and moral superiority, his interactions with Walter are what drive the story; his continued presence and actions create a chilling atmosphere, right up to the exceptionally crafted conclusion, resulting in David being feared as much as the aliens themselves.
In addition, the literal gut-wrenching of stomachs exploding aren’t the most squeamish moments. Moreover, the method of how the aliens enter through unsuspecting victims orifices like spores; captured so intimately and explicitly, these moments prove to be the most disturbing, with the fear lingering long after any Xenomorph’s disembowelment of a crew member.
Alien veterans will find plenty to relish and enjoy – especially if they choose to see the film in IMAX – but what about those new to the franchise? Covenant just about stands on its own two feet. Sure it can rest on its laurels at times, playing tribute rather than innovating, but regardless, it’s still an atmospheric, satisfying romp. With plenty of spectacle and enough twists, this is a more-than worthy addition to the franchise.