If you thought Logan might end up taking the crown of 2017’s most violent blockbuster movie, then here comes Ridley Scott to re-prove who the king of fantastical gore really is. Alien Covenant is a vicious and gruesome sci-fi horror, incredibly effective in that aim, but also possessing far loftier ambitions that elevate what is already a brilliant thriller. Scott has already returned to the splendidly terrifying universe he created in 1979’s Alien, with the shaky 2012 entry Prometheus, but Covenant is his first true reunion with the monstrous Xenomorph that made his name nearly 40 years ago, and he clearly relishes every second.
Scott doesn’t go all out with the iconic creature from the off though, and Covenant starts relatively slowly. We’re reintroduced to the too-human synthetic David (Michael Fassbender), this time at the point of his creation, in an eerie sequence in which the android displays a creepily immediate understanding of and appreciation for the concept of creator gods. Flash forward and we’re with Fassbender again, this time as Walter, a newer model of android without David’s disquieting quirks. Walter is taking care of the in-stasis crew of the Covenant, a ship bound for a fresh planet on a colonisation mission.
Inevitably, disaster strikes the ship and the crew sustains vital losses, including the captain, whose hypersleep pod goes up in flames with him inside it. This tragedy knocks the crew’s morale, and new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) succumbs to their pressure to set down on a seemingly habitable, but unvetted, planet that knocks seven years off of their trip through deep space. Only terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston) objects, and it doesn’t take long after that for her doubts to be proved horrendously right. After two careless military grunts get infected with spores and have new monster, the skittish and pale Neomorph, burst disgustingly from their back and mouth respectively, we realise that this crew really is expendable.
After these chestburster-aping moments comes an ambush that kills off a few more of the crew, before they’re saved by David, who has been in hiding here since the Prometheus crash-landed, killing previous film’s heroine Elizabeth Shaw. As it transpires, it was his signal that lured the Covenant, for reasons that the film teases out slowly, and upon his introduction, Covenant changes from just alien body horror to something more grandly philosophical, touching on as many hubristic creator myths as it possibly can.
Scott’s action scenes are more breathlessly, ferociously exciting than any others in 2017 so far, and John Logan’s shamelessly literary and often weird script works in fantastic tandem with them, creating a remarkably well-paced and varied film. Plenty of time is found for Fassbender’s dual roles, with David and Walter sharing many scenes (this is a film in which Michael Fassbender kisses Michael Fassbender), forming both Covenant’s heart and philosophical backbone. Their discussions of creation and creators are thematically dense, if a little on the nose sometimes, and carried off superbly by Fassbender, who gives two of the year’s standout performances.
His pitch-perfect control of body language and tone of voice keeps David and Walter consistently distinguishable despite their identical appearance. Both androids are simultaneously readable and unreadable, forcing you to pay incredibly close attention to them while in constant doubt about their intentions. Mostly made up of alien fodder as they are, the rest of the cast make less of an impression, but Waterston gets a rich arc and Danny McBride’s cowboy-hatted chief pilot Tennessee is good company. The order in which the cast is dispatched won’t come as a surprise, but their respective ends are fitting in a darkly satisfying way.
Covenant is quite possibly the bleakest film in the Alien franchise to date, no easy crown to take, with a staggeringly dark ending that works both as a perfect standalone horror conclusion and as a set-up to the promised continuation of this prequel story. There are still some questions left unanswered about how exactly all this will lead in to Alien, but none that should get in the way of enjoying the film as it stands as they unfortunately did in Prometheus (it helps that Logan’s writing is a lot better than Damon Lindelof’s).
As well as being an exceedingly dark chapter in the series, Covenant is also the nicest to look at, with way more exterior scenes and an epic scope that previous entries have, deliberately, lacked. Lush forests and otherworldly lakes give way to towering derelict monuments and hellish caverns, the majesty of these locations make their eventual soaking with viscera even more striking. Jed Kurzel’s unsettling score completes a virtuoso technical display that weaves in the best of the early films’ design without being too in thrall to it. Even the iconic Xenomorph has undergone some minor but noticeable cosmetic changes, sleeker and more natural than we’ve seen it before.
Obviously, Covenant can’t touch Alien or Aliens – very, very few films, sci-fi or otherwise, can – but this is easily the best of the post-1986 output and the first that can stand as a truly worthy continuation of the original classics. Full of blood-spattered scares, heart-racing excitement and allusions to everything from the Old Testament to Mary Shelley, it’s utterly and uncompromisingly separate to the rest of the blockbuster pack, and all the better for it.