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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Ridley Scott.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez.

"I'm going to kill everyone, starting with the writers of Prometheus."

In most decade-spanning franchises, the goodwill of the early films can be enough to make fans endure the usually inevitable diminishing returns as they live in hope of a return to the glory days.

For example, Star Wars fans put up with George Lucas' comparatively shitty prequels and still turned up in droves for The Force Awakens, where they were justly rewarded for their years of suffering. Less fortunate were the increasingly frustrated punters who saw the most recent Terminator dross in the hopes it would recapture the glory of the first two films. And as much as most people hated Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, those same people will line up again for Indy 5.

So regardless of the terrible Prometheus, and the so-so third and fourth films, lovers of the Xenomorph will be back for more Alien action, despite the fact there hasn't been a great film in the series for over 30 years. The good news is Covenant is Ridley Scott remembering what made the original Alien great. Gone are the thematic excesses and screenplay idiocies of Prometheus - Covenant is less concerned with myth-building and more focused on being entertaining and scary.

Set 10 years after Prometheus, it follows the crew of the spaceship Covenant, who have awoken early from their cryosleep after a random star burst damages their ship. They are on their way to a distant planet, which they aim to colonise, but during their unplanned awakening they intercept a weird transmission and decide to stop over at a nearby planet and check it out. Aliens ensue.

As mentioned, Covenant is Scott nailing some of those original notes he hit back in 1979. The original Alien was a wonderfully taut, contained horror film - a haunted house saga in space, with one of the most vicious killers up against cinema's greatest heroine. Covenant is also, first and foremost, a horror film. It's less haunted house and more, well, spoilers forbid me from saying what it is exactly, but just know that this is skincrawlingly scary in places.

Scott hasn't totally thrown out the nonsensical mythologising of Prometheus, but it's largely irrelevant. In fact you could watch, understand and enjoy Covenant without having seen or rewatched Prometheus (which I wouldn't wish on anyone). What's important is that Scott ditches most of the absurd philosophising while still maintaining a cohesive and coherent theme, which is about creation and the desire/need to create.

The result is a far more interesting (and intelligible) film that doesn't skimp on the action or the gore. Aliens burst out of all manner of places and they stalk and kill a fair whack of the largely forgettable crew over the course of two entertaining hours.

As for that crew, the key names are great. Everyone beneath Bechir is cannon fodder, but everyone above that does a great job, particularly Fassbender, who is back on board after Prometheus  as a more updated android named Walter. Equally excellent is Waterston, who has the tough task of enduring Ripley comparisons. She can handle them - her performance as Daniels is cut from the same cloth and she wears it well. Also of note is McBride, who tempers his typical loudmouthed attitude with some actual dramatic acting. Who knew he had it in him?

It's equally satisfying to see Scott get a bit of blood on his hands again. When combined with previous films The Martian and Exodus, you'd almost say he's got his mojo back after the trash trifecta of The Counselor, Prometheus and Robin Hood. Not that Covenant is perfect or up with his best work. There is a lack of punch and there's a predictability in places, and the pacing of the first act and a half is off, but by-and-large it's interesting and entertaining.

Scott walks a fine line between trying to find new tricks and reminding us of the magic of the first film (and even James Cameron's sequel), but it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Thankfully Covenant is part-fresh, part-nostalgic, and largely enjoyable, and certainly the best Alien movie since Aliens, although that's not saying much.

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