Sunday, 21 May 2017

"No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams."

When the Alien: Covenant title appears on the screen in Ridley Scott's third entry in Fox's six film franchise, it slowly emerges in deep space scored by Jerry Goldsmith's beautiful haunting theme. After the different, divisive Prometheus (2012), it seems like a reaffirmation of core values – this time, in space, no-one will hear you scream. If that is the intention, then Scott succeeds in fits and starts – it feels like a companion piece with Prometheus, still heavy on exposition, but edges closer to the original in terms of gore, imagery and pure excitement.

Alien: Covenant opens with the young Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) lecturing android David (Michael Fassbender) about the mysteries of creation and – to underline the point – gets him to play Wagner's Entry Of The Gods Into Valhalla on a grand piano. Clearly taking place before the events of Prometheus, we then cut to ten years after Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw put David's head in a duffel bag and blasted off to the Engineers' planet. It is now 2109 and the crew of the Covenant are transporting 2,000 colonists to paradise planet Origae-6 in order to start a new life. A random transmission – that is deciphered as John Denver's Country Roads – alerts them to the presence of a nearer planet that has better conditions to support life. Having suffered a recent tragedy that left fatalities, the crew take the easy option and set down in the untested environment. There is breathable air and fields of wheat. Only terraforming officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston) notices there is no bird sound or animal noise. Entirely devoid of organic life, it is a haunted house on the grandest possible scale

Happily, compared to Prometheus, Covenant improves on your favourite Alien tropes – crew banter, a hazardous drop to a planet, the return of ship's computer MOTHER, arguments over quarantine, running full-pelt down corridors, eggs, Facehuggers, Chestbursters and Xenomorphs. But there are twists to the formula, too. There is a newborn alien that could arguably considered cute. And we also get nifty Neomorphs, much more agile than their previous (or should that be future) counterparts, leaping like Velociraptors when cornered by the crew.

When it is intense, Covenant is really intense. The first encounter with the nascent Neomorphs is a full on onslaught, from uncomfortable scenes of uncontrollable shaking to moments of dark absurdity (slipping on blood at a key moment) to the critters revealing a hitherto unknown skill at head butting. Yet once the hunt is on, Scott struggles to muster the sustained tension of Alien or the relentless ride of James Cameron's Aliens (1986). There are some creepy kills but none that recapture the visceral imagination and design of the original's deaths. He also can't build momentum in the same way, the sense of narrative urgency sadly missing.

The Covenant crew are a particularly nondescript, inter-changeable blue collar bunch. Some show promise. Waterston's Daniels is crippled with grief. Newly promoted captain Oram (Billy Crudup) is dealing with doubts that his religious faith will undermine his authority. But only Danny McBride's (Eastbound & Down) Tennessee really registers, and that is partly because he wears a cowboy hat. In fact, the most interesting character relationships come between the two synthetics – newbie Walter and Prometheus holdover David (named after series producers Walter Hill and David Giler). Both skilfully differentiated by Michael Fassbender, the pair meet as David is the only inhabitant of the newly found planet. There are weird, interesting scenes as David teaches Walter to play flute, out score each other on Romantic poetry and in, what feels like a bizarre piece of Fassbender slash fiction, a kiss.

Yet it is also the point where Scott gets to indulge his thematic mission to explore the relationship between man and his creator. At its best, the Alien series works as B movies, embedding all the (psychosexual) meaning in the imagery. Here it is done in dialogue about the frustration of not being allowed to create and the loneliness of dreams. It is just a shame that one of cinema's greatest image makers couldn't deliver his ideas visually. Still, as The Martian (2015) proved, Scott is still a master of science fiction, be it the big stuff (the Covenant sprouting sails to harness power) or the telling details (alien atoms get highlighted in smoke rings). John Logan (SPECTRE) and Dante Harper's screenplay, after the laugh free Prometheus, also adds a joke or two.

An upgrade from Prometheus, Alien: Covenant amps up the thrills but doesn't quite deliver the memorable crew member or full on onslaught of the series at its height.

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