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Whilst Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien remains one of the best science fiction horror films ever made (arguably creating that sub-genre in the first place), his 2012 'prequel' Prometheus was a massive misfire: a jumbled pseudo-philosophical meander into religious mythology and bad science, populated by some of the worst characters ever to (dis)grace the screen. Still, it looked gorgeous, boasted impeccable production values, and had occasional flashes of what made Alien so effective (the cesarean scene comes to mind).
With Covenant, Scott has attempted to meld together these two different approaches to the Alienverse; continuing strands of his Prometheus storyline (answering some questions, ignoring others) while bringing back many of the elements we loved in Alien (and Aliens for that matter). The question is does it succeed in bridging the gap? Yes and No.
First the good: Jed Kurzel's score is sensational, right off the bat his reprise of Jerry Goldsmith's masterpiece evokes the loneliness and isolation we remember from the first film; yet he also adds plenty of his own science fiction style that gives the film an epic and otherworldly feel. The visual effects, particularly in space, are also impressive and beautiful; recalling the 2001-inspired imagery from Alien's first act with the added majesty of films like Gravity and The Martian. The crew of the spaceship Covenant (a colony vessel en-route to a distant star system) are immediately a more likeable and interesting bunch than the Prometheus crowd; with Danny McBride's Tennessee, Katherine Waterston's Daniels, (who takes up the Ripley/Shaw mantle) and Billy Crudup's flawed Captain Oram being the stand outs. They aren't the best characters ever written, nor are they served by the best script, but the acting across the board is of a high calibre. The central performance however is Fassbender's dual performance as synthetics David (reprised from Prometheus) and his later model Walter- assigned to the Covenant crew. His performance especially as David is wonderfully creepy and chilling.
For the first two acts the film is almost consistently entertaining, up to and including the first attack that is horrific and beautifully staged; introducing us to new variants of creature. Fans of horror won't be disappointed in this aspect; Covenant delivers its share of blood & guts. The flashback of David's arrival at the engineer base is also suitably biblical in its scale and horror. Despite a third act lull that throws of the pacing, he last two action set pieces- featuring some familiar creatures are executed superbly (despite some slightly obtrusive CGI in places. Cinematography once again, courtesy of Dariusz Wolski's, is just as gorgeous as in Prometheus with plenty of wide angled landscape shots and in-camera footage of practical sets and hardware. The film looks superb.
The bad news though: script and story are the main casualties; with a rather muddled trajectory, silly character motivations and actions, and a questionable treatment of the iconic Aliens. Despite being space explorers, the Covenant crew seem utterly incurious about their surroundings; barely reacting to anything they encounter. They also lack anything resembling any kind of safety protocols (or common sense), although I didn't find that as egregious as it was in Prometheus. The alien biology is also poorly thought out, and the gestation cycles of the creatures are ludicrously rapid- suggesting a rushed narrative. Characters behave implausibly and inconsistently, creating unnecessary plot holes, and important questions from Prometheus go unanswered. That said, David's story arc is fascinating and makes sense of his actions in the earlier film; and the central theme of creation (also addressed in Blade Runner) is well explored.
As a mash up of Prometheus and Alien, the ultimate surprise is that Covenant reflects better on the former. Not that fans craving the high tech horror from the best of the franchise will go unsatisfied; Covenant delivers on that in spectacularly grisly style. The frustration however lies in yet another ill-thought out story with poorly written characters, predictable plot (the twist is alarmingly obvious) and gaping plot holes. It's a step up from its predecessor, and from the misjudged Alien Resurrection, but it lacks the storytelling maturity of even Alien 3 and as such lags behind the first three films in the iconic series.