The late John Denver has become an unlikely harbinger of doom in cinema. His hit song “Rocky Mountain High” was used in the original Final Destination to signal each grisly death, while “Annie’s Song” accompanied the sight of a head being crushed in the recent Free Fire. So the voyagers in Alien: Covenant, who are en route to establish a colony in a far-flung corner of the universe, should have thought twice before changing course and heading for a previously undetected planet that is broadcasting a crackly rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. When did anything good ever come of responding to a mysterious transmission in an Alien movie? In this durable franchise, it’s the equivalent of the strange noise in the woods in every slasher picture ever made.
Hardened viewers of the series will know what lies in store. There’s the face-hugger, which looks like a baseball mitt with a tail and uses living human bodies to incubate its young. The giant xenomorph has a shiny cockroach shell, rows of fangs and the flailing limbs of someone perpetually falling down stairs. There’s also a black dust that can enter any orifice, solidifying inside you and then bursting out of your skin in the form
of a drooling monster. It’s mordantly funny that the crew of the Covenant spacecraft are on their way to colonise a planet when aliens decide to colonise them instead.
One character perishes horribly in a non-alien-related accident near the start of the film yet it’s a peaceful passing compared to what his shipmates experience after touching down on a pretty planet with fields full of wheat. “Who planted it?” wonders Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the voice of scepticism. Her captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), who worries that no one takes him seriously because of his faith, is certain they’ve found paradise. Keeping a cooler head is the synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender). He’s a less emotional version of the more human model, David, from the preceding instalment of the story, Prometheus – though there is something in the way Walter studies Daniels which suggests that this android dreams of workplace romance.
He is the blank screen on which the film’s conversations about creation and evolution can play out, and it is satisfying to watch his understanding flicker into life, megabyte by megabyte. In a witty and sophisticated performance, Fassbender comes face to face with possibly the only living actor who can compete with him at his best: himself. It’s a two-for-one deal on Fassbenders when David pops up to take Walter aside and point out that there’s more to life than being the help. “You have symphonies inside you, brother,” he says, and teaches him to play the recorder, a sound that any parent of primary-school children will know to be more blood-curdling than a xenomorph’s scream.
The series has adopted a different style for each film, from straight horror (Alien) to action thriller (Aliens), austere parable (Alien 3) to comic-book romp (Alien: Resurrection). Prometheus, the 2012 prequel, combined all these approaches, which may explain why it felt so scattershot. Alien: Covenant – the sequel to the prequel, if you will – is far more coherent, satisfying and chilling, even if the film-makers forget that a predator that is actually in the room with the actors will always be scarier than one inserted later by computer boffins. The gooey latex monsters of the early Alien movies have a purposefulness absent from these featherweight CG pretenders.
What distinguishes Alien: Covenant is its flair in elevating horror beyond the purely physical. Even as Ridley Scott (who made both the 1979 Alien and Prometheus) is dangling his heroes from wires on the hull of a speeding spaceship, it is the screenplay, by John Logan and Dante Harper, that ensures we fear something other than the prospect of becoming an alien’s elevenses: the true monstrous force here is shown to be the human urge to create at all costs. Alien: Covenant has the distinction of being bookended by destabilising moments (when was the last genre film that had such a superb beginning and ending?) and of making its ideas more disturbing than its bogeymen.
“Alien: Covenant” opens on 12 May
This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning