Ridley Scott returns to direct the eighth film in the classic horror franchise. But how does it match up to its predecessors? Nicholas Barber takes a look.

If there is one thing the universe isn’t short of, it’s Alien films. Ridley Scott first scared the daylights out of us with his acid-blooded, silicon-skinned xenomorph in 1979, and since then there have been three sequels, two Alien v Predator spin-offs, and a prequel, Prometheus, which was also directed by Scott. Now, he has made another prequel, Alien: Covenant, which brings the number of entries in the franchise up to a Star Wars-rivalling eight.

Given that he is now 79, and so he doesn’t have many directing years left, you have to ask whether it’s really the most stimulating use of Scott’s time and talents to churn out yet another inferior copy of a horror masterpiece that debuted nearly four decades ago. He certainly doesn’t seem to be interested in recapturing the scruffy naturalism, the restraint, or the slow-burning tension which turned the first film into an unforgettable classic.

The most salient difference between Alien One and Alien Eight is how clumsy the new film is

Much of Alien: Covenant is simply a humdrum retread of Alien. Once again, there is a spaceship with a cryogenically frozen crew - a colony ship this time. Once again the crew members are woken from their hypersleep, once again they pick up a mysterious radio transmission, once again they land on an Earth-like world, and once again they discover some severely rotten eggs.

The most salient difference between Alien One and Alien Eight - apart from how formulaic this narrative has become - is how clumsy the new film is. The space truckers in the original never bothered to tell us anything about themselves. They never revealed their full names, and they never discussed what they’d left behind on Earth or what was awaiting them elsewhere. Murmuring, mumbling and whispering their dialogue, they didn’t talk about anything except “the bonus situation”, so we soon came to accept them as ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.

The Alien: Covenant screenplay is more conventional. The crew members - played by Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterson, Danny McBride, among too many others - are handed monologues about their hopes and doubts, detailed arguments about what their next move should be, and sermons about the importance of their mission. That is, they’re obviously the heroes of a Hollywood blockbuster, rather than a bunch of bored blue-collar employees. And yet, despite all this speech-making, the characters are less distinctive than their laconic counterparts were in Alien. They never shut up about their relationships - “wife” must be the most frequently used word in the screenplay - but by the end of the film I still couldn’t remember who was married to whom.

Paranoid android

The planet they explore is an inviting, lushly forested wilderness, but otherwise Alien: Covenant has everything you’ve come to expect from an Alien sequel. Scott and his team ladle out all the usual races down airlocked corridors, they sprinkle on some fan-servicing visual and verbal references to previous instalments, and they serve up a variety of slimy monsters - some tall and lanky, some small and puppy-ish - none of which grips the imagination as tightly as the unstoppable demon which was barely glimpsed in 1979. You could argue that there was never any good reason to make a sequel (or prequel) to a film which worked by keeping so much hidden and unexplained. But, for what it’s worth, the recent Alien rip-off, Life, had more thrills and chills.

The central portion of the film is so redolent of Blade Runner that you may wonder why Scott didn’t just make a sequel to that

That’s not quite the whole story, though. At least half of Alien: Covenant is disappointingly familiar: the last 10 or 15 minutes effectively condense the entire first film into one rushed action set-piece. But there is a section just before that which is strange and haunting enough to justify the enterprise. I won’t give away what else the characters find on the verdant planet, but this mystical interlude revolves around an android, Walter, played with spine-tingling inscrutability by Michael Fassbender. An upgraded version of the robot he played in Prometheus, Walter is forced to consider what he owes to the people who manufactured him. There is a lot of student-y pretentiousness to his musings on Shelley and Wagner, Paradise Lost and Frankenstein, but there is a lot of eeriness, madness and grandeur, too. More importantly, this is the one part of Alien: Covenant that doesn’t let us predict exactly what’s going to happen next.

One question it raises, though, is: what’s all this stuff doing in an Alien film? It’s clear that Scott is no longer inspired by long-headed, scaly-tailed beasties; the characters who fascinate him are the philosophical replicants who were in his second science-fiction classic, Blade Runner. Indeed, the central portion of Alien: Covenant is so redolent of Blade Runner in its themes, as well as in its solemn tone and shadowy interiors, that you may wonder why Scott didn’t just make a sequel to that, rather than leaving the job to Denis Villeneuve, whose Blade Runner 2049 is released in October. If he’d kept his focus on artificially intelligent humanoids, the resulting film might have had the sense of purpose which Alien: Covenant lacks. Instead, he has engineered a misshapen hybrid: a tired Alien episode with an intriguing Blade Runner episode lodged in the middle.

★★★☆☆ 

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