Creationism and mortality are common enough subject matter in science fiction, and director Ridley Scott once again ponders the big questions of 2012’s Prometheus in this latest instalment of the timeline-hopping franchise. A fresh posse of adventurers on a new ship set out on a marathon voyage to find answers, but this being an Alien flick, it’s fairly obvious not everything will go according to plan.
In a brief prologue we are reintroduced to David, the android played by Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, admiring fine art and picking out a Wagner melody on a piano for the pleasure of his creator Michael Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce reprising his earlier role). Actually, should Scott wish to expand on themes of culture and refinement makeovers, he could feasibly call the next film in the series PygmAlien.
Fassbender crops up again after the title sequence as Walter, a technologically improved version of David fulfilling a similar caretaker role on the colony ship Covenant, heading for a new inhabitable planet in a galaxy far, far away. When the crew pick up a faint signal of someone singing along to John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads, skipper Billy Crudup decides the vessel should take a detour and check out the source, despite protestations from his second-in-command Katherine Waterston.
Thus, all the intergalactic ducks are in a row for a retread of former glories, when Covenant’s advance party finds evidence that the planet was at one point the home of Dr Elizabeth Shaw, a boffin from the good ship Prometheus that disappeared a decade previously. Incredibly, Scott enlists four screenwriters to fashion a blatant carbon copy of the last outing, although this latest vision of terror is arguably more violent and gruesome than any of the earlier films.
Without giving too much away, we’re back in origins-of-life territory, with lightly pencilled characters describing humankind as “a random by-product of molecular circumstance” or “a dying species grasping for resurrection”, as if they’re disillusioned philosophy lecturers. Crudup’s religious leanings are hinted at when he says “ye of little faith” to an underling, but it’s a thread that remains undeveloped, taking a permanent back seat when the slimy, toothsome xenomorphs and neomorphs start ripping the hapless astronauts into little pieces.
With the notable exception of pilot Danny McBride (saddled with the silly name Tennessee) who has the good sense to stay on board Covenant when his shipmates jet off to the planet’s surface, it’s hard to get a handle on any of the human characters. Several are married to each other, which leads to all manner of gnashing and wailing when spouses meet a bloody or fiery demise, but the Adam & Eve subplot barely gets a look-in once the body count starts to rise.
Ultimately, it’s left to Fassbender’s dual roles to shoulder the dramatic weight and bring at least of modicum of a moral to a story that seems shakily stapled together to fill the spaces between the (admittedly impressive) monstrous action sequences. There are lots of scares but a lack of a meaty script.
Scott has relinquished the directorial reins of the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, and it might have been wise to do the same here, to bring a more fully formed perspective and a fresh slant to the saga. Unlike the crew of another spacecraft with a sizeable cinema pedigree, he seems frustratingly content to boldly go exactly where he’s gone before.
Alien: Covenant is released in cinemas on Friday 12 May