Warning: This review alludes to plot elements.
The problem with the prequel trend begun by George Lucas with 1999’s Phantom Menace has been the over-engineering of the myth; the tendency to add muddled and unnecessary complications to a series once defined by simple, audience-friendly dynamics. Many thought Ridley Scott had erred when 2012’s Prometheus junked the meat and potatoes monster-on-the-loose foundation of his 1979 Alien for a pseudo-religious, philosophical take that largely omitted the famous xenomorph, instead suggesting (but no more than suggesting) an origin story involving extra-terrestrial engineers and deadly pathogens – a new creation myth.
Those detractors now include Scott himself, who, having internalised the criticism, has followed up his first prequel with a bold attempt at reconciling the shapeless backstory introduced therein with the stalk and slash franchise of old. But those that feared Covenant would be a return to straightforward fan service, albeit enhanced by Scott’s signature rich eye for detail and pseudo-intellectual seriousness, or perhaps hoped as much, are in for a shock. This second Alien prequel incorporates familiar iconography from the original film and fundamentally has the same plot, but with one important change – the creature is no longer the villain of the piece, rather a side show created by returning murderous synthetic David.
Michael Fassbender’s standout character from Prometheus is the new monster waiting in deep space, and one might argue a more interesting one. The xenomorph’s just a predator driven by instinct after all; David, by contrast, is a psychotic, fascistic intellectual, with a deep-seeded loathing of human beings.
Should his love of Hitler’s favourite composer, Wagner, and his choice to go blonde have alerted company boss Weyland that he might have birthed a monster? Possibly, but Covenant makes a convincing case that Scott’s decision to retcon the Alien as the ultimate iteration of an inhumane thought process; a product of its hubris; was a good one.
The new film improves Prometheus by bringing its Frankenstein theme into sharper focus while presenting an intriguing negative image of the original movies – a series in which the villain endures rather than the hero. Perhaps it’s Star Wars-like in that respect, the all-is-lost first half that precedes a more hopeful second, but David’s a far more exciting and psychologically rich character than the straw man who was Anakin Skywalker. You could almost root for him, were his aim not to disestablish humankind as the galaxy’s most preeminent species.
There will be those who question whether retconning the Alien’s origin this way is desirable (it’s a continuity headache for a start) but it’s clear that Scott, having pulled on the most promising threads from Prometheus has chosen to go all in, rather than back peddle and reduce the unloved prequel to a series footnote. Instead, Alien Covenant blends gothic horror with series staples, the result being a clear thinking reprise of Prometheus (or perhaps second verse) that’s doubles down on its theme of iterative development and experimentation by being a staging post between the film that preceded it and those that follow chronologically.
We’re left with an appetite duly whetted for the next chapter, content that it will not simply be the same story we’ve seen so many times before. Alien Covenant may be uneven in places, its human characters placeholders, but it’s a moody, intriguing watch. Those who doubted Ridley Scott after Prometheus may be forced to admit he knew what he was doing after all.