Embrace more invasion

Alien Covenant. MARK ROGERS

The original 1979 Alien took leads from body-horror B-flicks and spawned many more — it was inspired by The Thing (1951) and later influenced the 1982 The Thing in which “the thing”, whatever it is, explodes from the chest and back of a hapless victim in a gruesome rupture. Now the Ridley Scott’s reboot Alien Covenant revisits those sci-fi grotesquerie while also — perhaps not necessarily — philosophising what could have just been exploitation fun. More polished, more ponderous and less dirty, the new Alien movie bursts into life most gaudily when the space-beasts pierce through the flesh of their unsuspecting characters and we half-cringe, in an anticipation for more.

B-flick entertainment distracted by A-flick treatment — that’s Hollywood in the age of sequels and franchises that leaves little room for camp and inglorious gore. In any event, you’ll enjoy Alien Covenant, though you’ll probably not be overexcited by it. And you can’t discount this: there’s no Sigourney Weaver, no pugnacious Ripley fighting the ugly monsters as her cursed ship sails away into the galaxy far, far away.

What we have here is Michael Fassbender, cold as Uranus and creepy as hell. The film opens with him and ends with him (more in the sequel, obviously), and since he plays a synthesis, or an android — two androids actually — the metaphysical debate about thinking machines and the created-vs-the creator supplies the intellectual spine of the story. Alien Covenant is an Alien rejig, as well as a sequel to Prometheus, Scott’s 2012 space adventure that ponders big questions of life and its origin in the universe.

In a plot resembling the original, Fassbender plays Walter, an android programmed to look after the space vessel Covenant as it transports crew members and “colonists” to a new planet when Earth is no longer habitable. A solar storm hits the ship, and the crew are woken up from deep-sleep to repair the damage. Then they discover there’s a nearby planet — much closer than their original destination — that looks habitable for the colonial expedition, so they reset their course. If you’ve seen the 1979 film, you can guess what awaits them on that storm-tossed planet and what uninvited cargo would come on board and most spectacularly, how intergalactic embryos can become so rapacious and ghastly once they hatch and grow inside a human body. The crew members — led by Billy Cudrup as Captain Oram and Katherine Waterstone as Daniels, the milder version of Weaver’s Ripley — also run into a caped stranger: David (also played by Fassbender), a survivor of a spaceship that crashed here years ago.

Alien Covenant. Fox/Warner Thailand

Space thriller has travelled a long way since the first Alien (from, say, Event Horizon to Gravity and Interstellar), and Alien has gone through many major directors (Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, as well as Jean-Pierre Jeunet). What Scott did that was so exhilarating in 1979 has become routine now. But you know that a director knows what he’s doing when the tension simmers beneath the surface, the release of scare and shock is withheld for the right moment, and the claustrophobic interior of the ship is exploited effectively. This is so evident in the original Alien — despite its shock horror, it’s a film that works because of restraint. Scott replicates that here and the first half of the film hums with an enveloping sense of invisible doom.

But Alien Covenent is a film that wants to be both about the flesh and the soul: designed as a follow-up to the cerebral Prometheus, the film juggles visceral scares with middlebrow ponderings on God, free will and the evolution of artificial intelligence, with the soundtrack of German Romanticism à la Wagner’s Das Rheingold to ensure the sanctity of it all.

The film’s first scene is in an all-white sterile gallery in which Fassbender, a robot, plays the piano while inquiring about God with his inventor (Guy Pearce), and later the cyborg quotes Byron while watching the sky burn. Contrast that with the blobs of mucous-covered monsters and their piranha-jaws gnawing at the astronauts a short while later — Alien Covenant has to find a balance between those two extremes. It does, somewhat inappropriately and 38 years after Ripley blasted the intergalactic body snatchers into smithereens, we brace for more invasion, hopefully in a more gruesome, more bloodied manner.

Alien: Covenant

Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterstone, Billy Cudrup. Directed by Ridley Scott.