Ridley Scott plays with himself

Alien: Covenant

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by John Logan and Dante Harper, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett

122 minutes, rated MA 15+

3.5 stars

The bitch is back. It is hard to believe it’s almost 40 years since Sigourney Weaver first went into battle against the ultimate beastie, the all-seeing, slime-dripping, metal-jawed she-thing, ranked number two in the universe for survival and all-round unkillability.

The point of the series was of course, that we are number one – or at least, the female of the species is. Men have always been incidental: we incubate, explode or betray, and leave it to Ripley to clean up. At least, that’s how it was in the first four movies, where Ripley was the co-star, along with HR Giger’s design for the thing-with-no-name (unless you prefer the ‘Xenomorph’).

Things went wobbly in the fifth film, Prometheus, in which the original director Ridley Scott squeezed out a pretentious, confusing and somewhat dull prequel. In the sixth, Scott says sorry and boldly goes where he has gone before, returning to first principles: scare the crap out of everyone and make it messy. The new film is two hours of high-octane action and gore, interspersed with rare moments of dialogue and vast amounts of glorious scenery. The fjords of New Zealand stand in for an uncharted planet somewhere a long way from earth.

On a voyage out to a far distant planet, a random solar event rips into the good ship Covenant. She is carrying 2000 sleeping colonists and 1140 embryos. The crew wakes up seven years too early. The captain is toast, so the ill-equipped first officer Oram (Billy Crudup) takes charge. They are all couples, because this new colony is meant for breeding. The terra-forming officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston), grieving for the dead captain (her husband), is now deputy skipper and the closest we have to old Ripley. Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett and Uli Latukefu fill out a strong rainbow cast – all well used, because the least you expect of Ridley Scott is firm control.

The crisis deepens when Oram decides to vary course to investigate a bizarre radio signal from a nearby planet. Among the many incongruities of space: the planet is just like our own, with everything the new colonists might need. No space helmets apparently needed, even though the planet is uncharted. High up on a ridge, Oram and his crew discover the weird horseshoe-like spaceship we saw in Prometheus. Two crew members ingest particles of nasty pollen – and bingo, it’s on. Let loose the rivers of blood. Clean up on planet 36B, stat!

Michael Fassbender returns as two characters, neither of them living. Walter and David are synthetics: one with a British accent, the other American. These characters are a mixed blessing: one carries a vast load of metaphor, to do with creation and Wagner and Nietzsche; the other is just a robot. Why Ridley Scott weights the story with these meandering ideas, I do not know. Whenever he lets them run, as in the first scene with an uncredited Guy Pearce as the mysterious Peter Weyland, it’s like watching a bad Kubrick movie. The younger Ridley Scott would have run a mile from all this baggage. Make the images carry the meaning, pare it back, lean and mean – those were his watchwords. As he nears 80, he appears to want to make a grandiloquent statement.

The monster gives the appropriate answer to most of these questions, by ripping people’s heads off and chewing on their gizzards, or exploding through their skin in that bizarre form of caesarean birth from the inside, first endured by John Hurt. Even by its own standards, this instalment is bloody. Characters slip over in the gouts of blood and guts; heads roll and tongues loll. It’s not so much a bug hunt, as the late Bill Paxton called it in Aliens, as a hunting bug whose job is to give the fans what they came for. What originality there is here is in the small details, not the big ones. If there are to be two more, let us pray they bring back Ripley. The series needs soul, not just bodies.