That much-pondered trailer seemed to suggest that, after the indifferently received Prometheus, Ridley Scott had gone back to basics for the latest Alien film.
Alien Covenant does, indeed, wake the crew of a spaceship near a planet on which a downed horseshoe-shaped craft waits menacingly. There is a face-hugger. There are eggs. There is a woman in a vest. For the opening 40 minutes – the episode's best section – the tension builds elegantly towards an expected orgy of evisceration. It feels, at this stage, very much like a prequel to Alien and not much like a sequel to Prometheus. But things change.
Scott has cast his film effectively. Captain Billy Crudup is convincingly uncertain as a man whose religious faith is as much a burden as it is a support. Danny McBride dials down his good-old-boy shtick just a little as the unpretentious cockpit jockey. As Officer Daniels, the excellent Katherine Waterston - the saddest actress this side of Laura Dern - manages to be something other than Ripley. Daniels is as resourceful and professional as her predecessor (or do we mean successor?), but she is warmer and more sociable. There is enough zip from the ensemble to trigger audience concern as the crew descends towards the planet New Zealand.
Sadly, about 40 minutes into the picture, the writers remember that Prometheus existed and give in to the self-conscious indulgences that weigh down so much popular culture. Dr Who is now all about Dr Who. Sherlock is all about Sherlock. And Alien Covenant feels the need to pick apart its own mythology in ways nobody anticipated or desired 38 years ago. Who cares how the Aliens got to be Aliens? Their unknowable nihilism was always part of the horror. To paraphrase Walter Bagehot on royalty, it is better not to let too much daylight on magic (dark magic, in this case).
The film points up its looming, metaphysical waffles in a pretentious prologue that sees Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) introducing David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus, to the universe in a white space just down the hall from the 2001: A Space Odyssey bedroom. It is intimated that the new picture will be about faith, power and agency. You know? All those things you don't want an Alien film to be about.
We then join the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship loaded with sleeping humans and preserved embryos, on its journey to a hospitable planet. A later version of the same android model is on board. He is called Walter, and Fassbender plays him with a cool, customer-service American accent. Later, David (who now models his hair on Iggy Pop) and Walter meet on the beautiful damp planet and exchange crackpot philosophies.
The checking of boxes will satisfy those who view franchise cinema as a variation on trainspotting. But the horrors of the Alien universe are so familiar that they can't fail to seem perfunctory when cut and pasted into yet another document. (If you find your mind wandering during a chest-buster sequence, then you know the novelty has worn off.) The new film even finds time to joke about conventions established as recently as Prometheus. Fassbender's David was much compared to Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia. The unfunny quote from that film here is surely an in-joke too far.
Meanwhile, the film-makers squander one of Alien's key selling points: the grubbiness of the ship and the surliness of the crew. Everything in Covenant's universe is shiny, primped and spotless. There seem to have been no happy accidents in this film's creation.
More damagingly, Alien Covenant works through its two hours without ever happening upon a precise and clearly identifiable threat from the series' durable monster. There's an attack in the mist. There's an aerial evasion. The final showdown is as muddled and poorly organised as anything in Alien vs Predator. "Let's kill this f**k," poor Waterston is actually asked to say. She may have a point.