Monday 15 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

Xenomorphing Cower Strangers

Alien: Covenant
USA/Australia/New Zealand/UK 2017
Directed by Ridley Scott
UK cinema release print.

Warning: There’s a clearly marked SPOILER ZONE in this article. So I’ll warn you when you get there.

Gosh... this is kind of a difficult film to process. I really liked the ALIEN films up to and including the fifth in the series, the first ALIEN VS PREDATOR movie (despite the glaring continuity error in that last one and not including their cameo appearances in any solo Predator movies). However, the last two in the franchise, ALIEN VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM and the so called A L I E N prequel Prometheus (reviewed by me here) really didn’t sit well with me. AVP: REQUIEM pretty much reduced the beautiful Alien Xenomorphs to the level of a teenage slasher movie and might better have been called 'Aliens Meet Jason' or some such dreadful thing (although, it has to be said the movie did have one thing going for it... an outstanding score by Brian Tyler)... and Prometheus, which I and pretty much everyone I know had high hopes for, suffered from some really bad artistic choices.

In Prometheus the three biggest sins were the reduction of the beautiful space jockey designed by H. R. Giger for the very first film... transformed into tall men wearing bone suits (known as Engineers), the absence of the actual Xenomorphs themselves and, finally, the absolute lack of actually leaving us in a place where the first movie could actually pick up from in the first place. The film was beautifully executed and absolutely gripping during the first half and then it just got really disappointing very quickly, not long after the crew went on board the alien ship.

This new film in the franchise, once again directed by Ridley Scott, is pretty much more of the same combination of awesome movie making coupled with some disappointingly poor artistic choices as far as I’m concerned. I’d rate it a definite improvement on Prometheus but this is very much a sequel to Prometheus than it is a prequel to A L I E N, it has to be said.

The film starts off, after a scene with Michael Fassbender reprising his role of David, which is set some time before the events of Prometheus, before fast forwarding past the previous film by a good ten years. My first danger signs that made it feel like Ridley was trying way too hard and, more importantly, too clumsily, to win franchise fans back came with an opening credits sequence that tried to mimic the first film badly in terms of the typefaces appearing in sections but with the twin mistakes of having them appear way too fast and also going to a second line of the same for the film’s subtitle at the bottom of the screen. This already felt a bit rubbish but then having the composer Jed Kurzel, who does an appropriate job for a lot of the time, using a new variant of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous, unused opening titles for the original A L I E N to play out over them was just a little bit too much.

Indeed, as much as I enjoyed Kurzel’s score to this and am looking forward to acquiring the CD of it at some point soon, the first third to a half of the movie seems to be intent on parodying various moments of Goldsmith’s original score for A L I E N. Now, this maybe wouldn’t have seemed so out of place if the Alien franchise had a very definite musical identity grounding it. Alas, as far as I am aware, every single movie in the Alien series (including the Predator versions and Prometheus) have had a different composer and, while some of the orchestral textures shared a commonality in some of the movies, there is no underlying style which has given them a consistent, coherent musical identity (the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe films are guilty of exactly the same crimes against musical filmanity, by the way). So, much as I appreciated hearing all of this pseudo-Goldsmith pumped through the cinema speakers... it just seemed a little misplaced here.

Although the film makers have tried to at least retrofit the space ship Covenant to the Nostromo of the first movie, they somehow neglected to remember that they never had a load of hologram style technology in A L I E N, which was obviously set some time after the events in this film (although a big shout out to the set dressers for the return of one of my favourite things to the series, the drinking duck). We also have the continuation of the synthetic David character, portrayed so brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, who is, in himself, something of an anomaly. In James Cameron’s ALIENS, we had the idea that a synthetic crew member as part of the family, so to speak, was a normal thing to take with you on board a spaceship. However, people should maybe remember that the second film was set quite a long time in the future from the original A L I E N movie so, you know, things had moved onto where it became normal to have a synthetic on board. Before that, though? In A L I E N, Ian Holm portrayed Ash, a synthetic who was not known as an android to the rest of the crew. He was a secret plant by the Weyland Yutani company. So... and Prometheus had this problem too... how come that before the events of A L I E N, having a synthetic human on board seems to be par for the course already? It kinda makes no sense.

Okay... this is where the spoilers start, people.

Also, while I’m on the subject, it also makes no sense that he would posess superhuman speed and strength. Certainly Ash and Bishop in the first two movies displayed none of that and yet, here, they are hurling people around like action figures. So... yeah, the continuity is screwed. And the continuity is also screwed when it turns out that the Alien Xenomorphs we are familiar with through the original Giger designs are, in fact, engineered by David. Because this is still set many years in our future folks so, if this is the case, how in heck did they come to the planet Earth many years in our past, as established in the first ALIEN VS PREDATOR movie? None of it is really making much sense. Honestly people, we laugh at how screwed up the continuity is from film to film on those old 1940s sequels to Universal’s The Mummy but modern franchises like the X-Men films, the Resident Evil films and this ALIEN franchise are just as bad, if not worse. Future generations of film fans will look at these movies and laugh at how quaintly people of our time must have forgotten what was going on between films.

Okay, so I was hoping for a reappearance of Noomi Rapace as the sole human survivor of the last movie... Dr. Elisabeth Shaw... but she really doesn’t get anything more than an illegible visual recording and a sound recording in here. Which is a shame because, opening credits aside, the first half of the film is quite strong, leading all the way up to an attack by alien life forms of some sort, not long after the spaceship Covenant touches down on the Engineers planet. What’s left of the crew are ‘rescued’ by a hooded figure and I was really hoping the rescuer would be Shaw but, alas, it was Fassbender as David. Now Fassbender also does double duty here as a later model of the same character called Walter but, it has to be said, the story is really crude and obvious from this point on. Once we are shown that a synthetic human can grow hair (seriously?), we have two almost identical looking characters, one who is a good and loyal android and an evil/mad version of the same. So I have to say I defy anyone who doesn’t know what’s going to happen towards the end of the movie here. And when David starts cutting his hair it’s pretty much spelled out long before we ever get to that point in the film. It’s a crude plot device which wouldn’t seem out of place in the early days of TV but to still be using this whole ‘evil twin’ surprise thing here (and this franchise is not the only modern franchise using this tired, over played, intelligence insulting template) really shows how sloppy and uninventive modern movie writers have become.

End of spoiler zone.

Another bad thing about this movie is the xenomorphs themselves. For most of the film the key alien monster is a whitish pink thing not unlike the terrible ‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ looking Alien at the finale of Alien Resurrection... it’s not quite as crude as that but... yeah, really not impressed, in all honesty. The smaller, ‘just hatched’ versions of these are much more effective here in terms of suspense than the grown versions. The xenomorphs do feature in this eventually... just not very much and, it has to be said, they looked really clunky in some scenes. In fact, they looked almost more like a man in a suit (which I’m told they’re not, here) than the original version in A L I E N and, it has to be said, are far less effective. The face huggers are way better used here but... well... remember when the acidic blood of these creatures could eat through several hulls of a spaceship? Well here it can’t even eat its way fully through the front of a human face so... seriously some major continuity errors here, I feel.

Well that’s all the bad stuff.

The good stuff is... it looks and sounds awesome. Ridley Scott makes beautiful looking films... of that there is no question. The cinematography is amazing and although a fellow movie goer was complaining that it was too darkly lit (especially compared to the same scenes in the trailer), I think this works in its favour to cover up some clunky CGI in some parts and allow the audience to bring their imagination to the party... which is always more effective. I think Scott really knows what he’s doing visually and it certainly shows here.

We also have a cast who are quite brilliant. Michael Fassbender always brings a lot to the party and seems to be extraordinary in anything he puts his mind to. His costars are all great in this too and with a special mention for Katherine Waterston who is the ‘strong but emotionally vulnerable female’ Ripley surrogate of this movie. She does some good work here, especially when it comes to one of the film’s key themes... how characters deal with the emotional loss of a loved one when they are suddenly taken from them with no warning. There’s a fair bit of that in this movie for several of the characters and I suspect I know just why that theme is touched upon quite so often here but, due to my own, admittedly slightly twisted, moral compass, I don’t want to point it out here because it’s an issue which may be sensitive to at least one of the artists involved with the making of this film.

There are a lot of things I could be saying about Alien Covenant, many of them bad and some, probably, fairly good but I don’t want to labour the points and I think I’ve touched on the key things I wanted to cover in this review. The more I think about this film, the more disappointed I am in it... although it was a heck of a lot more focused than Prometheus, that’s for sure. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to non-Alien fans, I would certainly shout it out to all of those who do love the majority of the previous movies. It’s going to make some money, I hope, because I really want to see Ridley finish it up with a link back ot the original A L I E N movie (which it gets nowhere near doing here) but, in all honesty, I think the xenomorphs are a little played out now, to tell the truth. Not a terrible film... not a great one. A kind of a quaint, almost 1950s style sci-fi/horror yarn with a few little shout outs, in some moments, to Scott’s greatest masterpiece, the original studio cut of Blade Runner. Glad I saw this one but it’s not a repeat watcher for me.

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