Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien: Covenant movie review.

38 years ago, a little known director named Ridley Scott brought us Alien, a horrifying and suspenseful sci-fi flick that terrorized audiences everywhere, and launched its main director to superstardom. In the decades since, the film has seen a number of sequels, the most notable example being James Cameron's also fantastic pluralized action film. But the series suffered an inevitable decline with two terrible sequels, and reached its consensus nadir with the indignity of the Alien vs. Predator crossover series, which left the franchise in the gutter.

Eager to restore his career-making franchise back to its former glory, Scott took the helm once more for 2012's Prometheus, that was intended to serve as a prequel, exploring the origins of the Space Jockey. That film polarized its audiences when it was released, mainly due to its frustrating vagueness and numerous loose ends that were clearly building to future continuations. Which finally brings us up to speed with Alien: Covenant, an entry that intends to restore the franchise back to its roots while also diving deeper into the mysteries of Prometheus. But does it succeed at either?

The year is 2104, and the crew of the Covenant are venturing through space to colonize another world in a far away solar system. However, with their ship left damaged after a solar flare leaving crew and colonists dead, and after receiving a mysterious transmission from a mysterious planet that looks habitable - mysteriously, the crew decide to scout out the strange world to build their new home. Eventually their mission takes a turn for the worse, as the crew are whittled down by the strange alien monsters inhabiting the planet, becoming stranded and taking refuge until their ship can rescue them, as they struggle to keep safe from the vicious creatures.

One issue that really has me disenchanted with Alien: Covenant from the start is how irrelevant it tends to make Prometheus look. I've gone on record with my apathy for how misguided and contrived I found the film to be, but I could at least acknowledge it was an ambitious film with some moments of arresting filmmaking. Now given the freedom to expand on Shaw's story and the earlier themes, it's unfortunate then that Scott doesn't do anything with those elements. The mood of Prometheus is there, but it struggles to stand out from the surrounding Alien elements, and quietly sweeps most of the original elements under the rug, only keeping the presence of David (played again by Michael Fassbender). Needless to say, even if you weren't a fan of Prometheus, you'd have to agree that this is an abrupt and insulting way to end that story, leaving those mysteries an eternal loose end, almost as if the filmmakers had no intention of ever clearing that vagueness up. Of course, if the film were still good, I wouldn't be so upset, but in my opinion, Alien: Covenant is actually worse than Prometheus.

Early on, it's plain to see that Scott is determined to recapture that same lightning in a bottle he experienced with Alien, attempting a similar group dynamic and specific beats and rhythms, recreating the same general atmosphere, right down to composer Jed Kurzel reusing Jerry Goldsmith's original main theme. However, all of these attempts to recapture the inspiration of Alien really do ring as such, an inferior carbon copy of Scott's own movie. Not always exact or blatant, but you get the sense that Scott's attempts ring very apathetic here. The film can be scary, but never to the degree it should. It ratchets up the goriness and the violence, but not the tension or terror, managing to say a whole lot less than the original film by showing more, and even the titular creature isn't the horror that it should be, as Scott often foregoes on-set practicality in favor of a Lucas-esque use of CGI - sometimes quite impressive, but other times quite disenchanting.

But another area where Covenant tries and misses to reach for is in the same endearing characterization. It's no secret that with Prometheus, Scott found most of his attention eaten up by Michael Fassbender's David, as he was the character getting the most time to himself, and had the most interesting character of the lot. It seems history repeats itself here, and it's especially made moreso by the fact that Fassbender is here in a dual role, also playing the Covenant's overseer and personal android Walter. Just as in the last film, he is easily the best part of the movie, and though his new Walter could have made for a pale imitation of David, Fassbender creates a very different type of android with a harder-edged presence, especially when seeming to ponder his sense of self-worth and freedom. David continues to make for a polite but quietly menacing presence, and while the character has been stripped away of that sense of wonder that made him such an endearing quality of Prometheus, that's played understandably without making the character feel different from his original incarnation, and Fassbender plays the role as well as ever.

But the problem is that because Scott is so preoccupied with the Fassbender droids, the rest of the characters are completely squandered and sidelined. In fact, the players are so thinly sketched and underdeveloped you could swear chunks of the movie were missing. The most prominent face belongs to Katherine Waterston's Daniels, who spends much of the movie with this mopey and saddened look to her. Understandable given that the start of the movie shows her witnessing her own husband's death (inexplicably played by James Franco), but this feels like too much emotion to be thrusting upon us for a character we've literally just met, and Waterston doesn't get much meat beyond that. That actually comes to inform the rest of the characterization in Covenant, in that the characters fail to stand out, meaning it's hard to care when them or their spouses are axed off. Which is a shame, given the onscreen talent on display. Danny McBride has it the best of the supporting players, giving a surprisingly solid turn in a dramatic role, despite the film restricting him to the ship and away from the action most of the movie, but the other crew members played by Billy Crudup, Carmen Ejogo, and an especially wasted Demian Bichir all feel like little more than the blatant fodder they are. I know the company has released "Prologues" to lead viewers into the movie, which would probably expand on the characters (I confess I didn't watch them. I came into the movie fresh), but if the studio has to point viewers to those in order to better enjoy the actual film, because it couldn't be bothered to do all of that on its own, then you know that they've screwed up.

But I think what annoys me most about Covenant are the aforementioned prequel roots. I know plenty of viewers have probably wondered for years as to how the Xenomorphs came to be, but after this film, I imagine they'll wish that it were never answered. Without giving anything away - which is hard to do considering how much it irritates me, the birth and the conception of the Xenomorphs are explained in convoluted fashion, offering up an origin story that feels preposterous to comprehend, and in a further Lucas-esque quality, even contradicts key components of the original film. Not only that, but because the beats of Alien are so well known by this point, the film thinks it plays it smart with how it plays several major twists, but they all feel completely obvious to the level of condescension.

If I can have an aside here, just recently, Fox officially cancelled the proposed Alien 5 that was to be written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, with Ridley Scott instead going forward with a proposed six sequels to come. It seems that Ridley, angry over what had become of the franchise following Aliens, feels keen to hold on to the franchise for as long as he lives, almost like his baby that he wants to protect from unsuitable arms, because they may damage it. Ironically, it seems like Ridley is doing that just fine on his own, continually spinning his wheels on a franchise losing steam, and only undermining the original impact left by his original film with these prequel entries. If Alien: Covenant isn't the worst entry in the series, than it's certainly one of the most disappointing, devolving the star horror franchise into every other horror movie out there, and largely free of the same inspiration and spirit that made the series as beloved as it is. With how dry the Alien well has run, it seems best that Ridley should just cut the cord and let his baby go.

*1/2 / *****

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