Tuesday, May 30, 2017

New Release! Alien: Covenant (2017) [Spoiler-Free 1st Section]

Spoiler-Free Section

Director: Ridley Scott

Much like the previous Alien movie, Prometheus, Covenant is an uneven tale with some magnificent visuals.

My full review of 2012's Prometheus is here, but for those who don't know, can't remember, or have willfully wiped their memory of it, the basic tale is thus: in the year 2093, a crew of space explorers arrives on a distant planet, where various clues on Earth have guided them. The working theory is that this new planet may provide further hints about an alien race which may have created all life on Earth. When the crew arrive, they find a massive spacecraft filled with wonderfully advanced and terrifyingly lethal biological weaponry. This weaponry, which includes creatures seen in the previous Alien movies, kills all but two members of the crew: Doctor Elizabeth Shaw and the android David. Shaw and David narrowly escape the planet, with the intent of finding the beings that left behind such nefarious creatures of pure destruction.

Flash forward a decade. The massive spacecraft Covenant is on its way to a new planet, filled with a couple thousand human colonists and the ship's crew, all under stasis for the long trip. When things go wrong, the crew is awoken and they find themselves heading towards a planet from which they receive strange audio which sounds like music from Earth. Once on the planet of origin, they make discoveries as to the fate of the survivors of the Prometheus disaster a decade before their voyage.

Right off, I have to say that Covenant does address one of my beefs about Prometheus, regarding the nature of the android David. And while is is annoying to learn that these were left for a sequel to explain, I did find the explanations quite satisfactory. In fact, the explanations become the primary plot point and arguably most interesting element of Covenant.

Another merit of the movie is, unsurprisingly, the visuals. Between some marvelous set pieces, stunning landscapes, slick costumes, and excellent CGI, the movie looks great. There are also a few action sequences that were far better than anything I recall from Prometheus, including the penultimate showdown with the obligatory xenomorph. No, none of it comes close to topping the many great scenes in James Cameron's Aliens, but there was improvement, to be sure.

Viewers should also not be surprised to learn that the acting is solid. Michael Fassbinder is the headliner, and of course he continues his chilly portrayal of the androids David and Walter. The rest of the cast is also strong, even if Billy Crudup's neurotic performance didn't do his character any real favors. And this brings up the characters.

The crew of the Covenant. Unfortunately, many of them
often seemed like they played hooky during what I assume
should have been rigorous psychological testing and
space exploration training.
One of my major problems with Prometheus was the lack of characters who were either really intelligent or at least worth caring about. I was disappointed to learn that Covenant did not make any real strides in this department. Much like the crew of the Prometheus, the crew of the Covenant come off as bafflingly ill-equipped to deal with difficult situations. Anyone who does just a little homework on space travel knows that astronauts go through rigorous training and are very closely vetted for their abilities to remain cool under pressure. This includes when things go terribly wrong, including losing fellow crew members. Yet, several members of the Covenant seem to lack that even keel, breaking down and over-reacting to nearly every crisis. There is also a lack of organic emotion in the story, with deeply-felt bonds being forced down our throats rather than allowed to emerge more naturally. This is a real shame, as it takes much of the steam out of scenes that are meant to be moving or at least tense.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of the movie is that too many components felt like mere retreads of ideas long since overused in the Alien film series and copied by lesser imitators. While there are some concepts and themes that are new to these tales, many of the horror elements are all too familiar and far too easy to anticipate.

The litmus test for me with science-fiction movies has always been the strength of my desire to watch them again after my first viewing. Covenant does pass this basic subjective requirement, although just barely. As stunning as many of the visuals are, I won't bother seeing it again in the theater, rather waiting for home release. In doing a tad bit of research on the future of the series, I did come across a few somewhat disconcerting quotes from series honcho Ridley Scott, implying that he may just be spinning the entire series into a possibly endless "franchise" - a term which he seems to use almost disdainfully. On paper, the quotes almost suggest that the mere existence of these recent Alien movies are at least in some form a middle finger from Scott to the viewing public, which might explain the lack of creativity, relative to the earliest and best entries into the series. I hope this isn't the case, and that any future films can realize their full potential more completely. Prometheus and Covenant have come up a bit short, even if they are just engaging enough to merit more than one viewing.

Spoiler Section - You've Been Warned

A few specific reactions:

One of several tense moments in which the crew needs to
think and act quickly. Odds are, at least one person is going
to make a horribly ill-advised decision, which seems to be
a theme in the two recent Alien films.
Firstly, I think one problem I have regards the pace. In very short order, things start to go tragically wrong, with protagonist Daniels losing her husband in a brutal, fiery accident. From that horrible moment, there is a dark shadow lurking over the film that even the few attempts at levity can't escape. When one looks at the best science-fiction/action/adventure/thriller movies, including Alien and Aliens, there was always a slow buildup to the disaster and terror. Those movies spend a good thirty minutes or more allowing us to know the characters in more relaxed and often humorous scenes. We never get that with Covenant, which lowers the emotional stakes. As other crew members start dropping like flies, I can't say that I knew or cared much about any of them, which is a far cry from how I felt about many of the deaths in the first two movies. When the crew members of the Nostromo or the space marines in Aliens start dying, there was a real sense of loss. Covenant didn't offer nearly as much of that as I had hoped.

Just how is it that the writers of Prometheus and Covenant either can't or won't write authentic characters? There are plenty of examples in this most recent film, but one standout example will suffice to make my point. After Daniels's husband, who is also the crew captain, is killed in the accident, Oram assumes command. However, right from the jump, he shows a lack of backbone and leadership acumen that is baffling to say the least. This is a man who was supposedly tested and vetted to be second in command of what I assume is a trillion-dollar colonization mission on a distant planet. And at the first sign that he'll have to actually lead people, he crumbles like an eight-year-old who forgot his book report. This was yet another area where the original two films cast these more recent ones in such poor light - nearly all of the characters actually make the right decisions and show great survival instincts and skills; it's just that the xenomorph(s) are frighteningly adept killing machines.

As for the originality, it seems as though Ridley Scott and his chosen writers are tapped out of ideas when it comes to the xenomorphs themselves. Yes, we get an air-born, inhalant version of a xenomorph, and a couple of creatures that bear a different complexion and slightly different body structures. But mostly, we get the same types of chest-burster, face-hugger, and drop-from-the-rafters scenes that we've had in nearly every other Alien movie. Even though Prometheus introduces the ideas of an array of variant pathogens and lethal organisms, the movies seem to just rest on what was successful long in the past.

The android David is central to the film, and his is the most
engaging element of the film. Trying to puzzle out just what
is going though his synthetic brain is easily the most
compelling aspect of
Covenant.
It wasn't all bad, though. I actually like what they did with David's story. While the notions about artificial intelligence going rogue would probably have been fresher about 15 or 20 years ago, it is still a fascinating topic, and the enigma of David and his goals is intriguing enough to keep much of the story interesting. Upon further reflection, it does seem that the film could have revealed David's secrets more gradually and skillfully, creating greater tension. As it was, though, it was fairly compelling.

I'll also say that the penultimate action sequence was solid. While other elements of the movie were not terribly original, the fight on the landing platform between Daniels and the xenomorph, with the craft attempting to escape the planet, is the stuff of excellent big-screen, blockbuster action. It was actually far more memorable and exciting than any of the action sequences in Prometheus, which was sadly lacking in that department.

The "twist" at the end? Come on. Is there anyone who couldn't see that coming from a mile away? I'm not always the swiftest to pick up on such things, but even I knew that Walter was David from the moment we didn't actually see the end of their hand-to-hand fight. On top of that, is there an Alien movie with more of a downer ending than this one? Maybe Alien3, but at least that film concluded on an act of self-sacrificing heroism. I'm not against downer endings, when there is a greater message or suggestion being presented, but this one just seemed downright twisted. I suppose that the nearly-inevitable sequel could help take the edge off of it, and it may actually be a great straight-up action movie a la Aliens, but seeing David basically win does leave a bitter taste in the mouth.