Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Alien Covenant

Spoiler filled review of Alien Covenant!

I knew about twenty minutes in to watching the latest film in the Alien franchise, that I would have to write about it. I've seen every film in the series, have an Alien tattooed on my back, and wrote a massive review of Prometheus (I was an outlier in that I enjoyed much of it). 

Walking out of the theater, I wasn't just disappointed, I was actually angry. Angry at Ridley Scott. I decided to wait a few days before I put down my thoughts on digital paper. I wanted them to stew a bit and crystallize. Then, something interesting happened. I watched the first episode of the third season of Twin Peaks.

Much like Scott, director David Lynch has a storied and respected filmography. They even have some funny connections (read up on Jodorosky's Dune and Scott's Alien). I'll jump back to my thoughts on Lynch and Twin Peaks at the end of my review. For now, just store it as a little nugget in the back of your brain.

I'm going to review this film in three ways: As a film goer, As an Alien fan, and as a student of film.

First, as a film goer, I look for a few things from my film dollar. Action, story, effects, fun (which is vague, but in a film like AC, fun should be defined as thrills, chills, twists and turns). Alien Covenant starts out a bit slow, but that's okay. It takes some time to build up the ship, the setting, the crew. Taking place 10 years after the events of Prometheus, we are introduced to a group of settlers on their way to a virgin planet ready to start new lives as colonists. We are also introduced to the ship's android, Walter, played by Michael Fassbender, who also played a different android in Prometheus.

Before long, things go awry, the ship is diverted due in part to an emergency. The crew touches down on a different planet where we learn that Shaw, from Prometheus, crash landed, bringing the Alien with her and...blah blah blah. Remember how I described my movie goer goals as thrills, chills, twists and turns? Is any of my description of Alien Covenant sounding new or fresh to you? Because it isn't. Some people go to a planet and are killed by aliens. That's the plot. Is there action? Sure. But it's weirdly compressed. By comparison, look at Aliens, the second film in the series. James Cameron's masterpiece is like a roller coaster. It takes about 45 minutes to ramp up and you feel it swelling, rising, waiting to drop you. Then it sends you over the edge, only ever pausing in its action and suspense long enough to let you catch your breath or momentarily mourn a fallen character, before it send you into the next loop.

Frost was into male Arcturians and getting hit with flamethrowers

The action in Alien Covenant is, instead, jarring and weirdly paced. I suppose most of the film takes place over a few hours? The details of how people die range from funny to stupid to eye-roll inducing.  There are some specific instances of extreme gore, but outside of shock value, I don't think they served a story purpose. Things speed up and slow down during this film in a way that tends to induce a version of motion sickness. The film lacks a sensical rhythm.

As a film goer, just an ordinary joe that likes movies, I found myself bored. There just wasn't anything fresh here at all. Even if you hated Prometheus, you could at least admit there was some spectacular cinematography throughout. Characters were one dimensional. Ships, locations, costumes, lighting - they all seemed borrowed from previously Alien films first and then stripped of anything that would make them stand out. 

Worse than the visual blandness and the rote story were the avalanche of cliches and worn out tropes. The characters are thin and unremarkable, sure. The decision making is laughably poor throughout. But here's how bad it gets.

Have I always looked this sexy while I sleep?

Remember the classic episode of Star Trek, The Enemy Within? It's got that thing that's been used a million times. Same actor plays two versions of himself, one good, one bad. At some point the bad guy pretends to be the good guy. Which one does the lady with the gun shoot? How can we tell the two apart? Yeah, that trope from the 60s. Used so often that Rick and Morty make fun of it. Ridley Scott pulled that bullshit out on us for Alien Covenant. It's not even subtly done. This isn't me being a film snob, either. My girlfriend picked up on it during the movie before the reveal. And once you know that good Walter is actually Evil David (the two androids played by Michael Fassbender), you can't help but view the rest of the characters in the film as idiots who get what they deserve.

On to my review as an Alien fan. In the first film, Alien, we're left with huge questions. What was the alien ship and where did it come from? Who was the giant thing in the chair and why was he transporting all of those eggs? Where did the eggs come from? Could anything kill an alien? How did the corporation know about it?

The second film, Aliens, answers two questions: Can anything kill an alien? Yes. Guns. Lots of them. And where do the eggs come from? A queen. But there's still so much mystery about aliens and the universe they inhabit. And despite Aliens being more of an action film than a horror, it retains its core - that is, that the aliens are 'other'. They are unknowable, beyond nature (or at least Earth nature), even as they have a few recognizable traits, such as a desire to defend their young, or enough intelligence to turn off the power.

By the time we get to Covenant, Scott just decides that mystery isn't important in a horror film or for this franchise. David conveniently explains everything. Aliens, in all their varied versions all come from one weapon created by the Engineers. It's adaptable so it changes based on the needs and the environment. That's it. Aliens aren't a species at all. Just an invented weapons of a wiped out species. Humans are an adaption of that same weapon, I guess. So, mystery solved.

What I want in an Alien film is, first and foremost, xenomorphs, and facehuggers and queens. After that, I want characters who bravely and smartly fight to survive against mounting odds. Lastly, I want a daring escape that leaves me appreciating my fleeting time on this planet. How does this film measure up? Well, we get two facehuggers and two xenomorphs. There are some other weird hybrid things that are like fleshy dog aliens, but to be honest, I spent more time scratching my head over them than I did clutching my arm rest. 

I know what you're thinking, but having no mouth actually makes them more deadly. They ASL you to death.

More aliens isn't always better, but the two xenomorphs in this film don't really wrack up much of a body count. In fact, if my math is right, one kills one guy. The other manages to kill two people during a shower sex scene. Oh yeah, did I mention that? After every one they know has just been decimated by horrible creatures that often come from inside their own bodies and are transmitted in unknown ways, two crew members decide to fuck. Sure. 

So, the two xenomorphs aren't particularly deadly. They're dispatched with relative ease compared to the single aliens killed in Alien and Alien 3. One of the two facehuggers actually gets pulled off of someone while the victim is still conscious and yet...they get impregnated anyway. I guess having to knock someone out and hangout on their face is just the facehugger's way of killing time?
The real villain of the film, is David. He wasn't really a villain in Prometheus, but I guess Ridley Scott decided to make him into a sociopath? And he wins. Yeah, the villain wins. He starts by killing Shaw from the previous film, although we never see that. So, Shaw's an idiot for rebuilding her future murderer. Then David kills all of the Engineers on the planet that Shaw took them to by dropping the bio weapon on them ...because? It's never really explained.

Then...he crashes the ship. Not really sure why on that one, either. They show the alien ship docking in the Engineer city, so I guess he's just like, "Fuck this ship!" and crashes it into a forest. Then he waits 10 years until the Covenant picks up a portion of a recording of Shaw singing a John Denver song. No really, I'm not making this up.

The crew, without a captain (James Franco, who dies without having a line and was apparently cast because fuck it), decides to divert their ship carrying thousands of sleeping colonists to a new planet. Never mind that we've largely established that massive corporations own these ships, probably these planets and, realistically, these people, and that they haven't approved or even know about these idiots changing the name of their ship to Roanoake Two, Electric Boogaloo. 

Within hours of landing the bodies are piling up and literally every single crew member insists on doing dumb things and are breaking all standard protocols for everything. David shows up and pretends to be happy friendly robot, offers them a reprieve and then begins to slowly arrange for their deaths. 

But there was a specific moment where I decided that I hated this movie. And that I hated Ridley Scott for making it. It's after Psuedo-Captain Jackass (played by a sawdust filled Billy Crudup) decides to follow creepy David into a basement to see what he's working on and puts his face over an alien egg, despite the fact that he just shot and killed a deadly white fleshy alien that decapitated a fellow crewmate. He is, of course, greeted by a facehugger. It hugs his face. For a few minutes. Then Captain Dumbass wakes up and has time for a two sentence conversation with David before an alien busts out of his chest. Not a chestburster. An alien. A tiny one. Like if you had a toy alien on your desk. That's what comes out of Billy boy's chest. And it stretches out it's little tiny baby cutie arms in mimicry of David, who is sitting there watching. "Pappa!" "Son!"

Let's unpack that, shall we? Scott decided to say, "Fuck my own movie. I don't care about the precedent I set in Alien. That thing gets on Billy What's-His-Name's face and I want a full grown alien busting out of his chest sixty seconds later!"

"Mr. Scott, don't you mean a chestburster?"

"A what?"

"A chestburster, sir? The fetal form of the alien. The one that sheds its skin. It's a pretty famous scene in your first film."

"Nah. Fuck that. I want a full grown thing."

"But sir, if it's coming from Mr. Crudup's stomach, how would it fit inside of him? How would it get so big so fa-"

"Fine. Whatever. Make it small. But like a big alien. Just shrink it."


"And when it comes out, David's going to stretch out his arms and the alien will imitate him. It's deep. We're going for a Christ allegory here."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Scott."

Seriously. This is what I was waiting for in that scene. I almost laughed aloud. 

Which brings me to the last portion of the review. I've always loved cinema and I have an appreciation for directors with keen eyes and heartfelt visions for their work. Both Alien and Blade Runner are more than just masterful science fiction films, they are works of art. A brilliant collaboration of set design, acting, sound and scoring, cinematography, special effects, lighting and editing, all brought together under a captain, a director. To me, those two movies are some of the best ever put to film.

Scott's films have always felt grand to me, even the ones I didn't like. But as the years have passed, his later films have gone from feeling vast to feeling bloated. His themes have become obfuscated behind giant budgets and he seems to increasingly mistake heavy topics for having something meaningful to say about those topics. 

I get why people didn't like Prometheus. A few of the reasons I agree with. But one thing you can't argue: It was a grand gesture. It was an attempt at putting the Alien universe on a larger canvas. Whether or not he succeeded isn't my point. It's that Covenant is the opposite of that. It's a cheap retreat into safety. But in his haste to try and both court the almighty box office and woo die hard Alien fans, Scott has committed two unforgivable crimes.

The first is, he undid all of his previous good work.  Take Shaw, for example. Her entire journey, which could be argued was the soul of Prometheus, everything she was searching for, every answer she sought, was wiped out off screen. Scott did that. He took his own protagonist and said, "Her journey doesn't matter." 

Or take Daniels. Who is Daniels? She's the lead in Covenant. I haven't mentioned her until now because she's like that English muffin you ordered with breakfast but they put it on a side plate and you forgot about it until after you were already full. You take one bite of it because you feel guilty leaving an entire English muffin just sitting there. But by the time you bite into it, it's room temperature and mushy. 

Daniel's is the anti-Ripley. So many people rightly point to Ripley as a shining example of feminism and how to do female characters in sci-fi right. And while Shaw wasn't perfect, I thought maybe Scott was trying to give us all Ripley 2.0 with her. Instead, he kills Shaw off screen (in a humiliating and degrading way) and then gives us Daniels, a woman who only has one single defining characteristic: her grief over a man. Daniels (played by the so-milquetoast-it-hurts Katherine Waterston) only has two modes: miserable and reactionary.

Fans of Covenant will point out how awesome Tennessee is because he has a cowboy hat and talks with an accent and doesn't put up with your bullshit. I will argue that people only like him because he is literally the only human who is in any way memorable. 

David may or may not have a story arc in this film and if this movie belongs to anyone it's he and his robotic brother, Walter. Their interactions, all strangely homoerotic, are the only spark of life in this film. The irony of that isn't lost on me. But while Walter is trustworthy and reliable, channeling a bit of Lance Henriksen's Bishop from Aliens, David's behavior can't really be characterized as negative human traits. His behavior is foreign and unknowable to us, the way most of us can't understand sexual attraction to children. We see David behave 'evilly' but we don't understand why. And without any human characters to give a shit about, we rely on Walter to ground us. An android. Programmed to not have creativity. Walter is the soul of the movie.

And Scott kills him off screen with no sense of purpose. 

Then the final piece fell into place.  Scott directly lifted musical notes from both Alien and Prometheus at key moments in Covenant. Moments that are sometimes almost laughably identical to their respective predecessors. A scene on its own would have been enough to remind us all, more than enough actually. But Scott has to take musical notes and scoop them on top as if to say, "See! It's just like that one scene in Alien! Get it! It's like poetry. It rhymes." He was aping his own material and passing it off as intent.

Pictured: Egotisticalus Jackassonus

Scott didn't just make a shitty film. He intentionally made a shitty film. Why? I don't know. But Scott knows how to make a good film. He can certainly make an adequate one without really trying. But the things he does in this film are so outrageously bad that a first year film student wouldn't do them. They're mistakes so painfully obvious that my girlfriend, who has no film school education, caught many of these things as they were happening on screen.  He shit all over the Alien franchise with this film and he used his own movie, Prometheus, as toilet paper.

That's his first crime.

His second crime is worse though. If you're a tired old piece shit director out of good ideas and you just want to throw your weight around to cash in another paycheck, hey fine. Cool. Good job. You got my twenty bucks. 

But Ridley Scott went out of his way to make sure that Alien Covenant shut down any shot of Neil Blomkamp getting his Alien film made.  See, Blomkamp, director of District 9, worked with Sigourney Weaver on Chappie (a middling film way better than Covenant). They hit it off and Blomkamp told Weaver that he had an idea for an Alien sequel that would bring back Hicks and Newt and take place after Aliens as though Alien 3 had never happened. Weaver and Michael Beihn were on board. 

Scott apparently didn't like someone else muscling in after the reception Prometheus got, raised a stink, and 20th Century Fox decided to back the horse with bigger box office receipts, cancelling Blomkamp's project. It's one thing for Scott to not care enough to put out a decent Alien film. It's another for him to cock block another director who might have brought some fresh ideas to the series. One that we will not every likely see now.

I could go on with a deeper break down of all Covenant's flaws. Instead, I'm going to talk about a director who I've loved for years and has recently returned to a world that he began decades ago and has taken on cult status: David Lynch. 

Twin Peaks first episode in 25 years is everything Covenant should have been. Reverant, observant, fresh, familiar, engrossing, loving, thoughtful, creepy, dark, confusing, terrifying. Lynch took everything good out of the original series, distilled it, added fresh ingredients, and came up with something at once delightfully new and lovingly familiar. I can't wait to watch more.

In a ranking of all the Alien films, Alien Covenant is only better than Alien vs Predator: Requiem. And like AvP:R, I'll never watch it again. My suggestion is skip it and go catch up on Twin Peaks. 

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