Friday, May 19, 2017
At this point, we can classify the various installments of the venerable Xenomorph franchise thusly: At the top of its own pyramid, there's the terrifying 1979 original, one of the best films ever made, for my money. Beneath that, at the top of a separate pyramid, there's James Cameron's seminal action-thriller Aliens, a tour-de-force of exquisite plotting and nail-biting sensory overload. At the bottom of the heap, we can certainly place the execrable Alien vs. Predator nonsense, designed exclusively for pre-pubescent teens with a desire to see their video game fantasies flashing before their pearly eyes.
In the muddy middle, there's the studio-stymied Alien 3, which was meant to be the big break for a young, highly talented director named David Fincher, but instead became a paragon of what happens when a studio totally loses its nerve and demolishes its production. There is also Alien: Resurrection (the series clearly loves its full colons), a visually arresting production from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which was pretty to look at, but little else.
78 Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Benjamin Rigby, James Franco, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: R, for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
So, where, then, are we meant to place the last two (ugh) prequel films helmed once again by Ridley Scott, Prometheus, and this latest spinoff, Covenant? Very close to the bottom, on my pantheon, above AVP, but not by as much as could be considered comfortable. Stylish, but soulless, the films both offer a good deal of unearned solemnity, along with soggy scripting, poor character development, and, worst of all, an insufferable insistence to keep answering questions nobody was asking in the first place.
Admittedly, my most basic issue with this pair of films is their supposed relation to the original, a film in my personal canon that has few peers. But even taken out of that context, the prequels are still laborious and, for all their spiffed-up CGI and big-money gloss, decidedly dull, traipsing on the surface of deeper questions of creation and existence ("If you created me, who created you?" wonders a synthetic to his maker early on), but only as a means of distraction from their largely uninspired raison d'etre.
We meet the crew of the colonist ship Covenant, forced to wake from hypersleep by the ship's synthetic, Walter (Michael Fassbender), shortly after a solar storm causes damage to the ship that needs their attention. Unfortunately, the captain doesn't make it out of his pod, leaving first mate Oram (Billy Crudup), in charge. He is there with his wife, Karine (Carmen Ejogo), a scientist; along with the other couples who make up the crew, including Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the widow of the recently deceased captain, and second in command; Tennessee (Danny McBride), the lead pilot, whose wife, Faris (Amy Seimetz), operates as the crew chief; and several other characters who frankly die quickly enough to not make much of an impression either way.
Having awakened in time to take care of the ship and secure the other 2,000 hypersleeping colonists on-board, the crew is alerted to a static-laden human transmission from a nearby planet, whose environment and atmosphere seem almost too good to be true. In short order, they dispatch a shuttle with everyone except the primary flight crew on board to check out the transmission and determine whether this planet will serve their colonizing purpose. Needless to say, this turns out to be a truly wretched idea, when, very shortly after arriving, several of the crew become infected with xenomorph embryos, and in no time young aliens are tearing around the huddled survivors like a pack of ravenous wolverines.
They are saved from further extinction by a mysterious hooded figure (opening line: "Follow me!" -- which caused the audience to titter), who turns out to be ... David (Fassbender, again), the demented synthetic who survived the debacle of the Prometheus some 10 years before. David has given himself to further studying the creatures, cultivating them, if you will, and experimenting in genetic coding, so he sees this battered, pitiful crew as a means to further his research.
We can start with the most serious problem Scott is unable to solve: Working so closely with the suspense beats of the original film, with many of the same once-haunting atmospheric details (dripping water, howling winds), it is unable to generate a single solid scare, let alone an unnerving mood of dread. Instead, we get lots and lots of frankly idiotic and eminently forgettable characters getting gored-up without any sense of loss or danger. In fact, given the horror many of the survivors face after losing their spouses, they are still able to crack jokes and make wise, as if their loss was no big whup after all, a feeling, I assure you, that is shared by the rest of us.
So, it fails as much of a horror film (at ease, genre purists, whether Alien should be considered a horror film, or sci-fi, it was still scary as hell; this is most certainly not), and it's too clumsy to be a twisty thriller. The big revelation at the end is so poorly set up by the script, dismayingly, you see it coming a mile away.
In 1979, Ridley Scott was 42 when Alien was released. Since then, he has made 21 features, but none (not even the brilliant Blade Runner) as deep-seated and inspired as his second. By withering comparison, take the scene from the first film, in which the hapless Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), searches in the deep holds of the ship for the cat, Jones, who has hidden himself away with the alien potentially lurking from every shadow; and compare it to a similarly long drawn-out scene in Covenant between a female crew member (Tess Hauberich) taking a moment to clean herself up in a strange chamber in David's abode. In the former, Scott bleeds the tension to a near-breaking point, letting the creepy ship's atmospherics languidly build around Brett's ever more plaintive calling out for the cat; in the latter, he gives us a choppy, brief scene with the crewmember washing up in a basin before just sending a xenomorph her way. Her death is far gorier than Brett's, but that blood and gristle works as a cheap stand-in for something with true psychological depth. There's a reason why, nearly four decades later, Alien still resonates, and why this film, for all its enhanced effects and slick production values, will be entirely forgotten by the end of the month.
For Scott, it's becoming an almost embarrassing callback to past glories, like the drunken sot at the end of the bar who always wants to tell you about the time he dated a woman who looked like a supermodel (going so far as to crib "That's the spirit!" -- one of the more compelling lines from Blade Runner -- as if to remind us of much better times). I can no longer stomach the continued desecration of his seminal masterpiece for his continuing need for self-aggrandizement. It's becoming unseemly, and worse, absolutely fungible.
I would take the time to beseech Mr. Scott, whose early filmography contains what I consider masterworks, to leave the xenomorphs and the synthetics be, to set down the jar of dripping goop, and move on to entirely new projects, but alas, my pleas would only fall on deaf ears, and the end of this film all too clearly sets up the next sequel. Like a kind of cinematic purgatory, we seem doomed to endure these endless installments, picking at the long-desiccated bones of what was once a saga formed on the height of elegant simplicity. As always, we humans aren't able to leave well enough alone, especially if there is a dollar left to be wrung out in the process.
MovieStyle on 05/19/2017
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