Alien: Covenant… Frankenstein meets Giger

2017.25: Alien: Covenant (CInema)

I usually avoid too many spoilers with cinema reviews, so I’ll warn now that spoilers lie ahead this time. There’s simply no other way of writing a review of this latest Alien film.

cov1

The importance of, and reliance on, the San Diego Comic-Con and other similar Cons all over the world, is a modern calamity and something that I consider with despair. The pandering to the tastes of geeks by Studios and film-makers and television producers is, frankly, a terrible mistake. Associated with this is the power of social media and the internet in sharing and disseminating opinions and observations. Why on Earth a professional film director or producer with years of experience and training suddenly has to pander to the opinions of a snotty twelve-year-old from the middle of Nowheresville to validate a multi-million dollar project created by hundreds or thousands of craftsman and technicians is a mystery to me.  I would include this blog in this horror but I know it has such limited visibility that this blog’s effect on the world is utterly inconsequential (so I consider myself not guilty, thanks).

I’ve mentioned this before- that the geeks have inherited the Earth, and we have all these bad genre movies now to thank for it.

First things first- I did not hate Alien: Covenant. I really quite enjoyed it. I found it disturbing and horrific and fascinating. And yes, frustrating too, which I’ll come to soon enough. Its clearly a better film than Prometheus, but what bugs me now is that it is clearly a lesser film than it might have been, because Ridley Scott, post-Prometheus, seems to have reconsidered his new Alien film projects largely due to the outraged geeks who criticised Prometheus for not having Giger’s alien in it. Simply put, with Alien: Covenant Ridley is giving the geeks what they want. The irony is, that might not be enough for them- or they may have gotten too much of what they asked for.

Yeah, I’m going to blame those geeks as much as Ridley for what Alien: Covenant is, and I’m going to be mighty pissed reading and hearing from all those angry geeks complaining that they have seen all this alien action before. They bloody demanded it, and now they have got it. Which raises issues regards movie ownership, and the influence of fandom on genre films and franchises today. The blame for Prometheus‘ faults lie wholly with Ridley, but I’m not so sure regards the faults in Alien: Covenant.

Back when Prometheus was released, Ridley was quoted, alluding to why that film was devoid of Giger’s creature, that he felt the alien was done, the creature exhausted by over exposure in the sequels to the original film (and of course those terrible AvP films too). It seemed a strange thing to say, but you know, Ridley was probably right. Prometheus has its problems, but the lack of Giger’s Alien isn’t really the worst of them.

cov3So Alien: Covenant has lots of alien action- Neomorphs, Xenomorphs, Alien eggs, Facehuggers, Chestbursters… its like Ridley is checking off a geek’s Christmas wishlist. And yes, he does so with considerable style and skill. The backburster/chestburster are beautifully and convincingly staged way beyond what the 1979 film could have managed. The Alien (or an evolutionary pre-version of the 1979 creature) is more mobile and convincing than previously depicted on film. Even the Facehugger manages to swiftly leap and creep around better than before. But they also seem the most disinteresting moments of this film, even if the sheer amount of gore and brutality tellingly inform the changes in films since 1979 (and yet, just as in 1979, it is the inferred horrors that are most effective here). The familiarity is this films biggest weakness. This is perhaps inadvertently reinforced by the soundtrack using so much of Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score. At least Prometheus, with its original score, had its own identity. Alien: Covenant rather lacks this, and frequently hearing Goldsmith’s score doesn’t help matters- instead it just increases that sense of familiarity and reminders of the (superior) original. Its inevitable, I guess, that familiarity with the franchise impacts on successive entries- at its worst, Alien: Covenant feels like another reboot, like those awful Star Trek films or The Force Awakens.

This film improves whenever it deviates from this Alien heritage. At its best, this film is Prometheus 1.5 as it continues the story of the synth David and Elizabeth Shaw from the ending of Prometheus, and their quest to the Engineer homeworld. Seeded within it are fascinating glimpses of what Ridley perhaps originally intended to be Prometheus 2- but you always have the feeling that this is not the film that Ridley originally intended to follow Prometheus.

(Then again, I still remember my surprise that Prometheus was getting a sequel at all, and feel pretty lucky to have Alien: Covenant; at the very least we get a continuation from Prometheus‘ frustratingly open-ended conclusion).

Just as he was in Prometheus, the highlight of Alien: Covenant is Michael Fassbender and his deranged synth David, whose God-complex issues are further amplified by too much time on the Juggernaut contemplating the mysteries of the Engineers. Just as he has found humanity wanting, so too has he found the Engineers wanting. In a moment of truly apocalyptic  horror he dispatches an entire world of its life, bombarding the Engineer homeworld with the juggernaut’s payload of Black Death. Also, David’s search for perfection and desire/need to create life has resulted in Elizabeth Shaw suffering a truly horrific fate (for Prometheus fans, her fate must be as ill-met as the fates of Hicks and Newt in Alien 3, and there’s certainly an interesting symmetry there, one that raises its head for Daniels, too, at the very end of Covenant- what is it with the Alien franchise punishing viewer’s investment into its characters?).

This is the really interesting stuff to me. Ridley seems to have turned the Lovecraftian horrors of Alien into a modern re-working of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which tellingly itself had the subtitle The Modern Prometheus). Okay, none of its particularly subtle. David’s chamber of horrors, in which he stores/analyses his monster creations (including the awful cadaver of Shaw), is one of the finest creations of the Alien series. Its truly horrific and is enough to give one nightmares. Ridley seems to be saying that David is the real monster of the Alien films, and Fassbender is brilliant. In hindsight, maybe the android Ash in the original Alien was an indication of how the Alien series would become centered on artificial intelligence and its dangers for mankind?  2001‘s themes of alien intelligence and its part in the creation and evolution of man (a preoccupation of Prometheus) seems to have mutated into this Heavy Metal-styled Frankenstein abomination of xenomorphs, body horror and worldwide mass destruction.  Its heady, fascinating stuff.

cov4The corporate paranoia seems to have been noticeably dialed down, but a prologue with cold-hearted creator Peter Weyland clearly suggests and maintains his part in David’s deranged sense of superiority over all things and the responsibility Weyland has for all that ensues. Just as the Engineer’s Black Goo creation destroyed them, will artificial intelligence destroy man?

Alien: Covenant brings Walter, an ‘improved’ model of David, again played by Fassbender, into the story as a counter-balance to David’s (insane? corrupted?) programing. Lacking the feeling and emotion of David, Walter is governed by a sense of duty and responsibility and lacks David’s creative instinct. Perhaps Weyland Industries realised their initial mistake, but is it too late with David running amok in the heavens? One of Alien: Covenants worst offences is the poor ‘twist’ near the end involving ‘Walters’ real identity, which seemingly seal’s Daniels to Shaw’s earlier fate. Had it been better handled, it might have ensured one of the most brutally downbeat endings of the franchise. Intellectually it’s still fascinating but it lacks the punch that it deserved.

These new Alien films may be frustrating but they are also oddly interesting and I really hope that Ridley gets to make his intended next Alien film. Now that the geeks have had their fill of Giger’s creations perhaps Ridley will be able to further exploit the Frankenstein themes that interest him so much. What will David do next? What horrors will Daniels and Tennessee be forced to endure? Will the Engineers return, or some Space God that created them? Is the fate of all civilizations their own destruction at the hands of what they create as they achieve God-like technologies?

People forget, perhaps, how execrable Alien: Resurrection was or those AvP films- compared to them, these new films are almost high art. Maybe, Xenomorph aside, these new films aren’t really Alien movies but that doesn’t make them redundant.  For all the faults of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, Ridley has at least for me made the Alien franchise interesting again.

If nothing else, I’ll always remember Alien:Covenant for putting a huge guilty smile on my face with the line “That’s the spirit!”  Ha ha. Priceless. And was that nail that Shaw keeps another reference to Batty, or some reference to the crucifixion (re: my Prometheus theory raised in yesterdays post)? Or am I over thinking things? Sometimes we have to remind ourselves, its only a movie, as John Brosnan used to say.

Prometheus Bound

The night before watching Alien: Covenant, I gave Prometheus another spin.

Here’s my thoughts.

prom1Somewhere in Prometheus there is a great movie, but we’ll never see it. Its lost somewhere in the jumble of hints and mysteries and confused logic, in the unfocused script that doesn’t know if it’s more interested in Space Gods and mythology than aliens and corporate monsters. Its no disaster, but it is a frustrating mess.

It doesn’t lack for ambition. Essentially it shares the same story as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you don’t get more ambitious than that.  The fact that it feels wrong to mention 2001 and Prometheus in the same sentence speaks volumes. 2001 had Monoliths shaping and influencing human evolution (and perhaps, although its never shown, even humanity’s creation). Prometheus has humanoid aliens, the Engineers, doing it. The paintings on cave walls indicating a star atlas serves the same purpose as burying a monolith on the moon; its a test to establish a civilization’s technological ability. As usual though, the logic of Prometheus breaks down- sure, show a map for the Engineer’s homeworld, in order for humanity to meet its creator, but instead it turns out it is a map to the Engineers military installation where they create/store weapons of mass destruction; the logic simply doesn’t follow through, and this occurs time and again.

But anyway, we’ll cut Prometheus some slack for asking the Big Questions.  So Engineers use the Black Goo to shape human creation and through repeated visits over millennia shape our evolution, visiting primitive cultures and indicating where they come from. It might strike some as a leap of logic to assume all this is some invitation- perhaps if it had been described as a ‘test’ it might have been more plausible/interesting to the plot.

It might be worthwhile to mention the Prometheus timeline here as I think that might solve one of the films many mysteries/confusions. Ridley Scott suggested during the press for Prometheus that Jesus might have been an Engineer. I think that may have been more than an offhand remark- it may actually be a clue. The expedition exploring the Engineer’s base soon find the corpse of an Engineer which is carbon-dated to over two thousand years old- a holographic recording indicates he was killed during some moment of panic in which several engineers were fleeing some danger. We later see the hapless Fifield and Millburn stumble upon a pile of dead Engineers, having suffered some violent calamity likely linked to those fleeing engineers. Later, David reviews a holographic recording on the Juggernaut’s bridge in which the engineers access a star map and set their destination as Earth- these Engineers seem calm and to not be in immediate danger, so I would suggest this scene predates the earlier one.

So I would suggest this. Two thousand years ago, the Engineers revisit Earth to see how things have progressed. One of them is who we know now as Jesus, who teaches some words of wisdom to the primitive Terrans. Some of it gets lost in translation. Jesus the Engineer gets crucified, begs forgiveness of ‘God’ for this sin. But the Engineers are not so forgiving and decide this particular evolutionary experiment is at an end. So back at the military installation it is decided to send a juggernaut to Earth and bomb it with its vases of Black Goo, wipe out all life and start the experiment all over again. Hence the scene of the star map and the Engineers planning the route. However, things go awry loading up the vases of death and there is a breakout of the Black Goo, resulting in all the dead corpses, the hologram of the fleeing Engineers and the abandoned state of the installation. The last surviving Engineer puts himself into suspended animation to await rescue, which apparently never comes.

Fast forward just over two thousand years, and guess who shows up? Our heroes of the Prometheus. The Engineer is understandably pissed off at his very target waking him up. He kills them for this affront and decides there is no further time to waste,  activating the ship and setting off to bomb Earth all by himself.

You know… it sort of makes sense. And usually I love this kind of stuff; films that foster all kinds of thinking and theorising. 2001 itself was the master of this- people still debate that film today. But Prometheus is no 2001, and the film’s mysteries seem more from ill-judgement and confused storytelling than any deliberate master plan.  Instead it spends too much time getting audiences side-tracked with superfluous nonsense:

prom2You find the head of an alien being and take it back to your ship. Its the biggest discovery in all of history. Instead of quarantining it or starting labwork, you go all Frankenstein and start trying to reanimate it, after its been dead for two thousand years, somehow causing it to explode. What the hell is all that about? What do they expect it to do- wake up and start chatting with them?

Expedition lead Meredith Vickers tries her hardest to be an utter corporate bitch. She shares few scenes and little empathy with ship captain Janek. Then all of a sudden she turns up at the bridge flirting with him and they go off for casual sex. It doesn’t add anything to the plot; the ensuing relationship has no impact on what happens later. What’s it doing in this movie?

A little earlier, Janek has spotted life signs from one of the robot scanners mapping the alien installation. Signs of life! Set the alert sirens! This is the biggest discovery ever! Instead, he shrugs it off and doesn’t tell anyone, thinking that maybe the scanner is faulty (I think it’s actually picking up the intermittent/cryogenic signs of the sleeping Engineer but that’s never explained either). Janek instead rings up Fifield and Millburn who you remember got lost and are still back in the installation, to tip them off. One of them – I think it’s Millburn- actually checks his map on his forearm and reports his location to Janek. But hang on, I thought they were lost. They’ve got a map all this time and know where they are? My brain hurts. Nothing is making sense.

Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, our star-crossed lovers/archeologists (thats star-crossed lovers with zero screen chemistry- there is some terrible casting in Prometheus). Charlie is pretty upbeat, wildly ecstatic even, at what they have discovered and realises the magnitude of what they have found on the planet. But something in the alien decor doesn’t appeal to him and he suddenly decides it’s ‘just a tomb’ and his mood goes a complete 180 and he hits the bottle and acts like a complete jerk. What? Later he comments about giving life and Shaw pouts that she cannot have kids and boom with the subtlety of a xenomorph crashing into the room its set up for Shaw to get impossibly pregnant from Holloway’s Black Goo-infested sperm.

No, subtlety is not Prometheus‘ strong point. Which is infuriating, really, because it’s trying to be a science fiction film of Big Ideas instead of just another bug hunt, and it looks utterly gorgeous. Advance word on Alien: Covenant seems to indicate that Ridley has second-thought things and is heading back to familiar bug-hunt territory, which might cheer Alien/Aliens fans but actually has me rather uneasy. In just the same way as I really like the film noir/doomladen nightmare of Alien 3,  I quite like Prometheus going  somewhere else, into Space Gods territory-  it is just so annoying how clumsy and stupid and, yes, bad it is at the same time. Maybe going back to Alien basics is the right way to go.

I suppose there is a line of thought that Prometheus only really goes wrong when it is trying to wrap itself around the whole Alien mythology. Certainly the Engineers being the Space Jockey’s of the original, dispelling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the 1979 film, is a major misstep which threatens to derail the whole franchise. I sincerely wish someone had found some other way of linking Prometheus with Alien, if even just that the hunt for the Engineers would eventually lead humanity into deep space and the signal that the Nostromo was sent to investigate-  leading to it instead of the Engineers being the architects of it. Indeed, perhaps the Engineers having fallen foul of it themselves. You go find the Engineers homeworld and they are all dead. You investigate the horror that overcame them and stumble on a derelict and some eggs. Something as simple as that, while developing all sorts of Space Gods stuff about creation and evolution.

The funny thing is, for a pretty frustrating movie, I’ve rewatched it several times now and its generated all sorts of writing here on my blog and elsewhere on the internet. So while it did many things wrong, it must have done something right, to generate so much attention and thinking? Will Alien: Covenant, I wonder?

I still wonder if Ridley has a Prometheus: Director’s Cut or Prometheus Unbound somewhere that, while it cannot possibly fix it, might actually be a better movie.

 

The galaxy is saved again

ggalaxy22017.24: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (Cinema)

I have to say, I found this sequel to be far superior to the original film. Other than the funky soundtrack of classic 70s songs and some of its quirky characters, I really didn’t understand all the fuss about the first film. The bad guy was generic at best, banal at worst, and confusingly undermined by having Thanos shoehorned in to ensure the ‘Marvel Universe’ continuity running through all these movies. In fact, the whole thing seemed confusing and unfocused, complete with its obligatory cgi-fest spectacle finale that had no real drama at all. I make it sound like a trainwreck. It really wasn’t, but neither was it the triumphant comicbook movie it seems universally touted to be. Fresher maybe, I’ll give you that, after so many ‘traditional’ Marvel movies…

So anyway, I was actually rather nonplussed about watching this at the cinema but finally did so. I’m so glad I did, as it was a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable experience. It was great. It had drama, emotion, focus, character arcs… yes it had spectacle and comedy and lots of rock songs, but… it was great fun. It had a surprising amount of darkness, too (the idea of Star Lord’s Celestial father impregnating hundreds/thousands of aliens with his seed only to destroy his ‘failed’ offspring every time is, well, pretty disturbing) which when I think back on it, just gets darker. I left the cinema with that buzz you only get when you’ve had a really good time with a great movie. I even stuck around to enjoy the end credits, admiring the 1970s graphics as much as the in-joke video segments and the usual added mid & post-credits scenes.

Yeah, it was a good time, and great fun. And so much better than the first film it really, really surprised me.

Indeed, the film may even manage that trick of informing its predecessor- there are a number of revelations and character points in Vol.2 that impact on moments in Vol.1 that have me reaching for that blu-ray. The two films are, in a clever way, a two-part origin story for Star Lord himself, reinforcing each other in a way that reminds me of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Superman II (at least, how they should have turned out without producer interference).

We even get another Howard the Duck cameo. That guy really has to have his own movie someday. Meanwhile,  I’m actually looking forward to the eventual Vol.3.

Scott of the Antarctic re-recording

scott1Just arrived a few days ago, this disc from the Dutton Epoch label is a re-recording of the complete score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic by Ralph Vaughan Williams. When I first saw the film many years ago as a kid, it really scared me- it was a pretty bleak and chilling film with a tragic ending and the score seemed a big part of that- music that was scary and brutal. Even today whenever I hear it, it gives me more than a few chills. It seems the perfect musical rendition of desolation, horror and arctic wastes and has never been bettered.

The music is of course most famous in its symphonic form, as Williams later adapted it into his Seventh Symphony, the Sinfonia Antarctica,  gaining a reputation and endurance beyond the original film. The score itself was written in 1947 before the film was even made- Williams composed it based on a copy of the script  and the book The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, which documented the ill-fated expedition. The score was recorded and then added to the film when it was later shot and completed.  A considerable amount of music composed and recorded for the film was never actually used, but fortunately William’s original manuscripts were stored for posterity and conductor Martin Yates was granted access to them in order to transcribe the music for this, complete and definitive re-recording of the whole score.

Its no exaggeration to say that this is an important piece of film-music history. The disc runs some 79 minutes across 41 tracks, and the music sequenced chronologically tells the story of the film perfectly. Its naturally got a very traditional, English-sounding style evocative of the period, but while it is ‘of its time’ it is also very powerful and dramatic. Film-scores just haven’t been like this since the heyday of Williams, Barry and Goldsmith, as music has retreated to soundscapes and ambience of late.  Fans of the film, its music or just the Sinfonia Antarctica will find much to enjoy here- if nothing else, its fascinating to compare this music with its symphonic cousin. Thanks to this great re-recording, the original score music that inspired that Seventh Symphony will have a life all its own for decades to come.