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.

Loving the Alien

alien1.jpgAlien (1979) – Blu-ray

So I watched Alien again. The last time I watched the film was just before Prometheus was released. Back then I was cautious about what Prometheus might be, what its effects on Alien might be. This time, well, I was pretty much of the same mind, watching it for the first time since Prometheus, wondering what it would like with the knowledge of Space Engineers etc sullying my experience of it.

I won’t go on about Prometheus, it’s a divisive movie and certainly not all it might have been. As time has gone on, I look back on it with a some disappointment- it is really two films conflicting for supremacy. Its partly a (‘proper’?) science fiction film about human evolution and how that was orchestrated by alien Engineers, and it is partly an Alien prequel, handicapped by having to put all those references to Alien in it whilst maintaining some kind of logic. I hope Ridley Scott’s next attempt, Alien: Covenant, gets it right next time by being either one or the other (it certainly seems to be going the route of  full-on Alien prequel, which isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself).

So Alien. Well, thankfully I can report it isn’t ruined by Prometheus, even my favourite scene of the Space Jockey reveal. Fortunately Alien is its own thing, a utterly gorgeous Lovecraftian horror, and no meddling of the chronology/mythology can spoil that. To be honest I’m of a mind that everything else -prequels, sequels, everything- is all some other alternate universe anyway. Alien works best as its own, unique thing. Its a beautifully shot, wonderfully designed, perfectly cast/acted film about space truckers stumbling upon an alien derelict and unwittingly unleashing their own doom. Thats all that it is. Rather like fans of Jaws (and I count myself among them) can watch that film blissfully discounting the existence of its own horrible sequels.

Its the conflict between art and commerciality.  Each is a perfect work of art and each has been subjected to the normal Hollywood methodology of milking a successful property for every dollar it can make. As fans we are always tempted by the prospect of ‘more’ but rarely is that ‘more’ ever properly realised, rarely does that ‘more’ really mean more of what we love and admire. I think one example of where that worked was Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, or maybe Back to the Future 1 & 2, but such examples are rare (I rather hope Blade Runner and its as yet-unnamed sequel proves to be another, but we’ll have to wait and see).

alien2I think that what helps Alien remain so unique, so indomitably unaffected by Prometheus or the sequels  is that it is so much a product of the 1970s. It looks and feels and sounds so different to everything else that has followed. The cast is middle-aged, down to earth and ‘real’, they don’t seem like a cast of actors, and even the usual roles each performs seems against type (so very 1970s). Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is the nominal leader but he’s really an ineffectual one, laid-back to the point of being disinterested in what is to him just another job. That tired, job-like attitude to travelling between worlds infects most of the characters, at once a Dark Star-inspired commentary on the soulless astronauts of 2001 and riposte to the heroes of Star Trek.  If the audience expects Dallas to be the leader, the hero by example, the source of a solution, they are rather mistaken. In most of his decisions, Dallas is usually proved wrong. Its an example of authority being fallible, another ‘1970s thing’ I think in the post-Nixon era.  That last point is further echoed in the conspiracy of Ash and ‘the Company’ using the crew as expendable pawns in an investigation of the alien- it’s not a plot point really convincing or successful but its a further example of the film being a product of its time.

Of all the films that have followed it, I don’t think there has ever been as convincing an ensemble, it’s a major part of the sense of reality of the film.  Likewise the slow pace, or the (mandated by the limits effects tech of the time) strictly functional visual effects that don’t pull us out of the film by being ‘wow’ moments. The horror of the Giger-designed creature is more from what we don’t see than what we do. A film today would feel more inclined to show us everything and ‘wow’ us with impressive visuals, as Prometheus did. If characters in Alien behave dumb, we don’t really mind, they are ordinary people who are terrified or not aware of their real situation; if the characters in Prometheus behave dumb, its because they are stupid (or written badly).

And the Jerry Goldsmith score; what a wonderfully unsettling, perfectly toned work. Even the uses of his earlier score from Freud, something Goldsmith himself was annoyed by, seems perfect- that fragile, haunting melody that accompanies Dallas crawling through the air ducts (I bought the soundtrack to Freud on CD some years ago- it sounds very much like the score to an Alien sequel that never was).

Well here’s a reality check:  Alien is some 37 years old now. That fact alone feels scarier than anything in the bloody movie but yeah, 37 years old and yet to be equaled as a sci-fi horror film. I’m not going to suggest it is a classic like Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or 2001 but its surely up there in that group of films as far as being  in a league of their own, never to be really equalled.

ff137 years ago… I remember picking up this issue of Fantastic Films, arrested by the image on its cover and the unsettling pictures inside of strange alien places and unusual-looking spacesuits. It was the start of a long love affair with what would be one of my very favourite films. I remember reading the Movie Novel of the film, in hindsight a remarkable way of experiencing a film that has sadly been made redundant by home video (I would have loved, and would still love, a Movie Novel of Blade Runner for example).

So Alien lives on, in spite of and utterly independent of, Prometheus and any of the other Alien-themed spinoff films. Its an unsettling, powerful piece of work that somehow transcends its b-movie origins. Long may it reign.