Friday, May 19, 2017

'Alien: Covenant' Review: Latest Example of Why Prequels Ruin Everything


Four Star Rating: **½
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: John Logan & Dante Harper
Story by: Jack Paglen & Michael Green
Based On Characters by: Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett
Composer: Jed Kurzel
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Thriller
Rated: 18A (Canada)/R (US) - graphic violence, coarse language, disturbing scenes, nudity, sexual content.
Release Date: May 19, 2017
Run Time: 123 minutes

Around the time of Prometheus' release, director Ridley Scott revealed he had several more movies set in the Alien universe planned but he warned the focus would be on the Engineers while the iconic xenomorphs would remain absent. Then his Alien prequel was met with a mixed reception and still has a lingering bitter taste for fans of the franchise. Then Neill Blomkamp announced intentions to make his own Alien movie, which would be a reimagining of events proceeding Aliens. All these factors likely lead to Prometheus 2 being changed to Alien: Covenant and the images of the xenomorphs became a central part of the marketing. But this is definitely a sequel to Prometheus by furthering the story of the android David (Michael Fassbender) and continuing a sci-fi exploration of questions surrounding creation, while also trying to satiate fans of the franchise with more xenomorphs, blood and action.

The prologue takes place before the events of Prometheus, where David is with his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, this time without the old man make-up) in a bright white room that gives a heavenly vibe. In the scene, Weyland is trying to get David to show off his talents while also exerting his authority. The philosophical exploration of creation themes begins as Weyland expresses his fascination with discovering mankind's origins while David expresses some contempt towards a creator that he views an inferior to himself. This sets up some of the major ideas driving the movie and signals right away that John Logan and Dante Harper are more interested in the story of David than anything else.

Before we see David again, we are introduced to the latest ill-fated crew who this time are on a seven year journey to a planet that they will colonize. The crew includes Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston), Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), Tennessee (Danny McBride), Maggie Faris (Amy Seimetz), and a lot more fresh meat. Even before the nasty alien business, tragedy strikes the crew as the ship suffers a malfunction while they are in cryo sleep that results in their captain burning alive. Now the ill-prepared Oram has to take on the role of captain and immediately, clashes with expert terraformer Branson. There is a signal coming from a previously unknown planet that seems to have potential to be a good place for colonization. Oram thinks it is better to investigate the newly found planet that could be a new home rather than risk going into cryo sleep again while trying to reach their original destination. Daniels argues it is a risk going to a place they know nothing about. Since this is an Alien movie, Daniels turns out to be completely correct.

The landing on the planet turns out horrible for the crew but exemplifies the incredible visual strength of Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. The first few shots on the new world are immersive with a lush environment that has a subtle unsettling feel. Scott really amps up the spine tingling when crewmembers start trampling on some alien spores that release nasty pathogens. There is a scene with chilling imagery of a particles that we follow floating right into a poor person's ear canal then watch as it absorbs into the skin. It is wincing body horror at its best and it is all build to some of the more gloriously grotesque death sequences. There are several inventive kills like the first ever back bursting and a campy but creepy scene where a couple regrets their decision to have sex in a shower.

Scott's ability to slow build to horror and set-up adrenaline pumping action sequences are both top notch big movie experiences. You get a sense of desperation as one character is trapped in a room with a rabid little baby xenomorph hybrid. Later in the movie, Waterston emerges as the kick-ass Ripley type as she needs to battle it out for her survival. The moments are punctuated by a top-notch score by Jed Kurzel that pays tribute to the classic theme music while putting on a new spin. There are a lot of moments that play on our nostalgia for the past movies but provide a twist to be brand new thrills. It takes place in interesting environments, especially David's cavernous lair that looks like something from a classic dark fantasy tale and sets the mood perfectly for what is to come.

As great as Scott is at building tension and creating captivating set pieces, there is little stakes due to the movie being populated by underwritten and dim-witted victims that do things like looking into mysterious open pods just because they were told. I'm reminded of the first two movies where in just a few scenes we know the motivation and personality of every crewmember, while this time I often had to fight to try to remember who was the person about to get slaughtered.

The story is also bogged down by long stretches of exploring themes handled better in past movies like asking what makes us human or the idea a creator could be malevolent, which was stuff far better explored in Scott's own Blade Runner. The film also suffers by believing David is far more interesting and complex than he actually is. His motives are pretty one dimensional and typical of certain big budget movie characters, but I'll leave it vague for those that want to explore this on their own. When David returns in the movie to rescue the crew from an alien attack, it leads to both the movie's greatest potential and biggest downfall.

But Fassbender does need to be applauded for his dual role as David and the crew members android, Walter, The Walter version had his emotions and independence dialed back after people were frightened by the David model. Fassbender does an excellent job at creating two completely different characters, and it is quite the sight when he shares scenes with himself. He does small little mannerism that make it clear the character that he is being at the moment and brings much needed depth to roles that aren't really intricately written.

The relationship between the two androids has the makings to be a special one with David acting like an older brother and mentor trying to encourage Walter to become his own being and teach him things like playing an instrument. The possibilities get spoiled when a key scene reverts into ridiculous melodrama that has a climax of the two French kissing

The movie is filled with interesting ideas that never get fully fleshed out. Oram is religious and early on it is clear that it is a defining aspect for him, this should open up some interesting possibilities when he confronts the creation obsessed David. At first there is a meaningful confrontation with some interesting dialogue but then it all gets ignored when the movie is ready to ramp up the action again. There is also a strong focus on familial bonds such as a crew that is filled with several romantic couples and of course, the android connection. There is an interesting direction when many of the leads have their loved ones killed off.  It allows for some emotional pull and adds a layer to some of these characters, but is never fully given weight when characters seem to move on for the sake of plot.

There is a lot of memorable moments and scenes here that will please the big Alien fans, but lack of engaging characters and dropping of story points makes it feel more like a best of compilation than a fully fleshed out movie. Even then, the final end battle is constructed in a thrilling fashion with the heroes running down maze-like corridors and eventually needing to battle a masterfully special effects created xenomorph that looks scarier than any previous instalment. Even then it gets hard to be fully engaged because the script calls for some twists that are so glaringly easy to figure out that the entire time you just keep waiting for the big reveal, but Scott stretches it out to a far too predictable conclusion. The fact anyone thought the reveal could shock is an insult to anyone who has seen more than four movies in their life-time.

The thing that ultimately defangs Alien: Covenant is its need to create an Alien mythos. Back in 1979 when people were first terrified by the xenomorphs, I don't think anyone thought they really needed to discover the creature's origin story. The xenomorphs work perfectly as these unknown monsters that have an obsession to procreate and kill everything in their path. Much like the Star Wars prequels or Rob Zombie's first half of Halloween, the more we learn about the dark, mysterious villain then the less interesting and scary it becomes. I'm left wishing to be put back in the dark.

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