Sunday, 21 May 2017

Alien: Covenant review

Is Ridley Scott's latest installment in his Alien franchise a true return to form; or is it finally game-over for the long running series? Hit the jump to find out!
Alien is a unique series in the cinematic landscape. Never before has there been a pop-culture behemoth so utterly 'R-rated', with such a wide following. The anthology has thrived on the bizarre fusion of Giger artworks, the future (which translates to retrofitting in this postmodern analytical age), and a subversion of sexual themes including penetration, birth, and abortion. It's a peculiar manifestation of longeivity, especially given its penchant for producing awful movies: counting crossovers I suggest 4 duds, 1 controversial statement, and only 2 unambiguously good movies.

An unfortunate crew member...
2012 saw the return of the franchise in what one could cruelly refer to as George Lucas 'reinvention'. A prequel that, although initially intended to be completely seperate, was forced to take on the weight of the strengths of an ailing franchise. Indeed, back in 1992 with the release of Alien³, Empire's Kim Newman hypothesised that 'if there's an Alien 4, it'll be a TV movie'. Despite the falsity of that statement, the problems raised by Fincher's vision and later Alien: Resurrection have caused a rift in the fan sphere that seems irreparable. Ridley Scott's return to direction on Prometheus, therefore, was seen as a guaranteed return to form by millions - a promise that was in many ways not delivered upon. Instead of a claustrophobic horror movie set in space; viewers were treated to two hours of philosophical musing and pondering that left many with a sour taste in their mouths. One need only read the message boards and YouTube comments sections to see this.

In response, Scott has presumably made a u-turn on whatever his original vision might have been - instead opting to drop down the horror route once more with Alien: Covenant altering what would have been (I assume) Prometheus 2. Of course, this throws up multiple problems of its own that cannot be readily solved except by selective amnesia. What about the narrative and all the unsolved questions of Prometheus? Won't returning to the Alien moniker look a little like nostalgia-based money-grabbing? What can you do that's original in the Alien universe? And, ultimately, do we need another Alien movie at all? It appears that, instead of choosing a direct line through this unfortunate mess, Scott has instead decided to make a wildly ambitious feature; a film with the trappings and isolation of Alien, the darkness of Alien³, the action of Aliens, and the philosophical fairground of Prometheus. I'm pleased to say that for the most part he pulls this off excellently.

A  E  S  T  H  E  T  I  C
After a brief segway into the creation of David (Michael Fassbender), in which we learn much about his origin and the flaws of creating a more organic synthetic, we turn to the Covenant: a colonisation ship crewed by couples and filled with embryos/colonists. These include Daniels (Katherine Waterstone), Tennessee (Danny McBride), and their more robotic android (humans are uncomfortable with sentience) Walter (Michael Fassbender). Following traumatic events about which it would be remiss to discuss, a rogue transmission of John Denver's Country Roads, Take Me Home proves to be significantly more attractive than the remaining seven year stint to the original destination. Naturally, when they arrive, shit goes down.

Exactly what that shit is is alternately breathtaking, mind-bending, and utterly stupid. Scott seems to have really spoken his mind on this one - refusing to install a filter to prevent some of the more, erm, controversial moments from taking hold. Initially, we follow a modified Alien template with the unfortunate astronauts interacting unwisely with the local flora and fauna (there are additional methods of infection on show this time around), leading to some breathtaking scenes of chaos. But at some point, maybe half way through or maybe less, Covenant switches into a weird sort of retrograde - transforming into a biblical epic which feels almost as if it is set in the middle ages. It's as if the retrofitting has taken on a life of its own. Allusions to Byron and Shelley abound as we discover what happened to the crew of the Prometheus after they'd escaped the terraforming facility of the engineers. It's a brave, bold move that's bound to turn some people completely off the film altogether - but at the same time that's sure to garner it new fans.

M  O  R  E  A  E  S  T  H  E  T  I  C
Indeed, Alien: Covenant essentially amounts to three films - the first being an Aliens style shoot-em-up in space; the second being an Alien³ heart of darkness musing on life (with added H.P. Lovecraft); and the third attempting, somewhat, to be a rehash of the original Alien - stalking a creature through a spaceship with the aim of eventually killing it. And, gluing these disparate thirds together is the grandeur and philosophy of Prometheus. Although slow in exposition, I found the initial portion to be excellent: a beautifully lit, wonderfully realized, and excitingly tense piece of sci-fi horror. The second part does an excellent job of employing a purer form of body horror to differentiate itself from previous Alien canon productions. However, the third I found to be weak in a number of ways. Not only does it suffer from the problems regarding the alien that I'm gonna discuss in a minute; but it lacks any real tension or excitement - not to mention it's lack of originality in finding ways to jettison an Xenomorph into space.

It has been suggested that Covenant is really David's film - which makes narrative sense. Unlike the starring roles of Daniels and Tennessee which were heavily advertised in the promotional materials; it's the interaction of the synthetics played by the same actor that really sticks in the mind after the credits roll. The discussion of the boundaries between man and machine, life and death, and the ability to create is central here - creating a complex relationship between the two characters which evolves, somewhat oddly, into a sexualised flute lesson ('I'll do the fingering'). Indeed, the exploration of the synthetics has been a key factor in telling the difference between the franchise and the prequels; with the latter more concerned with cosmic philosophy.

However, a mistake that Ridley makes is not simply leaving it at that. He also takes the time to engage into a fuller discussion on the origins of the Xenomorph - leading to some revelations which many fans will, presumably, find to be unpalatable. Not only this, but one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in recent memory which, luckily, is cut before it has time to do real harm.

David? Or Walter?
In fact, on the lines of the alien, there are quite a few more mistakes. Firstly, the CGI is godawful - there is certainly no mistaking the animated creatures as anything other than animated. It frustrates and confuses me that this has been a problem. The latter two Alien movies were blighted with poor CGI, CGI is currently universally hated, Scott is known for practical effects and immersive sets, and practical effects are at an all-time high in appreciation levels. So why the hell did he think it'd be a good idea to make the creatures in Covenant CGI? Secondly, the movement of the alien has been altered to make it more unnatural and speedy. This all but removes the human-like intrigue and dread from the previous movies - transforming the Xenomorph into a videogame antagonist with jerky movements. And thirdly, we see it waaay too much - and in broad daylight. This removes once again the fear and the anticipation from the original movies which thrived on the possibility of the alien being around every corner. If it's right in front of your face, then its not going to be as scary - especially if it looks like Pixar animators did a shit on a drawing board. I have to wonder what was going through Mr Scott's head when he thought up the scene where Daniels swings around a flying ship on a piece of rope - shooting at an alien, but it's certainly the worst scene in the film. It combines all of the problems I just talked about with a lack of tension and a ridiculous Michael Bay-ness that devalues much of the good work that was done before it.

There's something else I feel I should bring up. Covenant has been very good at releasing high-quality marketing over the past few months - marketing that has featured some stunning shots and scenes. Suffice to say, unfortunately, that none of this camerawork actually makes it into the final cut; leading to the loss of some iconic set-ups such as the xenomorph leaping towards the camera through the red-lit spaceship, and the pan up from Daniels to the ceiling where the alien begins to crawl down. These shots appear to suggest the final act of the movie was somewhat different, more tense, and more satisfying than it is in its present form. Perhaps we shall see this in an extended edition - but for now, its a confusing mystery that demands to be solved.

Mmmm.... Tasty....
The aesthetic here is decidedly top-notch. From windswept highlands-esque landscapes, to a flurry of lasers in a forest, to the turquoise dials on the spaceship, Scott has constructed something that is more consistently beautiful to look at than anything in the franchise so far: something filled with nature, symmetry and wonder. He has embellished it with signature touches (the space jockey set, a lot of mist, blinking corridors etc.) as well - demonstrating that this is indeed still an Alien film, aside from its constant reinvention of what an Alien film actually is. This is complemented by a futuristic and dark ambient soundscape, punctuated by occasional riffs on the original OST to Alien from 1979.

In terms of gore, as well, he seems all too happy to return his baby to the hard R category. The new creatures, which are being termed Neomorphs, can burst from backs (leading to an explosion of gore and organs) and throats (during which the entire jaw is broken off). Aside from these deaths, we also have many examples of the birthed aliens massacring the Covenant crew, a traditional chestburster, a strange cave of dissected bodies, a monumental scene of death and carnage (you'll know it when you see it) and countless grisly images. It's sick and twisted in a way that we've not seen from this franchise yet - and complements the new aesthetic, focus, and grand designs of the prequel movies. Yet, if you're looking for horror (which you should be when the director says it'll 'scare the shit out of you') then you're probably not going to find it here. Sure, there's the visceral body horror that comes with this sort of movie, but there's no real fear: no sweating, no anticipation of what's round the corner, and certainly no nightmares. Sure, it's incredibly tense at points - but in an action/thriller srt of way, and not a Babadook sort of way. This isn't a real problem for me - I don't need my horror fare to be particularly scary persay; but if you do then I doubt you'll be satisfied with Covenant.

Lastly, something that really stuck with me from Covenant was the way in which it didn't fall into the most common horror trap of all: that of the infinitely stupid protagonist. Whereas the Alien films have thrived on a plethora of characters doing a plethora of unimaginable dumb things (here poke this creature, or stick your head over this giant scary egg), Covenant skilfully evades this. Instead of the traditional pitfalls, the way in which the Neomorph infects is essentially unavoidable, and the direction that Scott takes Xenomorph impregnation effectively removes liability from the unfortunate crew members and places it on something else. This means that the audience is never yelling at the screen and is never taken out of the moment long enough to pick apart any flaws which may have been noticed by a distancing from the picture.
MTV Cribs Season 68

In conclusion, Alien: Covenant is a very good film indeed. It manages to take the strengths of a leading film series, and wrap them into one very satisfying package whilst also innovating to create an odd, twisted, and intriguing entry in the Alien canon. However, despite this, its insistence on screwing around with the legacy of a terrifying antagonist, its over-reliance on CGI, and its positing of some worrying ideas in the context of the franchise prevent it from being a true classic. Where the series goes next is surely a subject of great debate - certainly a continuing of this story will not have a happy ending; but for now, Scott has done his creation proud. It's not gonna beat Alien or Aliens, but it's definitely the best of the rest.
Alien: Covenant gets 4 stars!

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