Sunday 24 September 2017

Alien Covenant - a quick review...

What's it about?
The crew of a colony ship bound for a new world are woken from their hypersleep early and follow a mysterious, scrambled message to a planet that was once home to an ancient civilisation. Naturally, they encounter biological beasties galore.
Who would I recognise in it?
Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Guy Pearce.
Prometheus had a few flaws and divided audience opinion. Some loved it, some hated it (I'm in the former camp). Its weighty ideas of mankind's origin and the earliest ancestors of the infamous xenomorph made for grand scale, intelligent sci-fi. With Alien: Covenant, however, Ridley Scott & Co have listened too much to their Prometheus detractors and scurried back to xenomorph territory - despite Scott having previously been quoted as saying that said beastie had been seen enough on the silver screen!

A familiar story unfolds before the viewer as a group of unlucky space explorers encounter grisly ends, but at least Scott hasn't abandoned all his higher-minded ideas. A rich theme of creator/creation antagonism runs throughout (dovetailing with the Engineer/Human relationship in the previous film), even if it skews into 'simply confusing' instead of 'well explained' territory on occasion...

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At the heart of this creator/creation dynamic lies a double performance by Fassbender as David (the well-spoken android from Prometheus) and Walter (a more advanced, but morally-straightened version of the former). Lofty ideas from literature peek in (is it better to serve in heaven, or reign in hell?), but regularly do battle with the horror elements. If Prometheus was high-minded heavy sci-fi, then Alien: Covenant is a pulp horror fiction follow-up. The aborted attempt to go PG-13 with Prometheus is replaced by good old foul language and splashing of the crimson stuff, but the constituent 'high' and 'low' parts don't always gel successfully. An early, panic-stricken encounter with alien life gives good goose bump thrills, but squanders some of the chill on a goofy, twice-used banana peel-like pratfall on a pool of blood. Elsewhere, a somewhat perverse Fassbender vs Fassbender showdown of Byron quotes and flute playing eventually gives way to a retread of the spectacular air lock/cargo hold climaxes of Alien and Aliens.

The film's biggest flaw, though, is logic. Critics of Prometheus point to various instances of illogical behaviour in the first prequel film (some justified, some not), but the logic gaps displayed in Alien: Covenant need no debate. It's all the more frustrating when a few simple keystrokes at script stage could have sealed the cracks: instead of the Captain essentially abandoning their target planet in favour of this new, totally uncharted one on the strength of an intercepted dodgy signal, it could have been that their ship was halted above the planet's orbit remotely - thus necessitating a visit to the planet to disable the jamming signal. But no. In another instance, a ranking crew member endangers the entire mission (and a couple of thousand colonist lives) by piloting the Covenant through a hellish storm that the computer's ship repeatedly warns is too dangerous to fly in ... the simple fix to the jettisoning of logic? Make it so that the Covenant had two 'drop ships', not just one. It may be a high pressure scenario, but these people would have been selected based on their personal skills and adaptability in such conditions. Instead, they sometimes act without a shred of rationality merely to push the action forward. A few simple tweaks to the screenplay could have erased those irritating flaws.

Ridley Scott has never had a problem with creating lush visuals, however, and this film is no different. The design and photography are all stellar, and the nods & winks towards Alien (and even Blade Runner) tickle the fan-zone (albeit a little too often). Beyond the key players, characterisation is weak. Prometheus' clear array of specialists gives way to Covenant's mixed bag of cannon fodder and intrigue. Waterston gives it her best as Daniels, a Ripley-esque heroine who, thankfully, does more than kick butt. Her character moves from grief to battle-hardened without losing her inner humanity (tragedy still inflicts an emotional toll). The supporting players, on the other hand, are roughly sketched and exhibit occasional tonal shifts that prove to be jarring (e.g. wisecracks relatively soon after personal loss). The most egregious cast-related decision, though, treads into Alien 3 levels of "Oh, come on!"

All-in-all, it's a mixed bag. Prometheus was better, with a clearer vision, whereas Alien: Covenant is compromised by trying to meld the interesting 'big ideas' with 'familiar face-hugging, chest-bursting xenomorph action' to appease only part of the previous film's audience. It's certainly not the total disaster that some critics have claimed (it seems that this, much like Prometheus, is 'cool to hate'), but while expanding on some of the best parts of Prometheus, Covenant has also exacerbated a few of the worst parts. CGI has come a long way, but did we really need a fully-CG xeno in bright light? The film leaves viewers with several unanswered questions (some are addressed in deleted scenes/special features), but it also paints itself into a corner that it will have to resolve in order to link the prequels to the set-up of the alien craft on LV-426 as discovered by the crew of the Nostromo. We don't need four prequel films, Ridley, just one more would suffice - but please remember to plug all the logic gaps next time! Flawed, but good.

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