Thursday, May 18, 2017

Zaki's Review: Alien: Covenant

 Click here to read my 2012 review of Prometheus

Alien: Covenant is a movie all about pondering the nature of existence, yet it can't seem to figure out why it exists.

The original 1979 Alien remains a masterpiece even thirty-eight years out, and I doubt director Ridley Scott could have anticipated back then the evergreen property it would end up becoming for home studio Fox. From then to 2012, the film (which I've previously called "cinematic alchemy" for how perfectly all of its elements just work) spawned five cinematic follow-ups (including two spin-off entries), and with all manner of comic books, action figures, video games, etc. More than that, its titular creature has become one of the most iconic horror icons of the modern (post-Universal Monsters) era.

No small feat, that.

And while Scott's considerable talents behind the camera assured his continued position as one of Hollywood's most sought-after helmers, I always wondered if there was the teensiest part of him that felt a twinge of loss at seeing how the Alien series had soldiered on without him (with varying quality, granted). I have no idea if that actually occurred to him, but it'd be an entirely human reaction, and it certainly goes some way towards explaining why Scott, now 79 years old and with no shortage of other projects to command his attention, has taken it upon himself to steward the brand that gave him his start lo those many decades ago.

The initial fusillade of Scott's latter day attempts to shape the Alien brand began five years ago with Prometheus, a flawed-but-fascinating time warp that took us back to before the events of the first film while telling a story more concerned with examining the origins of the human race than doing the usual sci-fi slasher thing. I liked it, but I didn't love it, and was curious where things would go next. Well, with this week's release of Alien: Covenant, Scott continues his slow-burn prequel saga that promises (or threatens, really, given how unnecessary it all feels) to eventually end up where the first Alien started.

We're now ten years removed from where Prometheus left things, with the massive colony ship Covenant, loaded up with frozen embryos and hibernating crewmembers, is on its way to a distant Earth-like world to set up housekeeping. Dutifully watched over by android office Walter (Michael Fassbender), an in-flight anomaly forces the crew (among them Captain Billy Crudup, first office Katherine Waterston, and comic relief Danny McBride) to prematurely awaken from their hypersleep. Once awake, they receive what might be a distress call from a nearby planet, which they decide to investigate. What could go wrong, right?

Well, given that the title has the word "Alien" before the colon, you can reasonably posit that things don't go as planned. While the planet initially seems idyllic, it isn't long before certain creepy-crawlies start violently emerging from various chest cavities. And soon after that none other than David (also Fassbender), the enigmatic android from Prometheus who last we saw as a disembodied head in Noomi Rapace's duffel bag, makes his return appearance. He's been stuck on this world a long time, and he's been very bored. And very busy.

As he did previously, Fassbender (who gets top-billing here) effortlessly commands the screen, with his dual/dueling androids evoking both Ian Holm's Ash from Alien and Lance Henriksen's Bishop in 1986's Aliens, so he's certainly not the problem here. Rather, it's Scott's morbid fascination with artificial and unreal at the expense of everyone else. He feels fundamentally uninterested in any of the human characters, and if he isn't, why should we be? While there's no doubting his knack for creating beautiful, haunting imagery, the film runs aground by telling a story I'm not sure anyone besides Scott was particularly interested in: the origins of the aliens.

This is something Scott has talked about unpacking for years now, and yet it's fundamentally at odds with the continued effectiveness of that original. When the characters on the good ship Nostromo first discovered the crashed alien derelict on LV-426 back in the day, the unresolved question of where the ship, its cargo, and the desiccated remains of its former crew came from was hardly a barrier-to-entry preventing audiences from plugging into the story. If anything, the inherent mystery therein just added texture and nuance -- a world beyond the frame -- to what is, when boiled to its essence, a space age haunted house movie.

And yet, where Prometheus sort of nipped around the edges of Alien while expanding the universe it existed in, Covenant has much more specific, franchise-centric ambitions. Not only does it shine a bright light down a corridor that was left dark by design, it does so in a way that foreshortens the universe and boxes it in, robbing the initial film of its allure in the process. Structurally, the script (by John Logan and D.W. Harper) is very much a mirror image of the '79 original (props to composer Jed Kurzell for neatly evoking Jerry Goldsmith's original score), but with the added wrinkle that we as the audience are now well ahead of the characters, none of whose stakes we have any particular interest.

Speaking of characters, while the question of what happened to Rapace's Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is central in Covenant, the answer will likely prove wildly divisive to fans of the previous installment. Personally, I found it cruel and unnecessary, which I suppose sums up my feeling about the movie as a whole. The ending here sets up at least one more leg of what I assume is a trilogy, but I wonder how many fans will even care. The titular creature has long since lost the visceral terror of its initial appearance. Its past is no more interesting than its future, and what this latest entry makes clear is that even in the hands of the man who first brought it to the screen, there's nothing left for the Alien franchise to say. C-

For more movie talk, including in-depth thoughts on Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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