Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien: Covenant — Rather disappointing

Alien: Covenant (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, gore, profanity, nudity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang

In space, no one can escape being surrounded by idiots.

The Alien franchise, just shy of four decades old, continues to crank merrily along, of late shepherded by founding director Ridley Scott. To some degree that’s a good thing, because his films always are handsomely mounted, crisply paced and graced with compelling ensemble casts.

Once it becomes obvious that something nasty is prowling on board their massive
colony ship, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and her synthetic companion Walter
(Michael Fassbender) consider their options.
They’re also usually a great deal smarter than this newest installment.

Alien: Covenant suffers from the same bone-stupid plotting that made the recently released Life — a rather blatant Alien rip-off in its own right — such an infuriating experience. Nobody has a lick of sense, the various characters utterly ignoring chain of command and basic safety protocols, while bickering and squabbling like school kids. As I’ve noted in the past, if these numbskulls represent Humanity’s Finest, then we deserve to be massacred by outer space nasties.

This aggravating film’s script comes courtesy of Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan and Dante Harper, who sacrifice plot logic on the altar of routine gore effects. You’ll find little genuine suspense here; all the alien attacks — whether by the now-familiar ovomorphs, facehuggers, chestbursters or adult xenomorphs — are telegraphed by maddeningly unhurried reveal shots.

Most of these encounters are by-the-book horror flick stuff: Somebody hears something, s-l-o-w-l-y turns around — or peers at something — and whammo! More blood on the screen.

This film offers neither the shock of the opening installment, nor the full-throttle energy of James Cameron’s immediate follow-up, 1986’s Aliens.

Most subsequent films were disappointments of one sort or another, until Scott re-ignited the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus. As a prequel to everything that had come before, the Jon Spaihts/Damon Lindelof script established an intriguing back story that explored the creation of the xenomorphs, the origins of mankind, and the space-faring race of giant “Engineers” who apparently seeded life throughout galaxies. Very high-falutin’ God stuff.

This new film takes place 10 years later — still roughly 20 years prior to the events in Alien (for those who pay attention to such things) — as the deep-space Earth colony ship Covenant makes its way to the distant planet Origae-6. The crew and 2,000 colonists are deep in hyper-sleep, the ship monitored solely by a synthetic android named Walter (Michael Fassbender) and an onboard computer dubbed Mother (voiced by Lorelei King, sounding very much like Sigourney Weaver). Once the journey is complete, the settlers hope to establish a new human outpost.

A freak celestial event triggers all sorts of on-board damage, prompting Mother to waken the crew. The captain’s sleep pod malfunctions and kills him, putting control in the hands of his second: Oram (Billy Crudup), an insecure nebbish whose religious faith is regarded with suspicion by most everybody else, and who clearly lacks the psychological strength for well-reasoned command decisions.

Thus does this story succumb to its first — but far from last — case of “movie (il)logic.”

Repairs are made, but Covenant is years from its destination. Established options are tabled when one of the pilots, the hard-charging Tennessee (Danny McBride), picks up an unusual radio signal: definitely human, of somebody singing — of all things — a John Denver song. They track the signal to a nearby planet, which at first blush seems to be an undisturbed, Earth-like paradise of cloud-capped mountains, lush forests and fields: perhaps equally viable as a colony home.

Never mind that Origae-6 was meticulously scanned and probed, before this colony mission was launched, and is known to be safe ... whereas this uncharted planet is a total unspecified quantity. Never mind, as well, that its Eden-like qualities are compromised rather severely by nasty, planet-blanketing storms. Oram deems it worth checking out, and leads the bulk of the crew to the surface.

Which they then explore without bio-hazard suits or anything else — gloves, even? — that could protect them from this world’s unidentified dangers.


This was pretty much the point at which I checked out.

Needless to say, our under-trained, brain-dead and essentially defenseless heroes aren’t alone on this world. And, as has been the case with previous series entries, this adventure messes further with xenomorph biology, accelerating gestation to an absurd degree, solely so Scott can start splashing the environment with — his own words, in the press notes — “a lot of claret.”

Few of the crew members establish much of a presence, although our hearts and minds definitely are with Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the terraforming expert who blossoms under stress into the stalwart Sigourney Weaver/Ripley surrogate. Waterston covers an impressive — and always credible — emotional range, as Daniels struggles past loss (the deceased captain having been her husband) and wins our respect as the one person who behaves intelligently and uses her scientific smarts.

Aside from Walter and Tennessee, the other modest standouts are biologist Karine (Carmen Ejogo), navigations expert Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and security head Lope (Demián Birchir). The rest are just, well, wafer-thin victims.

Gruesome encounters aside, the series also has been known for its fascinating depiction of synthetic beings, and Fassbender’s Walter is no exception. The actor has the bland, looking-past-everything gaze that immediately feels inhuman, and the gentle cadence of his voice immediately evokes memories of HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Fassbender also moves intriguingly, like a mime lacking a script, but with a sense of awareness; it’s as if Walter constantly modulates his behavior in order to “blend” with his human comrades, and not disturb them with any semblance of “otherness” (which is, in fact, precisely the case). It’s a richly compelling performance, and we can be pleased that the storyline spends so much time with both Walter and Daniels.

The other intriguing aspect of this series’ depiction of synthetics is the uncertainty factor. The first film’s Ash (Ian Holm) proved to be a malevolent entity answering to vile, pre-programmed instructions by the sinister Weyland Corp. that has financed all deep-space missions. Bishop (Lance Henriksen), in the next film, was resolutely one of the Good Guys ... and so forth, as the films continued.

The synthetic aboard the Prometheus, David, clearly was suspect, with delusions of creator grandeur. Given that David also was portrayed by Fassbender, the actor’s return here as the android “twin” Walter immediately raises questions in our minds, which can’t be known by the Covenant crew ... and that’s tantalizing.

Indeed, there’s much to admire here: the impressive planetary scale and atmospheric verisimilitude provided by special effects supervisor Neil Corbould; the eerie, unsettling Jed Kurzel score, with its welcome references to motifs from previous films; and Dariusz Wolski’s gorgeous cinematography and Chris Seagers’ awesome production design. And, yes, the performances by Fassbender and Waterston.

Scott also builds to a kick-ass climax that (finally!) delivers some Cameron-style excitement, along with an epilog that’ll rattle unsuspecting nerves.

Such a shame, then, that all this good stuff is undercut repeatedly by so much dumb-as-a-post behavior. It’s hard to retain any emotional involvement when so many of these shallow characters have the nitwittedness of thick-headed teenagers in low-rent horror flicks.

I expected better of Scott, who — in turn — should have demanded much better from his writers.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with horror... One horror movie? It's possible to do one really good ghost story. It's a classic cautionary tale with a bad or barely survived ending. In a one shot, it can shine and shudder us into sleeping with a security blanket for a few weeks. Those are the movies we love. But they're all ONE SHOTS.

    Put it in a franchise? The first one may, May, be good. Everything else after that, however, requires stupidity on the part of the characters. How else is the big bad going to go about killing off the cast? The smart ones remember the first story, or have common sense imparted from other cautionary tales, and Don't Fall For It. What you get out of screenwriters is "Darwin: The Sequel". Then "Darwin: The Culling of the Idiots". And if the second two actually made enough money, you get this concept, that should have died after the first good film, kicked down the storyline until you get "Darwin: Do You Get The Point Now?"..

    The challenge in horror for a franchise is to have the horror up its game, and do so in a way that doesn't end up being campy. Not many are able to pull it off.