Alien: Covenant


Speaking of illegal aliens….

(2017) Sci-Fi Horror (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, Lorelei King (voice), Goran D. Kleut, Andrew Crawford, Javier Botet, James Franco, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

Back in 1979, movie posters and trailers proclaimed that “In space no-one can hear you scream” and a classic of science fiction was born, one that changed the entire genre. Alien still reverberates as one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time.

In this sequel to Prometheus a colony ship called the Covenant suffers a fire that sweeps through the colonist sleep chambers killing the captain (Franco). Taking over is Orem (Crudup), a religious sort who is a bit on the indecisive side. Despite the objections of the Captain’s widow and second officer Daniels (Waterston), the new captain decides to take the crippled Covenant to a planet from which a distress signal is coming – one that incongruously takes the form of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Orem takes a team including their android Walter (Fassbender) who is of a similar model to David from Prometheus and Tennessee (McBride), Lope (Bichir) and Karine (Ejogo). They find a beautiful paradise with a disturbing apparent lack of animal and insect life but there are strange alien spores that once they get into a human system hatch nasty little alien neomorphs – a colony of which soon makes their presence known. The neomorphs seem to be not unlike velociraptors only angrier.

Taking refuge in an abandoned city, they discover to their surprise David, the last survivor of the Prometheus incident and David has plans – plans that aren’t going to be so good for the surviving members of the reconnaissance mission.

The big knock against the movie has been that the plot is too close to the first movie but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. If you’re going to take your plot from a movie, you could do a lot worse. There are some other things that I have issues with but more on that later.

Fassbender has the dual role of the innocent Walter and the devious David and he plays both quite well. Through the magic of CGI the two Fassbenders interact and even kiss – a homoerotic moment that nobody had ever even conceived before although it may well have been simply irresistible to an actor’s ego to seduce himself.

McBride, not one of my favorite actors to date, delivers his best performance ever and shows some real screen charisma that I hadn’t seen in him before but now that I think about it, I think he always had but just hadn’t found the right cinematic vehicle for it. I hope this leads to some new sorts of roles for McBride in the near future.

Scott, now pushing 80, still can direct an action sequence like few others in cinematic history. There’s a battle between Daniels and a xenomorph on a loader ship that really ranks up there among the best in the franchise history and certainly one of the best this year. Waterston is not really known as an action actress but she definitely channels Sigourney Weaver in that sequence and others throughout the film.

Some of the CGI looked unfinished as if the effects houses ran out of time before the deadline and the producers just plugged in what they had. That was a little distressing particularly since Scott has shown comfort with CGI going back to Gladiator and used it well in Prometheus and The Martian as well.

My main issue here is the script. It’s a bit convoluted and at times long-winded. There are also way too many characters here, most of which exist to get picked off by the alien. That gives the movie a bit of a slasher mentality despite the trappings of a fairly intellectual science fiction epic. They may as well have named all of the characters save Fassbender and Waterston “Lieutenant Deadmeat” although I will say not all of them meet a grisly end at the hand of the creature.

Scott has hinted that there will be another prequel (and possibly two) that will tie directly to the first film. At one time that would be exciting news but frankly the franchise feels a little tired here. It could be that the director has wisely figured out that the xenomorph has essentially run its course (his original idea was to steer the series off in a different direction but the studio wouldn’t allow it) but it also could be that Scott needs to pass the torch to someone who could revitalize the series much like James Cameron did with Aliens. I certainly wouldn’t object.

REASONS TO GO: The loader fight sequence is spectacular and the action sequences are well-done overall. Fassbender delivers a fine dual performance and McBride is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is convoluted and overpopulated with unnecessary characters. Some of the CGI wasn’t up to the standards of the other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and gore, profanity and some sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Alien film to be released after the death of H.R. Giger who designed the original alien xenomorph.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien3
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan Lucky

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Spectral


You see dead people.

(2016) Sci-Fi Horror (Netflix/Legendary) James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood, Max Martini, Cory Hardrict, Clayne Crawford, Gonzalo Menendez, Ursula Parker, Aaron Serban, Stephen Root, Royce Pierreson, Jimmy Akingbola, Philip Bulcock, Ryan Robbins, Dylan Smith, Louis Ozawa Changchien, James D. Dever, Mark O’Neal, Michael Bodie, Declan Hannigan  Directed by Nic Mathieu

 

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the minds of mortal men. Sometimes the minds of mortal men think up some amazing things. Some of those things are way too dangerous and should be left alone.

A group of elite U.S. soldiers are in the country of Moldova whose government has collapsed. They are attacked by something strange; glowing vaguely human beings that might be ghosts who kill with a single touch. The commander of the U.S. force (Greenwood) calls in DARPA scientist Mark Clyne (Dale) who developed goggles that allow men to see the invisible to the naked eye spectral beings.

He is accompanied by Fran Madison (Mortimer), a CIA analyst who believes that the deaths are the result of some super-weapon that the insurgents have developed. Using the goggles that Dr. Clyne built, the soldiers determine that the specters can’t be harmed with small arms fire. Clyne modifies searchlights so that they can see the specters more easily. They also find out that the creatures, which can move through solid walls, can’t go through iron. They modify their explosive devices so that they fire iron filings at the things.

The soldiers find a laboratory and discover to their shock that these specters were the results of weapons experiments in which human beings were duplicated with advanced 3D printers and are kept alive by the brains of the originals. However, control was lost of the experiment and now the city is full of these specters and it won’t take long before they overrun everything.

This was originally developed at Universal as part of their deal with Legendary who had just separated from their long-time distributors at Warner Brothers. However, when push came to shove the studio declined to release the film and Netflix eventually snapped it up. So Netflix essentially got a ready-made (relatively) big budget genre film.

Dale has been on the ragged edge of leading man duties for awhile and this should have been a career boost but sadly it likely won’t be now. That’s a shame; he’s a fine actor and while I don’t think this particular role really benefits him well, he at least does a decent enough job with an underwritten role that is largely a video game character.

In fact the whole movie reminded me of a video game. Sort of like Call of Duty meets Aliens with a dash of Ghostbusters thrown in only with the humor excised. That might work for some but I think it’s a serious miscalculation. People who like videogames want to have some control rather than passively watch someone else’s vision. The filmmakers would have been better served to make this less of a videogame cinematic.

The special effects aren’t half bad in some places and while the plot tends to meander a little bit, it doesn’t do so enough to make the film incomprehensible. I can see why Universal hesitated about releasing this wide; it seems to appeal to a niche audience and given that most videogame adaptations have been epic failures both critically and at the box office, I’m not sure that a videogame adaptation of a game that doesn’t exist would do any better. It seems tailor-made for Netflix and while I thought it was a bit disappointing, it is entertaining enough and interesting enough to be worth a look.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense sci-fi action sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Badge Dale and Max Martini also played military roles in 13 Hours.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Objective
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Salesman

Event Horizon


You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

(1997) Sci-Fi Horror (Paramount) Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Peter Marinker, Holley Chant, Barclay Wright, Noah Huntley, Robert Jezek, Emily Booth, Teresa May. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Sci-Fi Spectacle

The trouble with exploration is the unknown. We don’t always know what’s out there. We may have a good idea, sure but when you go out into the real unknown, it’s just that. Anything could be lurking out there. And it might just hitch a ride back.

In 2040, mankind makes the first great push beyond our solar system. The great ship Event Horizon, powered by the gravity drive, makes its way out to Neptune to truly begin its journey. The gravity drive manufactures a black hole and slips the ship through, allowing it to travel great distances – to any star in any galaxy. The Event Horizon powers up the gravity drive, hits the go switch – and disappears. Nobody hears a peep and the ship is presumed lost.

Seven years later it reappears as suddenly as it disappeared. Attempts to hail her yield nothing. A rescue ship, the Lewis and Clark is sent, commanded by the redoubtable Captain Miller (Fishburne). Along for the ride is Dr. Weir (Neill), the man who invented the gravity drive and has the best shot at figuring out what went wrong.

Once they arrive in the outer atmosphere of Neptune the mile-long vessel is as silent as the grave and unutterably cold inside. There is still power – it’s just not turned on. When Miller and his crew come aboard to see what’s happened, they find the video log mostly intact although it cuts off an instant after the drive engages. There are also disquieting signs of a violent end for the crew – bloodstains indicating that crew members sustained fatal and horrifying wounds – but no bodies.

As the rescue ship crew attempts to restore power so that the ship may be towed home for further examination, the crew begins to see strange things – hallucinations of people and places they know. It becomes clear to Captain Miller that wherever the Event Horizon went to, it has brought something back with it. And that something may be more deadly than outer space itself.

This is one of those movies that didn’t do well during its theatrical run and then acquired its audience through cable and home video. Savaged by critics when it was released, who compared it unfavorably with the classic Solaris – as unfair as it is inaccurate – the movie has become something of a cult favorite. One of the big issues that fans have with it is that it isn’t the movie that Anderson wanted to make. Rushed during the post-production process, the studio put immense pressure on Anderson –  who was making just his third feature film – to make its August 15, 1997 release date. Anderson did get the film ready for its release date but had to make a lot of studio-insisted cuts and felt that had he been given enough time to finish the movie properly would have come up with something superior. Fans have been clamoring for some time for a director’s cut version which Anderson doesn’t seem disposed to doing.

The truth is, this is actually a superior sci-fi horror flick that may be the best thing Anderson has directed to date (he’s also done four movies in the Resident Evil series as well as Death Race). Moody, atmospheric and grim, he has created a movie every bit as scary as the original Alien and even surpasses that film in some ways. Initially the audience is led towards thinking that the carnage aboard the Event Horizon is the work of some interstellar beastie but as the film wears on we discover that the destination can be a killer.

Fishburne, a couple of years before his signature role as Morpheus in The Matrix, is magnificent here as the taciturn and square-jawed Miller. As no-nonsense a commander as you’re likely to find on any space opera, he inspires confidence and despite some inner demons of his own is the kind of guy you’d follow to hell and back.

Neill recalls his villainy as Damien in The Omen: The Final Chapter which established the Australian actor in the United States to a great extent. Weir is tightly wound and maybe a few bricks shy of a load in the sanity department. The minute he gets aboard his baby, things begin to spiral out of control. Neill takes the character from cool, calm scientist to baleful madman in a believable way.

The ship is a character all its own with its silent corridors and empty rooms to the engine room with the gravity drive itself which looks a little bit of a cross between the Contact craft and a mechanical nightmare dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft – that’s it in the photo accompanying this review. It looks suitably futuristic and scary as hell at the same time.

While the dialogue is somewhat stilted and there is a derivative quality to the film that is what set critics and some fans off during its initial run (Alien anybody?) the movie is nonetheless one of the finest sci-fi horror films ever made and a truly underrated classic. If you saw it and didn’t like it, it is worth coming back to and if you haven’t seen it, it is worth a look. As we enter the Halloween season, this is one of those movies that can get you right in the mood to have the heebie jeebies scared out of you – or into you. Like the great ship itself, the scares you get out of this movie are very well the same ones that are already in you – just waiting for the right vessel to release them.

WHY RENT THIS: Great atmosphere! Fishburne at his best, Neill at his creepiest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dialogue is a bit weak and some of the movie feels like we’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS:  Lots of gore and violence, a fair amount of cursing and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script went through 65 drafts, which is a highly unusual number. Most feature films go from anywhere from two or three drafts to a dozen.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD has some amazing storyboards for scenes not shot, as well as plenty of making-of footage. The Blu-Ray edition has all this but adds a section on the post-production difficulties that resulted in the filmmakers having to release a movie that wasn’t quite up to their expectations.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $60M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy – free to stream for Prime members), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

The Thing (2011)


The Thing
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton know it ain’t no Thing.

(2011) Sci-Fi Horror (Universal) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Jonathan Lloyd Walker, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Christian Olsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Paul Braunstein, Trond Espen Seim, Jorgen Langhelle, Kim Bubbs, Stig Henrik Hoff. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen

Most horror fans are well aware of the 1982 John Carpenter film The Thing. While today it is held in high esteem for being the trailblazing classic it is, at the time of its release it was a critical and commercial failure. It was preceded in 1951 by a B-movie version entitled The Thing From Another World (which starred an unknown James Arness as a kind of a giant carrot) which was in turn based on a 1938 short story by the legendary science fiction author which was called “Who Goes There.” If the movies follow form, we can expect to see another in 2041.

Surprisingly, bucking current trends, this isn’t a remake but a prequel to Norwegian the Carpenter version. Those who remember it will recall that the action begins with a helicopter from a research station with a gunman pursuing a Siberian husky. That’s where this film ends.

It begins with a team of Norwegian geologists discovering an alien spacecraft buried deep in the ice. Nearby they find a specimen, a creature like none seen on this planet before or since. Edvard (Seim), the station commander, sends for his scientist friend Dr. Sander Halvorson (Thomsen), an imperious, control freak sort of guy, his American assistant Adam (Olsen) and an American paleobiologist named Kate Lloyd (Winstead) from Columbia University.

They are flown by a couple of American helicopter pilots named Carter (Edgerton) and Jameson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who warn of upcoming storms that will make getting back to McMurdo (the large central Antarctic base) nearly impossible.

Of course the arrogant Dr. Halvorson decides to take a tissue sample and things go south (or as south as they can get in Antarctica) from there as the creature comes to life and gets to thingin’. There will be all manner of twisted flesh and grue before the night is out.

 I have to admit being rather impressed at the attention to detail. While there’s no way to really perfectly link the new Thing with the previous one, they captured enough of the physical setting and the look of the creature to at least be in the ballpark. Unfortunately, they hit a single at best. There are enough inconsistencies to enrage the more detail-oriented viewer, particularly those who are anal about such things. They did get a few nice details however, like the axe stuck in the wall.  What they didn’t get the overwhelming sense of paranoia and tension that Carpenter so beautifully captured, there are plenty of good movie thrills to keep the modern genre fan happy.

The characters really aren’t fleshed out too much and the cast, while competent (and those who’ve seen Edgerton in Animal Kingdom know how good he can be) really come off as kind of just there. Winstead is reasonably attractive, but she doesn’t really convince me that she’s a scientist and when she goes into Ripley mode, it comes off as a bit out of character. That’s the fault of the writer by the way, not Winstead.

I wonder if a prequel was the right way to go. Some of the technology in the Norwegian base looks at least 20 years too advanced for the 1982 setting, and their take on the humanity test is less effective than the one Carpenter came up with for his version (although to be fair it’s brilliant in its simplicity).

This is a well-made horror movie that doesn’t really distinguish itself from the competition. It will certainly scare you and more likely, gross you out a bit. It’s fine Halloween viewing and yes, that’s really the litmus test for a movie like this. However I wonder if they shouldn’t have either done a remake (although the producers – quite rightly – insisted that the 1982 film was close to perfect and shouldn’t be remade) or perhaps a reboot which is what Carpenter essentially did with his version. There was no need to try and make a direct link with the first film because not only does it invite comparison, it invites nitpicking which distracts from the real point that this is a decent horror movie that fans should go out and see regardless of whether the helicopter in the 1982 version was brown and in this one was gunmetal grey. That’s not the stuff that matters; jumping out of your seat and getting that delicious adrenaline rush that comes with a good scare does, and yes you do in fact get those here. THAT’S what matters.

REASONS TO GO: Decent thrills and some nice creature effects (some practical, some CGI).

REASONS TO STAY: The cast is rather bland and faceless. Might have been better served doing a remake or at least a reboot.

FAMILY VALUES: Oh yes there’s a whole lot of creature gore goodness, plenty of foul language (much of it in Norwegian) and as much violence as you can shake a stick at.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The carnage in the Norwegian camp closely mirrors what is seen when Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart inspect the camp in the 1982 version.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this in the dark…with a big mother effin’ screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness continues

The Signal


The Signal

End transmission.

(2007) Horror (Magnet) Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, AJ Bowen, Matt Stanton, Suehyla El-Attar, Justin Welborn, Cheri Christian, Scott Poythress, Christopher Thomas, Lindsey Garrett, Chadrian McKnight. Directed by David Brucker, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush

When the end of the world comes, how would you spend it? Would you want to be with the one you love to face the inevitable or would you fight for survival?

The end of the world has come to Terminus, although the people there don’t know it. Mya Denton (Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Welborn) who begs her to come with her to the bus station and leave her abusive husband Lewis (Bowen) behind. Mya can’t quite bring herself to do it and she goes home to her husband, who is having an argument with two friends as they watch the ball game. Suddenly, Lewis grabs a baseball bat and begins beating one of his friends to death with it. Batter up.

This section, titled “Transmission I: Crazy Love” was directed by Brucker. Up next is “Transmission II: The Jealousy Monster” directed by Gentry. Mya and Lewis’ friend Rod (Ngaujah) try to get away but Rod has been infected by the signal and causes their car to crash. Nice guy Clark (Poythress) tries to make sure Mya’s okay but she doesn’t trust anyone so she warns him off and makes for the bus station on foot. Meanwhile Clark’s neighbor Anna (Christian), who is throwing a New Year’s Eve party, is distressed over having had to murder her husband who was trying to strangle her. This has driven her over the edge and she thinks that Clark is her husband. Lewis arrives, completely enraged and hallucinating badly, believes that Anna is Mya. Jim Parsons (McKnight), an invited guest, arrives and believes he wants to get laid. Lewis kills everybody just to make things less confusing.

The final section is “Transmission III: Escape from Terminus” and is directed by Bush (by a process of elimination). In this portion, Ben escapes to try and find Mya and Lewis heads over to try and find her first, as the city crumbles into chaos. What state will she be in when they find her?

Each of the three sections is done in a different style; the first is a kind of indie drama, while the second is black comedy; the third is action packed. It can get a little bit jarring moving from section to section, but mostly, the actors all remain the same.

While these are essentially unknowns, the acting is pretty decent enough – I’ve seen worse with bigger budgets. The effects are essentially bargain basement as you might guess, but there are so few of them that mostly it’s about fake blood and make-up wounds which are relatively inexpensive compared to CGI. Everything else is just a matter of planning and luck.

Most indie horror movies have a tendency to either be too cerebral to be truly terrifying, or too gory to be terrifying (one gets numbed to gore pretty quickly). The Signal finds the right balance and ends up being terrifying. While the concept of signals sent over the airwaves to cause mass psychosis is nothing new, this is one of the best versions I’ve seen. It’s equally irreverent as it is relevant to our use of technology and the dangers of being too reliant on it. If you’re looking for a scare flick you haven’t seen yet to while away a Friday night, this one might be for you.

WHY RENT THIS: As indie horror films go, this is a gem. Less claustrophobic than Pontypool and certainly a little wackier.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Three separate directors directing separately make for some interesting style differentials, but this can also be unnecessarily distracting.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of bloody, gory violence and a good deal of filthy language. There’s some brief nudity and sexual innuendo as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional city in the film is called Terminus, which was the original name of the city of Atlanta, Georgia where the movie was actually filmed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several online viral videos that marketed the movie before its limited release, including the bloody results at a television station when the signal first arrives as well as a cheerful family picnic amidst the carnage and mayhem of the apocalypse. Two minutes of the short The Hap Hapgood Story were aired during the film; the entire ten-minute short is thoughtfully provided here. Finally, you can see the signal itself, eight hours and 24 minutes worth, if you really want to.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $371,568 on an unreported production budget; while there’s a chance the project made money, it probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Celestine Prophecy