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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No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can't reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can’t reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical/Stage 6) Djimon Hounsou, Norman Reedus, Sandrine Holt, David Nykl, Michael Hogan, Peter Benson, Steve Burgess, Paula Lindberg. Directed by Christian Cantamessa

The Hollies famously did a song called “All I Need is the Air That I Breathe” that in a just world, would have been part of the soundtrack to this movie. Indeed, air is a requisite of life. What happens when there isn’t enough to go around?

That’s just what the situation is after chemical warfare rendered the atmosphere unfit to breathe. With the human race in mortal peril, the powers that be hastily converted old nuclear missile silos into makeshift shelters, in which suspended animation chambers were installed. Into these chambers went the best and the brightest, scientists of all disciplines, medical professionals, agriculturalists, philosophers, maybe an artist or two – everyone you would need to re-establish civilization once the air was breathable again. Movie reviewers need not apply.

There are also a pair of maintenance men making sure that everything works. The trouble is, there isn’t enough breathable air to allow them full-time coverage, so the two men also sleep in their suspended animation chambers, awakened only once every six months and then only for two hours at a time before heading back into their sleep chambers.

The technology is decidedly low tech – the silo had been abandoned since the 80s and there are things like dot matrix printers and DOS-like screens of green scrolling text. Evidently there wasn’t enough time to drop by Best Buy and pick up a couple of laptops. Pretty much what you’d expect from government work.

The two techs, Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Hounsou) are beginning to get a little buggy; Cartwright is having conversations with his wife Abby (Holt) who is one of the sleepers in the chambers that he is protecting, while Bauer is watching re-runs of athletic events long in the past. However, the unexpected occurs; an earthquake triggers a fire in Bauer’s suspended animation chamber, rendering it unusable. Attempts to rig up a spare chamber end up nearly killing Bauer until Cartwright belatedly rescues him. Spare parts will have to be found and the only way to find them is to check a neighboring silo, which will require Cartwright to get into an environmental suit, traverse a labyrinth of tunnels until reaching the other facility.

However, both men have begun to become suspicious of one another as well as whether the mission they are charged with is even possible – or worth the cost. Suspicion breeds fear which in turn breeds paranoia; not something healthy when you have only one other human on the entire planet to communicate with.

I like the premise a lot, although there have been similar stories with different twists (disease, radioactive fallout etc.) in the concept. While some critics have been getting their panties in a bunch over the obsolete tech, it does make perfect sense up to a point. One huffy writer took umbrage that there wasn’t even a smart phone to be seen, which you would assume just about everyone had but one brief scene near the end indicates that the war was a lot more than chemical.

Reedus has become something of a cultural icon as Daryl from The Walking Dead and while this is a much different role than Daryl, some of the basic characteristics are there; Bauer has a kind of homespun outlook on life and he’s a bit easily hot under the collar although I suspect that if I was a technician fixing obsolete machinery so that hundreds of others could survive when the atmosphere became breathable again I would probably be a bit crabby my own self.

Hounsou is one of those actors who lends credibility and gravitas to every movie he participates in; here, his character is a bit more vulnerable than the ones he usually plays. Often Hounsou plays physically intimidating characters but not so much here; he’s a big man but he badly misses his wife and is lonely as can be as a result. While this isn’t Oscar bait by any stretch of the imagination, it does remind us that Hounsou has a depth and range greater than the roles he’s usually asked to take.

The set design is industrial, with pipes and knobs and wheels and metal tables and chairs. Everything looks like it came out of a manufacturing facility circa 1988 which is what I think the producers were going for. This is low tech sci-fi and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all.

That said, there are plenty of movies with post-apocalyptic settings and there are a few cliches about them that are repeated here, from the failing machinery to the paranoia among survivors. The pace is pretty slow, particularly early on and the action never really generates a lot of tension. Plus there are a few logical holes that don’t make sense; there is a medical bay full of medications that, given that the process apparently is expected to take decades, would certainly expire long before they are needed. Also, how do the crew members eat? Won’t the food have spoiled before long?

Of course, questions like that aren’t meant to be answered or, I suppose, even asked. Game performances by two likable actors are the centerpiece of this science fiction thriller, and if you don’t mind sci-fi that has no gleaming machinery, super high-tech gadgets, monsters or alien vistas, you certainly might enjoy this. Although there are monsters – the kind we keep inside us, and the alien vista is of a world that in our folly we destroyed ourselves. Caveat Emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Really cool premise. Reedus and Hounsou are both fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit. Doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some sexual references and a bit of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first theatrical feature to be produced by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Infini
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Band’s Visit

Prometheus


Prometheus

Michael Fassbender wonders about the pretty lights.

(2012) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson, Lucy Hutchinson. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

It’s the simplest questions that are the hardest to answer. Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? These are questions that have occupied scientists and philosophers since we were able to put a complete sentence together. We still haven’t answered them. Perhaps we never will.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) doesn’t think so. She and her husband Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) have been researching ancient civilizations and have noticed the same glyph appearing in all of them, despite never having met or interacted – a giant pointing at a star formation. Dr. Shaw believes that it is an invitation to meet our makers – and despite the presence of her father’s (Wilson) cross around her neck, she’s not talking about the almighty but of aliens.

She convinces Peter Weyland (Pearce), the mad genius behind the Weyland corporation, to finance the expedition and the trillion-dollar space ship Prometheus is constructed. The crew, including Shaw and Holloway, lie in suspended animation, tended to by David (Fassbender), the gently-spoken, polite android.

As they near their destination it is Meredith Vickers (Theron) who is awakened first. She is neither scientist nor crew – she is an executive from the Weyland Corporation and she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that no matter what the scientists are after, it is Vickers who is in charge. To say the least Shaw is unhappy about this.

However, they have work to do. The scientists believe that what they are searching for is an ancient alien race that they call the Engineers. These beings, in theory, may have caused or altered life on earth leading to the ascent of humanity. As Captain Janek (Elba), the ship’s pilot, brings the Prometheus down to the planet’s surface, straight lines are discovered. As we all know, straight lines don’t occur in nature. They have to be made by an intelligence. As they  come closer to these lines, pyramid-like structures rise from the valley floor. The Prometheus lands.

Immediately the impulsive Holloway goes to explore the structure, sending miniature probes ahead to map the structure and search for life forms. What they find is a game-changer – not every life form is benevolent, for one thing. For another, the most malevolent force against them may well be from within. And now that the Prometheus has discovered the secret of the Engineers, Earth now has a gigantic target painted on it.

The movie was initially intended to be a prequel to Alien but Scott decided that the xenomorph species that confounded Ripley had run its course; while the movie is set in the same universe, it is not a direct antecedent – or so they say (a final scene may well prove that to be false). There is a familiarity to the proceedings, some of which mirror the original Alien nicely (for example, the final log entry for the Nostromo as read by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is referred to in the final scene of the movie).

But make no mistake, this is definitely not Alien. That was more or less a monster movie with the crew of the ship being stalked and picked off one by one by a single alien. This time, the humans are doing the stalking. They just don’t like what they find.

I have to admire Scott’s willingness to tackle some of the more basic questions of human existence. He posits a theory that other scientists have long held – that without some sort of intervention of a superior intelligence, it is impossible for our species to have progressed as quickly as we have – although anyone who watches “Survivor” may tell you we may not have progressed as far as we’ve thought.

Theron, appearing as a villain in her second summer blockbuster movie this year, isn’t quite as memorable as she was in Snow White and the Huntsman but she carries some of the icy blonde evil from her work in that film over into this one. Here, she is if anything colder and more reptilian and the explanation for her behavior, when it comes, is less relatable than her motivation in Snow White.

Still, Theron isn’t really the focus here – Rapace is – and the veteran of the Swedish Millennium trilogy films shows that her star performances in those movies weren’t just a fluke. Rapace is a major star, one who is going to be headlining big event movies for a very long time to come.

Fassbender also shines here. His David is polite, well-mannered and soft-spoken. His tone is pleasant and soothing, sort of a HAL9000 with legs. He moves unperturbed through the movie, with an agenda that isn’t necessarily one that is shared by the scientists on board. David is a victim of his programming; he neither apologizes for it nor frets about it. He does merely what he is told to do by people who have no morals, no ethics.

Given the current mistrust and anger with large corporate entities, it makes logical sense that they are shown to be amoral and duplicitous with an agenda all their own and if sacrifices have to be made, well, people are as replaceable as post-it notes. In some ways, that’s far more chilling than the ooey gooey aliens that we’re shown but we’re far too inured by corporate misbehavior to be surprised by it.

Ridley Scott hasn’t done a science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982 but he still shows a tremendous confidence of vision. The special effects are amazing and for the most part, practical. For those who have issues with 3D, this one used a system based on the one that Avatar used and the shadows and darkness were added in post-production, which makes it a lot less clear when watching with the polarized 3D glasses we’re forced to wear to view it. In other words, it’s not so hopelessly dark that we can’t make out what’s going on, and the 3D is used to good effect here which is unusual for the gimmicky technology.

And yet my recommendation isn’t quite as high as you might think. For one thing, while the movie admirably tackles some pretty lofty subjects, it doesn’t always succeed in addressing them satisfactorily. I was also left curiously flat by the movie; while there are some awe-inspiring moments, this doesn’t have the fire that the first Alien had and I never got as invested in this film as I did in that one.

Prometheus is a movie that set high standards for itself and met a majority of them. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet enough of them to be a truly great movie. At least Scott and cohorts were shooting for greatness rather than trying to be all things to all audiences. There’s something to be said for that.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent effects. Aims high. Rapace could be the next Sigourney Weaver.

REASONS TO STAY: Fell a bit shy of its lofty goals. Never really blew me away.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be intense although not terribly gory and the creature images can be nightmare-inducing. The language isn’t particularly child-friendly either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the conditions for Scott to do the film was that he not be pressured to tone things down for a younger audience. He was supported in this by 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Rothman who allowed Scott to make an R-rated film, even though that might cost revenue in the short term.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solidly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey

ICELAND LOVERS: Many of the exterior scenes were shot there, as well as in Scotland.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Exporting Raymond