Thursday 2 November 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017) - Movie Review

Release Date: May 11, 2017 (AUS)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action, Thriller
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: John Logan, Dante Harper
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir

Plot: The starship Covenant, a colonisation vessel, is en route to Origae-6 to begin terraforming the planet and start a new civilization. However, they soon find a distress signal coming from a separate planet, leading them to a barren planet that has traces of Earth vegetation. As they explore the planet looking for the source of the distress call, they soon discover that this is another domain of the Xenomorphs, and behind the scenes, someone has big plans for the awaiting crew.

Acting: Michael Fassbender is on the fast rise to being one of the finest actors working today, and thankfully this serves as another notch in his belt. His portrayal as Walter, a synthetic aboard the Covenant, fits with his past role in Prometheus, only not quite as carbon-copied as one may think, and his additional role highlights easily the best moments of the entire film. Unfortunately, as far as noteworthy performances, that’s about as far as it goes. Waterston, even ignoring comparisons to past female protagonists in the series like Ripley or even Elizabeth Shaw, is pretty bland as our lead and doesn’t make much of an impact by film’s end. Everyone else basically fills their required spaces in the traditional Alien narrative. With the minor switch-up from the standard cold and uncaring depiction of humanity amongst the starts to this one’s more warm and communal tone with the couples and families on the colony ship, you’d think that the characters would be changed to fit that. Alas, this isn’t the case.

Liked: The visuals are incredible, if a tad inconsistent. The creature designs are still top-notch, even with the new Neomorph we see early on, and the set design is truly gorgeous like the Necropolis and the almost Da Vinci-esque layout of David’s study, but the CGI effects definitely feel off. It basically can come across like it’s pulled from a video game in how they’re rendered, and their clunky addition to the live-action footage isn’t all that smooth either. This also ends up effecting the gore scenes, but at least there the verging-on-over-the-top gore spectacle can excuse the wonky computer effects. Hell, the slightly-off effects is largely devoted to the Aliens, as the rest of the film is quite effective in terms of bringing this continually-expanding universe to life.

Probably one of the best parts of 2012’s Prometheus, as polarising as it ultimately was, was how it toyed around with the concept of creation; specifically, the creation’s connection to the creator. Before, it was the Engineers who ended up wanting to erase humanity as a failed experiment of their’s. Here, it manifests itself through the character of David, who makes a welcome return here. He essentially builds on the previous film’s notions of the relationship between God and Man, employing bits and pieces from Paradise Lost and other classical works (the film was even originally going to be called Alien: Paradise Lost) to show what is essentially a very Shakespearean kind of character. At once a vengeful creation, with the prologue helping to further highlight the source of his apprehension towards Man, and a creator himself once we get into how he ended up on the planet and what happened to it.
When David is conversing with Walter, it results in quite possibly some of the best scenes in the entire Alien canon; the philosophical touches, the layered and rather nuanced characterisation, not to mention just damn good acting from Fassbender, all meshed together to create the sort of musings that you would expect from a being that has been left with only his own imagination for several years. It’s very Wrath of Khan in that respect, only this does a far better job of reinterpreting the character than even Star Trek itself managed with Into Darkness.

Disliked: With how truly incredible the scenes with David are, it is seriously worrying how played-out every other aspect of the film is. I understand that with a series as storied as Alien that there are certain tropes that become part of the series’ identity; people expect scenes like an Xenomorph bursting out of an unsuspecting crew member’s chest whenever one of these films comes out. However, that starts to become a problem once you realize just how much of this film is recycled whole-cloth from other films in the series. Prometheus may have done much the same thing, but this does it to an even more aggravating degree. The away mission that goes horribly wrong, a synthetic deliberately putting the human crew in danger, the “strong” female protagonist (in quotations because it’s showing some serious diminished returns here), the emphasis on body horror as the Xenomorphs rip through the humans, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation working behind the scenes to get a Xenomorph sample regardless of human casualties, an egregious amount of swearing-for-the-sake-of-swearing that keeps trying to evoke Ripley’s classic “Get away from her, you bitch!”; it all smacks of what we have seen many times before.
And not just in the Alien franchise either, given how influential the first two films became and how readily other filmmakers were willing to copy them. Knowing the new status quo when it comes to ‘isolated thrills in space’ narratives, largely thanks to works like The Martian, the fact that this is as stubbornly conservative as it is is rather disheartening. To say nothing of the ending which, while weakly trying to mimic another recent Alien-centric film in its tone, is built on such a weak twist that it effectively leaves the entire climax tensionless. It’s rare that a film will actively sabotage its own final reel like this.

What makes all of this feel even worse is that, at its core, there are fresh ideas being brought to the table. The changed priorities of the crew, David’s grand machinations, even a new evolution of the Alien; these are the things that could breathe life back into this franchise. While the first two films are widely regarded as certified classics (and rightly so), the rest of the series is a lot more muddled. Alien 3 seems to vary wildly from person to person, Resurrection was a proper dud, the Alien Vs. Predator films are bad to the power of terrible, and as much as I have an affinity for Prometheus, it also has a lot of detractors who honestly have more than enough reason to be so. Add to that how much Alien influenced pretty much every single sci-fi film that would follow in its wake, and you have a historical series that could use with a tune-up. However, it genuinely feels too willing to re-use the previous films on shuffle to do that. That’s what ultimately makes this as annoying as it is: When it’s good, it’s absolutely fantastic; when it’s bad, it’s extremely tired and just feels like it’s dragging along until we get to the newer and better parts. The script for this film’s follow-up has apparently already been written; I can only hope that it isn’t just large swathes of this film repeated again.

Conclusion: This is definitely one of the more frustrating films of the year so far. Ridley Scott’s visual talent is still on display, resulting in some very unnerving and tense sequences, and the writing combined with Fassbender’s always-reliable performance result in awe-inspiring musings on the purpose of Creation, both as a product and as a Creator. However, what makes this film truly shine ends up being buried in a heaping pile of set pieces and tropes that are becoming incredibly stale with how much they have been repeated ad-nauseum at this point. Ultimately, I do feel that this film’s heights end up outweighing its depths, and it did end up building on what made Prometheus as good as it was which should hopefully continue in the sequel, but it comes with a rather hesitant recommendation.

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