Alien: Covenant (**) – IQ’s just dropped sharply

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Alien Covenant – 2017

“If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six. I’m not going to close it down again. No way.” – Ridley Scott, March 2017

Director Ridley Scott
Screenplay John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby

I think it’s well past time to stop throwing the word “genius” around when talking about Ridley Scott’s cinematic output. At the very least we should add the phrase “hampered by corporate requirements” to the end of the word. When diminishing sales compromised the vision that he put forth in Prometheus a few years ago, his talk of a prequel trilogy started shrinking to maybe just one more film. Then, as development to the followup of that flawed but brilliant film started ramping up, it was decided that the film’s title would include the word “Alien.” The cry from the large portion of the casual fan base had been to include more than just a courtesy “Deacon” Alien shot at the end of the film.

Those complaints were vetted and recognized as valid criticism to those who believe movies are in the business primarily to make money.

That there might be a long-term goal seems not to have been considered strongly. The fact that there is what looks to be an Alien Queen mural in Prometheus was more than enough for me to know that something good was coming down the line. Ridley said he wanted to know more about the Space Jockey. So did a lot of others. Prometheus is the bone tossed in our general direction that made us wonder, like Elizabeth Shaw, what else is there?

There is less a sense of wonder and more a sense of duty in Alien: Covenant. And it is not the same sense of duty that Walter (Fassbender, playing a second, more advanced and constricted android) feels for his crew mate Daniels (Waterston). It’s kind of obvious that Walter feels a kindness for humans that the creators of the Alien prequels don’t feel for their audience. The new direction has been abandoned, and in its place the same old checkpoints that Scott has hit in his previous films, with no sense of story flow past the first act.

That first act is, actually, pretty good. It’s 2104, ten years after Prometheus is reported missing. An accident on the colony ship Covenant creates the makings for a situation for their crew to investigate the source of a signal on an unknown planet, instead of their original destination. Preliminary research shows that the planet should actually be more habitable than their original destination, so despite the objections of 2nd in command Daniels, captain Oram (Crudup) decides to send most of his crew down to search for the source and scope the planet out. That they just decide to land is risky, but when they all depart the ship without any protective gear, it’s obvious that most of these folks are not mean to last the trip.

What they discover while there is a contaminant that starts to affect each of the crew one way or another. In addition, David (Fassbender) arrives in the midst of chaos breaking down. He knows everything there is to know about the planet that they are on. Let’s just say it’s not good news.

There is actually some good character build up as things are unfolding in the early part of the story. Primarily in the form of McBride, Waterston, Ejogo, Bichir, Seimetz and Hernandez, we get a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that was missing from the disparate crew of Prometheus, who somehow hadn’t met one another until they woke up from hyper-sleep. The situations they face are at least interesting until they set down on the planet, and even when the plot goes south, the characters still shine as genuine. This could be more because the loss of a spouse resonates more than would that of someone you just met prior to taking off, but it’s plain the actors have a better idea of who they are here.

It’s once they land on the planet that everything in the story lets the characters down. Crudup’s Captain Oram is most crippled by the mechanics of the point to point plotting. He goes from trying to prevent his crew from mourning the loss of a loved one to making decisions on a whim that endanger the lives of everyone. Why?  Because the plot requires it. Later he has some incredible red flags that he at first acts on, but then succumbs to stupidly.  Again we ask why? Well if you’ve seen the trailer, you know someone has to lean over an egg at some point.

This is the problem with much of the last 2/3 of the film. People are not anywhere for any meaningful reason, they just split up when the plot requires thinning of the herd. Then we get a series of clever lines followed by dumb reactions. It’s all just spacing for the next attack.

Much has been made of Fassbender playing the dual roles of David and Walter. Of this I say he is only as good as the script allows. Where we win is when they counter one another in the meaning of existence. There is a good back and forth, some of the best writing of the film. In the midst of which, the subjects of the previous entry in the story are glossed over as a minor loose thread. Just like that, several of the questions from the previous film vanish. Is this forever?  Likely, though I  hope not.

This brings us to Waterston. It’s hard to have much enthusiasm for a character filling the heroine slot when the last one is missing in action. Waterston is good in the role but her character feels less like a person than a spot holder. She’s supposed to be the one who stays calm in the face of pending disaster, and she’s the one who needs to disagree with the captain. Her relationship with Walter is a nice diversion, but she’s got to do all of the muscle bearing while everyone else succumbs to the order of appearance on the credits.

This is less of a problem with Prometheus, because Shaw (Rapace) has an actual goal beyond survival of the moment. She is curious and wonders about things that many of those watching could be interested in, were it posed in a smart enough way. Instead of refining that difficult path into a synthesized theme, we go back to having people as glorified cows lined up for slaughter by the ever refined Alien compositions.

What is going on with the Aliens? We have a few different styles than we’ve seen before, but nothing resonates until we get back to one that looks close, but not exactly like the one seen in the original. We are given some strong hints that there is some Buffalo Bill style experimenting going on, but given the fact that there are no non-botanical organisms present at all makes one wonder how perfect this contagion really is in its altered state.

The beastly antagonists are rarely scary in any fashion. There is absolutely no tension based on the fact that it’s all been done before. It doesn’t matter where something is going to break out, if you know it’s going to happen before the victims set foot in the area of playthings. Those being hunted provide no clever or meaningful resistance, therefore being even closer to cows than humans.

While much has been made of the realism of Scott’s creature effects, every shot in the film rings closer to Transformers than it does the original creepy source. The details onscreen are crisp and he definitely knows how to hold attention in the action scenes. It’s just hard to imagine he’s putting as much thought into the likelihood of some of the scenes (like watching an Alien jump directly and willingly into a trap) as he is what kind of filter to put on the lens.

Is this film a complete loss?  No. The series has a future and one can hope that the film makes enough money to provide a buffer that might allow Scott more freedom to explore the seemingly obliterated Engineers. Right now it just seems like Scott spent the film checking boxes of requirements from the people in the business attire. This is the one designed to please the “fans” to be sure. Let’s hope that this becomes less an investigation of Weyland’s creation and more of an investigation of the question that Scott has twice now said he wants to investigate:

Where do we come from?

We already know that David has found his purpose and we definitely know what happens when people in these films die. Let’s try a little harder to engage everyone.

(** out of *****)

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