I think it might have been a mistake to revisit both Alien and Aliens in high-def 4K prior to catching the latest franchise instalment, Alien: Covenant, on the big screen this weekend. They both remain masterpieces of the form, the first one of the greatest horror and SF films ever made, the second arguably the greatest US action film committed to the screen, so how can anything possibly compare? Well, after the glaring failures of Prometheus and the initial trailers for Covenant I had adjusted my expectations accordingly, but we live in hope that Ridley Scott might have one great film left in him, and to all the naysayers that repeat the mantra that the originals can never be bettered I point to the Mad Max reboot which meekly disproves that position as one rare exception to the rule. For cinephiles of my vintage the first couple of films are akin to our first viewings of Star Wars, indelibly seared into our memory of what cinema, and rather more specifically genre cinema could achieve through atmosphere, themes and design. They are corrosively etched into our shared popular culture, a nodal point for all future endeavours to be benchmarked and compared against as long as storytellers look to the indescribable depths of the universe and ponder on what immortal terrors may be lurking between the distant stars. Have they equalled these peaks with this latest mission? No, of course they haven’t but this film isn’t without its merits, while also working as a wider metaphor for all the frustrations of franchise filmmaking in 2017.
The set-up seems gestated in an Alien franchise screenwriting nest, drawing DNA strands from previous instalments in a simmering SF stew. It is the year 2104, and the 15 soul crew of the colony ship Covenant is progressively hurtling toward a remote planet, Origae-6. Some two-thousand colonists are also slumbering in hyper-sleep, monitored by an upgraded android named Walter (Michael Fassbinder), the next generation of synthetic that we previously knew as David in Prometheus, the bio-technical pinnacle of the sinister Weyland Yutani corporation. After a solar flare damages the vessel the crew are thawed, and in the ensuing chaos receive an enticing transmission from a nearby system, revealing a potentially fertile world for their colonising ideology – the planet yields an oxygen atmosphere, acceptable gravity, and a promising array of vegetation and hydration. The missions terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterson) objects to the diversion, but is overruled by acting Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), so with a new course set an away team investigates the source of the message and naturally all hell breaks loose, in all the gruesome glutinous violence that we franchise fans have come to expect.
Let’s seed this review with some of the fertile positives before we reluctantly turn to some of the more problematic elements of Covenant. Firstly, it’s a Ridley Scott joint so naturally the aesthetics are just stunning – the gloomy production design, the tech, wardrobe and uniforms, the typography and cinematography are all state of the art, effortlessly building a believable and tactile future universe which is worthy of a big screen experience alone. I loved the desaturated, misty palette, and no-one shoots a klaxon shrieking, steam bathed strobe-lit bulkhead corridor better than Ridders. The first two-thirds are compelling and for much of the time I had a nagging belief in the back of my head that we might have another great Alien movie on our hands. It takes its time to build the story and assemble the narrative pieces on the chess board, but then like Prometheus the effective set-up and activation of plot nodes stumble into an increasingly fractured climax which – and this is difficult to articulate but bear with me – seemed to be assimilated into Covenant from an entirely different Alien franchise film. It is a very strange shift in pace, emphasis and events, where the supposed incessant demands for CGI set-pieces obliterate the previous control of structure and symbolism. The orignal Alien, and to a lesser extent Aliens orbit some very elemental human characteristics which pollenate across cultures and creeds while impregnating some unconscious essentials of human nature – the semen flushed fluids of the artificial androids, vague vaginal threat, inverse concepts of male rape and insemination. In opposition Covenant seems neutered, displaying a distinct lack of sexuality in terms of its emphasis or acuity, even the concept of the crew being populated by colonist couples working together as professionals regardless of their gender in some post misogynist landscape is largely supressed and discarded. Now, for the record this isn’t some SCW agitating, this is a concept that was present in the series from day one if you watch the various documentaries on the development of Alien, even before Ripley was transferred from a male to female antagonist through the script development process. Hell, even Alien III dropped a woman into a isolated culture of rapists and other criminal miscreants, where an ‘Alien’ outlier could at least be understood and tackled, querying where the real threat might be lurking.
With very little time the characters are hastily sketched, some twitter reviews I’ve scanned have praised Waterman although I can’t agree, she was something of a nonentity on-screen for me with just the bare bones of backstory. Billy Crudup’s captain makes some early intriguing references to his religious beliefs which is a thread that is promptly discarded, a casualty of an evolving script development one suspects. I’m not sure why they made Amy Seimetz , initially a competent, spacefaring professional pilot into a hysterical shivering mess so quickly, but it’s nice to see the Mumblecore and Shane Curruth alumni getting some higher profile roles. With the exception of the miscast Danny McBride – I just can’t take him seriously in a dramatic film – the rest of the crew are identikit red-shirts, so it is left to Fassbender to save the day. He plays the synthetic with the same intriguing gravity that he brought to Prometheus, an artificially created specimen with all the just slightly off delivery of speech and figure movement, internally questioning the integrity of his flawed creators*. I just wish the screenwriters didn’t resort to the cliché of crowbarring numerous literature references into his occasionally portentous dialogue beats – Shelley and Keats to name but two, and also a spot of Wagner – when a few allusions to the other Shelley and the Frankenstein myth would have sufficed. Rather more mischievously I admired the films bloodthirsty intentions, it is graphically violent with shredded puny meatbags being repeatedly ground into mince in a most amusing fashion, making me chuckle in glorious gorehound glee.
The major problems with the Alien franchise, now in its sixth (or eighth) gestation and near four decade hereditary are these – the entire direction of travel, the effort to create some franchise universe is unnecessary, and it is distracting. When they brought in the pathogens, those alabaster hued engineers and the swirling pixels of nanotechnological viruses it just obscured the pathological, elemental, primordial terror of the Xenomorph and its, well, it’s utterly alien nature. Why couldn’t they have just taken the series to earth, or take a petrifying sojourn to the beasts homeworld? Elemental myths and fears of the mystery of creation, of isolation and cognition, gender, evolution and birth swirl around these recent episodes of the series but they are simply not wielded to anything as potent as the sheer terror of the unknown, of lifeforms without remorse or pity subjecting us to their superiority and horrific, incubating lifecycle. To be fair the artificial life, synthetic philosophising is fascinating from a SF perspective and is contemporary with the growing unease and progression in IRL A.I. evolution, and this gets a lot of play in Covenant which might be this film’s singular saving grace – time, contemplation and a few re-watches are required. Some of the callbacks to early instalments are great fun – I really loved the revival of Jerry Goldsmith’s music cues from the original which is one of the most overlooked triumphs of the original film – but this now being 2017, and not 1979 or even 1986 there is this hideous necessity to incorporate some ‘thrilling’ action scenes which are also unnecessary and distracting, shattering the screen fidelity and immersion in the world, and dancing around spoilers one plot development late in the film is so spectacularly obvious it’s almost insulting when they detonate it. It’s funny, I initially was a lot more forgiving of Covenent when I exited the theatre, I mostly had a good time and enjoyed the experience, but gathering my thoughts here has exposed the glaring errors of what could have been. In summary then I’d rate this as on par with Alien III, flawed, irritating but still pulsing with some of that glutinous, gruesome fascination that the first two masterpieces incubated. With three more instalments already in the works I’ll keep a flickering flame lit amidst a melancholy musing over what course we might be on if they’d let Blomkamp have a crack at this still fertile, but frustratingly ferbile franchise;
* Maybe Fassbender could get together with Scarlett Johannson’s succubi in Under The Skin in some weird SF sidebar mythology. And fuck. This is how my genre crossover mind works. Professional help is being sought……
Finally, after those intriguing teaser trailer we get a proper look at Nolan’s first historical feature. I think it looks pretty epic and worthy of an opening day matinee, even if it all seems a little, well, clean and sanitised, cinematography style speaking – is that just me? As I’ve mentioned before the onslaught of post Brexit, post election think-piece musing is also going to be horrific, if todays local election results are anything to go by;
The first of many I’m sure, teasers that is. I enjoyed VII immensely, significantly more than the disappointing Rogue One, and in there careful way this teases just enough to keep even us remotely interested nerds salivating like a Sarlacc in mating season;
Hmm, having watched, and thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Strange over the weekend I think I’ll give this a chance, even though I don’t particularly care for the Thor movies;
Well, in true cowardly fashion I for one welcome our new Soviet cinematic overlords;
Given all the disruption in the wider world concerning anglo- Soviet relations this is almost satiric, right? Like a comedy sketch of a Russian film adopting the Hollywood blockbuster aesthetics? Welcome to 2017 comrades…..
Not exactly off to a punctual start of the year are we? It’s been a few weeks since I caught Rogue One, the long anticipated first wider universe film set in the Star Wars universe, and to be frank I just haven’t been able to muster the enthusiasm to collect my thoughts. Then of course tragedy struck which threw an entirely new shadow across the film, with the passing of Carrie Fisher the first loss of the primary acting talent of the franchise although we also lost Kenny Baker earlier in 2016. Just to be a hideous, privileged soul I remember sitting at Frightfest 2010 when Monsters was showing, a mere five feet from Gareth Edwards who took to the stage for a rapturous Q&A, and look at him now, one of the corralled and manageable directors that seems to be the current studio executive strategy in controlling these dollar spinning franchises – see also Disney’s Marvel imprint, Universal’s Jurassic Park behemoth, and the Warner Bros. DC Universe. I loved Monsters, a genuine achievement of a fresh new talent assembling a movie at zero budget, utilising the new trajectories and abilities of digital equipment, with a fine understanding of story, character and empathy. Something is intergalactically amiss in this film in those crucial areas as although it’s already cliche to state this Rogue One is the biggest fan-fiction movie ever made, stuffed full of lip-service and nerd nuggets for the converted to mutter and coo appreciatively, but fatally lacking in anything resembling rich and engaging characters, or even the slightest dregs of emotional drive which is so crucial to this specific franchise. I didn’t hate the film, it had its moments and strengths that we will come to shortly, but until it reached its final act I was deathly bored, and even then none of the climactic story beats detonated with any impact whatsoever.
It’s all about keeping it in the family for this franchise, and this first picture nested away from the tragedy of the Skywalker clan flirts with the same territory of estranged patriarchs and hidden secrets. A nordic flavoured opening sequence introduces us to Jyn Erso, a young woman separated from her parents when the Empire arrive and threaten her father to return to work for them on their secret, planet devouring super-weapon. After her mother is killed and father (Mads Mikkelsen) captured we smash-cut to some time later, with Jyn all grown up and played by a neutered Felicity Jones – more on that phraseology later. It’s murky but she’s either a thief or scoundrel of some sort, soon rescued from the prison camp by the Rebel Alliance in order to join the effort to rescue her father, a mission led by intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Eventually this chemistry free couple manage to recruit Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), the blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed grunt Baze (Jiang Wen) – all of their ideologies and motivations I perfect mystery, other than Chirruts mystical ramblings about some strange alchemy known as the force. So, from a kernel of familial strife and guilt the film warps into a mission movie, in a scrappy and fractured narrative line which fails at numerous dramatic hurdles.
The neutron core problem with Rogue One is just how manufactured it feels, how designed by committee, with a critical and fatal disregard for character. From the potentially offensive Zatochi clone and his mate I just didn’t care about anyone in this picture, just like it appears neither did the screenwriters who were clearly directing their efforts into the avenues of fan-service, references, and crafting a film whose sole purpose is to reference other entries in its own bloody franchise. None of the principals get any decent lines or tangible development moments, the first half feels very fractured and scattershot, and whilst I’d concur that the final section is a marked improvement it all comes to little too late to save this plundering product. If you compare and contrast with The Force Awakens (or indeed Episode IV or V) within seconds we given enough information to form our own ideas and backstories – Ren’s a mischievous and resourceful with dreams of getting off-world and into wild adventures, Finn’s a fractured yet spirited conscript whom is struggling with his moral compass. In this film we know nothing of our main protagonists, the prologue aside we learn nothing of Jyn’s interviewing struggle, her drive or reasoning, so when the character moments arrive they don’t land with any density whatsoever – her sudden transformation for inspirational speech orator was ridiculous. In his role as some sort of mentor / father surrogate / Afrika Bambaataa clone Forrest Whitaker is a terrible over-actor with his wheezing portentousness and husky, and quite frankly the main character we met in the trailer, the arrogant and brooding Jyn has been transformed into a much more, well, feminised archetype . There was so much they could have done here, the thriller trope of this being an assassination mission not a rescue mission, and what about the notion of Jyn, our heroine, spending her life as a the daughter of a collaborator – theres plenty of drama and tension to mine. Instead we got some limping procession from one planet to another, drizzled in flat and inspired dialogue, and some feeble stabs at humour from the reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) which missed my funny bone by about 10 trillion parsecs.
SPOILERS SECTION – Yes, Darth effortlessly scything through doomed hordes of Rebel redshirts was highly amusing albeit pure fanboy masturbation, I felt his appearances were listless and not exactly squirming with menace, and very poorly written – what the hell was that ‘choke’ ‘gag;?.\ The entire connection of this story into the opening frames of Episode IV smacks of huge executive interference, it is clunky, it is ugly, and stinks of pure incoherent ‘hey this would be cool’ rather than letting the story be guided by any inconvenient diversions such as character arcs, logic or emotional closure. Some of the other cameos were almost embarrassing – the droids moment might retain their fidelity as the central characters who have appeared in every Star Wars film but it’s just pointless and distracting. Unfortunately Hollywood still hasn’t cracked the uncanny valley as the Peter Cushing resurrection was just weird and deployed far too often, it completely threw me out of the film, although I guess it is meta-commentary amusing to see na actor who spent his entire career grappling with the undead back on the screen a couple of decades since he slipped this mortal country. I quite liked the Leia cameo though, unlike most that kinda worked for me, even with the rather clunky line delivery – although I saw it before the sad news so I’m not sure if this just won’t play as deeply disrespectful. I also quite like the idea of the two reprobates from Mos Eisley engaged in some intergalactic pub crawl after they inadvertently bumped into Jyn, I’m sure there are numerous other references I missed but this is what has just curdled in the memory banks. Just to be really picky, the decision to nuke the final battleground, considering that they hold all the Empire’s plans and numerous intelligence assets seems a little extreme, a bit like nuking the Pentagon if the generals learned that some F23’s secret blueprints had been compromised. Why did Forrest Whitaker’s character just stay in his home intoning gravely instead of getting the fuck out of dodge with everyone else, and what was the fucking point of the psychic tentacle thing? SPOILERS ENDS
Most amusingly I have recently learnt that director Gareth Edwards, also graduated from the same Surrey University as me back in the mid 1990’s, I don’t specifically remember him as he would have been on a different course, but it was a small colleague so I’m sure our paths crossed at me point. I don’t quite know why he was stalking me at Frightfest but here we are. Not wishing to psychoanalyse his intent but he’s evidently one for apocalyptic instincts, big broad metaphors like the creatures in his debut and his Godzilla remake, but like the new generation of malleable directors they serve in obvious thrall to the franchise behemoth, delivering some acceptable product with any fiscal polluting edges and controversies whittled away. Thankfully the film improves dramatically once it reaches the final stretch and the climax begins to coalesce begins, it almost transforms into an actual Star Wars movie with the cross cutting between parallel planes of action to power the dramatic crescendos, but without any genuine investment in any of the occurrences it is all too little too late. To be a little more positive I did enjoy spending some more time in this franchise world from a nostalgic perspective, seeing the ship designs and costumes was fun, including Bahamas Stormtrooper © and was that a new horizontal TIE fighter design I spied? To deny that didn’t depress some nerd buttons would be dishonest. I also did like the sense of a teeming and populous universe which the film just about mustered, skipping from one planet to the next, and I wonder if the lack of traditional wipe edit patterns and inclusion of planet inter-title introductions (which haven’t been deployed in the franchise before) weren’t a deliberate effort to distinguish this movie from the Skywalker saga. But none of this can fully detract from an imaginary realm populated with dull and uninvolved characters, a bruising lack of camaraderie or comradeship, and an utterly unearned heroes journey from jaded criminal vagabond to inspired guerrilla leader who can inspire noble souls to join her on a doomed suicide mission. Oh and a quick memo to the next film producers – decide who your villain is, for fuck sake. Rogue One has at least three villains oozing around the galaxy and cackling over their nefarious plots, which left Ben Mendelsohn flailing for any presence or nefarious heft, in a completely wasted role.
The other reason its taking me so long to pull this together is that I didn’t want to start the year on such a tepid, negative posture, but for me the Scorsese season starts in earnest tomorrow with a screening of Silence so I need to disintegrate the back-log, no matter how distasteful. The film was subjected to reshoots before release which is par for the course these days, almost all major films do this so it’s not necessarily a warning sign, but the shift of emphasis from that original trailer alongside rumours and whispers coming out of the set smacks of Executive molestation a la Suicide Squad, where certain key moments have been culled to the cutting room floor to actively change the pace and tone of the narrative and the characters – ‘this will play gangbusters, so who cares about the plot’ is the corporate mantra especially with more receipts coming from overseas. Then again, apart from a few of us rare dissenters everyone seems to be loving this, or at least giving it a pass as fun couple of hours and upon reflection I can’t necessarily disagree with that for a major blockbuster, a distraction from the increasing ominous shift of the culture. Fine. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I saw this as I wasn’t particularly excited about it, as I’ve said before I’m of the generation that grew up with and was obsessed with this universe when I was a kid, but those pangs have faded partially due to its unearned ubiquity in the cultural landscape, but while I’m always down with some fun big dumb SF opera my exhaustion with this series is becoming overwhelming. So maybe it’s not for me and that’s fine, if people are throughly loving this then great, more power to you, the world is lacking in enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment these days, and perhaps a message of committing to fight against the darker forces in our world, no matter how futile as it might just make a difference isn’t such a bad shell of message to offer. Churning these out every year will inevitably tarnish the brand however, the appearance of a Stars Wars film was a major event for good or ill, and inevitably when we get to the Chewbacca: The Early Years dregs of the series it will have amassed enough in merchandising trillions to justify a reboot of the whole Skywalker saga again, from A New Hope, just in time for a 2027 50th anniversary treat. Rogue One is better than the I-III trilogy but then rampaging case of necrotic syphilis also occupies the same dubious qualities, so on that note ‘Beam Me Up Scotty’!!…wait, that’s the right franchise, right?;
Apparently, Nolan’s latest is getting a seven minute opening preview ahead of IMAX screenings of Rogue One – I’m sure we’ll get to see leaks of that soon, until then here’s the first full trailer which dropped today;
Well, tis the season I suppose, as the trailers for next years tentpole pictures are dropping thick and fast. But where is that god-damn Blade Runner 2 preview eh?
I like this rebooted franchise, its a lot more thoughtful and socially attuned that expected, with appropriate references back to the 1960’s originals. Good stuff…..
We can all do with a laugh, and this looks like it will deliver;
I generally shy away from posting every god-damn trailer in our current age of x 4 previews for the same bloody film, but I don’t know about you but I could still do with a distraction from the real world with some monsters. Some huge fucking monsters;
Hmm, not fond of that speed-ramping but I assume that’s a trailer effect they’ve thrown on the piece, and at least it looks like it has a sense of humor. – here is the greatest John C. Reily impression in recorded history. In other news, yes, we can do better – Indeed, we nust…..