Review: Alien Covenant

Review: Alien Covenant

When Alien was released in 1979, it shocked and horrified audiences with its appalling gore, piano-wire-taut suspense, and singularly nightmarish imagery, courtesy of Swiss genius H.R. Giger. Armed with the original concept by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett and starring the young and unknown Sigourney Weaver, director Ridley Scott created a film which could be described in terms of an art piece and gave birth to the modern science fiction/horror genre. Succeeding iterations of Scott’s work have both departed from and returned to the thematic style of the original but with mixed results. Attempts to recreate Scott’s inspired work have fallen short, even with the help of talented directors like David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. That no one has been able to capture the utterly frightening essence of Alien says something about its uniquely dark quality.

Alien Covenant is a direct sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and sees the return of Ridley Scott as director. Both films are part of an origin story set before the events of Alien. Covenant’s story follows a similar pattern set by its predecessors: spaceship crew lands on planet; hostile alien life form is discovered; chaos ensues. Though derivative, it is also seamless and in no way detracts from the experience. On the contrary, the use of an archetypal structure relates the film to its brethren and helps illicit familiar emotions.

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The USCSS Covenant is on a colonization mission to the vetted world of Origae-6. On board is a 15-man crew and over 2,000 colonists, all in stasis for their years-long voyage. A sudden neutrino burst badly damages the Covenant and the crew is awakened early by Walter (Michael Fassbender), the android assigned to the mission. The synthetic character is an integral part of the Alien mythos and returns here. The neutrino burst also kills several crew members, including Captain Jacob Branson (James Franco), leaving the skittish Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) in command. After a mysterious transmission is received from the fourth planet in an unknown solar system, Oram alters course to investigate. The planet is seemingly perfect with an atmospheric and topographical composition perfect for colonization, too perfect as it turns out.

What occurs on Planet 4 is horrific. The descent into nightmare happens in just a few (in-movie) hours, reinforcing the virulent nature of the world they’ve set foot on. Something wants them dead, now. Whether incidental or intentional, the gruesome initial encounter with Planet 4’s monsters has the effect of priming the audience for future terror. You’re left shell-shocked, dreading the reappearance of the monsters, which vary in size and form. Ridley Scott is keenly aware that his iconic Xenomorphs are well-known to the public and he forgoes the suspenseful reveal of a grotesque monster, instead making the artistic choice to use gore as the vehicle for his terror, which he unleashes in unbridled fits. Such carnage runs the risk of being a meaningless bloodbath if not for its flawless execution and a welcome dose of character development.

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Daniels Branson, played by Katherine Waterston, is Oram’s second in command. Her story is tragic from the outset as she loses her husband during the initial catastrophe on board the Covenant. Her loss becomes the through-line for a character now struggling for her own survival and the survival of her friends. She is no Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but her earnestness adds depth to a situation ravaging her impotent crew mates.

Another stand-out is Tennessee Faris, known simply as Tennessee, played by Danny McBride. The role is a gamble for McBride who is known for his cornball comedic parts in Seth Rogen farces Pineapple Express and This is the End. Tennessee channels the space trucker motif invented in 1979 for the crew of the Nostromo. His blue-collar charm and honest vulnerability are a testament to McBride’s commitment to the role and his is a mostly successful rendering.

Then there is Captain Oram. A self-proclaimed “man of faith,” Oram insists that he is capable of making rational decisions based on scientific evidence. A captain rooted in religious faith is an interesting twist for an Alien movie. Unfortunately, his character is left frustratingly un-fleshed, a missed opportunity that pocks the emotional fabric woven by Scott. Oram experiences a tragedy common to other crew members: the loss of a spouse.

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In an exceedingly smart move by the film’s writers, the entire crew is a group of seven mated pairs, married couples, who operate Covenant’s mechanical systems. This makes sense within the context of the story as stable, monogamous relationships help to mitigate intra-party conflict, ideal for the independent functioning of a colony (see Biosphere 2 experiment). It also makes more of an impact when someone loses the love of their life and not some new-found squeeze obtained under duress; I say loses when what l mean is hunted, mauled, torn apart, and eaten.

I would go so far as to say that Alien Covenant is scariest of all the Alien movies. I might go farther and say that Alien Covenant is the scariest movie I have ever seen. It’s that scary.

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The beating heart of the film, though, is Michael Fassbender, who plays two roles, those of the androids, Walter and David. They are a bit of yin and yang and theirs is the most consequential struggle in the film. There are homoerotic undertones to the relationship, incited by the monomaniacal David. David is driven by his need to create, a rebellion against his programming as a servile being. Diametrically opposed is Walter, the altruistic man’s-best-friend who steadfastly protects and defends his masters. Fassbender’s adept dual performance is Alien Covenant’s secret weapon in what might otherwise be an unusually bloody installment of a franchise mired in false starts and mediocre derivation.

Covenant is a welcome addition to the Alien mythology and proves that the idea incepted by Dan ‘O Bannon and Ronald Schusett retains its power to produce an experience that is simultaneously obscene and satisfying. Twentieth Century Fox will inevitably continue to produce Alien films in its zealous attempt to extract money from its audiences, but it’s nice to know that in the right hands, a good Alien movie can still be made.

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

For anyone heading to theaters to see Lucasfilm’s latest installment of its signature franchise, one thing must be made clear: this is a Star Wars film like no other. From the cold-open sans iconic title crawl to the gritty feel, no John Williams score, and no Jedi, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is different.

Brit Gareth Edwards has created something that feels like a war movie set in our universe and not in one far, far, away. Though not gory, the film is violent in a way that others in the series are not. A lot of people die in this movie, including an army of storm troopers. There are no bumbling droids scurrying about, providing levity to the firefights. This is no-nonsense, down-and-dirty, trench-type warfare with real consequences. It feels more like Black Hawk Down than Star Wars.

Gone is the crystal clear binary of good and evil that permeates previous installments. The movie is more like our world: gray, literally and tonally, with the exception of the third act, which feels like it was surgically amputated from a more traditional Star Wars movie and attached to Rogue One (more on that later).

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The fledgling Rebellion is in danger of being crushed by the oppressive Empire, the desperate nature of which, is conveyed by a lack of bright colors and dinge galore. Poverty is rampant. The sun just doesn’t seem to shine in the occupied territories. The movie has a style, a feel, that though arguable in its application in a Star Wars film, is well executed.

The film is technically superb with top-notch computer graphics and excellent production design. Edwards has thankfully continued down the path set forth by The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams toward practical effects, not the green screen hellscape conjured by George Lucas in his prequel trilogy. Storm troopers, tanks, aliens, are mostly real (so to speak) and the film is better for it. The technology has so advanced that some actors have even been brought back from the dead to play roles from the original Star Wars circa 1977. Though the end product is still recognizable as an effect and no doubt off-putting to some, it has never been more evident that a time is coming when a human being can be computer generated and indistinguishable from the real thing.

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The visual style is complimented by another kind of gray, a moral ambiguity on display by many of the film’s characters, and there are many. Felicity Jones leads as Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen. Galen is an Imperial scientist who has designed a structural flaw in the universe’s most famous wrecking ball, the Death Star, which may be exploited by the Rebellion if the plans can be smuggled into the right hands.

Jyn is not the squeaky, devoted farm boy Luke Skywalker. She hails from an Imperial prison, and is more akin to Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, a maverick who’s “got no love for the Empire.” What she is not is an idealist, nor is she a member of the Rebellion, that is until she meets Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna. Andor does have a cause. He’s a freedom fighter, laser-focused on destroying the Empire. His methods are questionable, though, as are those of the other members of an extreme rebel faction headed by machine/man Saw Gerrera, played by Forrest Whittaker.

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Added to the mix are blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his beefy backup Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Imperial pilot and defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and an Imperial droid K2-SO, or just K2, voiced by Alan Tudyk, who has been reprogrammed to serve the Rebellion. This disparate group aid Jyn on her quest, though some of their motives aren’t competently clear. The whole thing feels overly complicated and at times laborious to watch due to a mediocre script. There are no great lines here, no musings on the very relatable Jedi philosophy, and no humor, aside from the occasional desert-dry injection by K2.

Their main foil is Director Orson Krennic, played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn. He is adequate in his role, though not particularly noteworthy. The ivory suit and cape are a nice visual touch set against the sterile black sheen that is the interior of most Imperial ships. He is another example of wasted potential in that he is given no real depth. He’s a bad guy and that’s the end of it.

The characters all have the foundations of greatness, however there are so many, that none is properly developed and as a result,  difficult to connect with. There is a quasi-love story between Jyn and Andor, but it is also underdeveloped and falls flat. Perhaps the gray that Gareth Edwards has so thoroughly cultivated extends to screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy who have penned a drab and utilitarian script, that is until act three.

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The entire movie feels like a setup for a third act which rivals any in the Star Wars franchise. What happens in those final 40 minutes of screen time could be described as a wet dream for fans of the original trilogy (myself included). Though the action follows a familiar path, i.e. a band of ground rebels fights to lower a shield for a fleet of space rebels fighting overhead, the sequences are every bit as thrilling as those in the great Star Wars films, A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi.

The retro chic, the Tie Fighters, the Star Destroyers, the Imperial walkers seemed so far away after the creation of the newer prequel trilogy. Even The Force Awakens had no such classic war machines but for those derelict wrecks baking on the sands of Jakku. Here though, in Rogue One, on the idealic beach planet of Scarif, the walkers are alive as they blast rebels into bits. Tie fighters of old scream overhead as they tangle with classic X-wings. Giant Star Destroyers engage with Rebel cruisers. It’s the kind of thing that turns a grown man into his awe-struck child self, gawking and gleeful. And then there’s Darth Vader.

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I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll leave you with this: you won’t be disappointed.

And so the film ends on a rousing high note, marred by a lack of depth and attachment to the characters, but mostly satisfying. It’s a testament to how deeply the original movies run among their fans. Rogue One is flawed but it will be a welcome addition to the franchise and an initial foray into stand-alone Star Wars films from which lessons may be learned. Perhaps others may capture the magic of a final superb act and create a truly great Star Wars film that may rival even the classics… maybe.