Alien: Covenant (2017)

I’m back! Briefly, anyway. I couldn’t let a new Alien film arrive in cinemas and not review it, so I’ve dusted off the pencil and notebook and taken a crack at it. In short: entertaining but forgettable sci-fi, and something of a disappointment from Ridley Scott.

Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE felt like it was trying to be both a sequel to every Daniel Craig-era 007 entry as well as a big fat homage to the entire Bond franchise, but failed to do justice to any of them?

That sense of grasping overreach pervades much of director Ridley Scott’s newest slice of sci-fi horror, ALIEN: COVENANT. Intent on serving as both a sequel to previous entry PROMETHEUS (the sort-of-but-not-quite prequel to Scott’s original ALIEN) and a more traditional standalone entry in the canon, COVENANT tries to have its cake and eat it; the end result feels like a film with a personality crisis, with neither the scale and ambition of the former or the gut-wrenching chills of the latter. What’s left is a modestly entertaining excursion into familiar genre territory, which comes up short next to Scott’s classic, as well as James Cameron’s ALIENS and arguably David Fincher’s unfairly maligned ALIEN 3.

Full review: Alien: Covenant | TAKE ONE

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Prometheus: the second viewing

PrometheusRidley Scott’s sci-fi blockbuster (which it now most certainly is) seems to have really divided audiences. There are those who are willing to look past its faults and enjoy it, and those who aren’t and don’t (as far as I’m aware, it has yet to be hailed as flawless). I’ve already reviewed Prometheus at length (over at The Digital Fix), but I’ve now seen it a second time, so for what they’re worth here’s a few additional thoughts which occur to me.

Firstly, I stand by my original view that this is a beautifully crafted and entirely gripping slice of science-fiction. There’s no need to restate the obvious by praising its visuals – Scott is an artist above all else, and even the film’s detractors concede it looks the business. Its willingness to think big and not pander to the lowest common denominator makes Prometheus the most cinematically rewarding sci-fi vision this century has produced thus far.

The two-hour running time for me simply flew by. Indeed, if anything the film is too short. There were several moments where I wished Scott had lingered a little longer, especially in the run-up to the landing on the planet/moon. Remember how unwelcoming that original planet was in Alien? How that ominous mood was gradually built up? This is a film that needs to breathe a little more slowly and a little more deeply, to let the atmosphere really envelop you. I suspect it would be all the more satisfying for it.

Equally some of the characters could have benefited from being fleshed out more. It’s the one area the film genuinely falls down on, which is a shame because Alien is a text-book example of how to sketch memorable characters in a genre film. I liked Idris Elba’s Captain Janek, for example, but without adequate screen time he remained little more than ‘the guy with the accordion’. A script polish could have made all the difference – where’s Dan O’Bannon when you need him?

As for those alleged plot-holes, I didn’t have any significant problems with the narrative. On a second viewing I think the film flows more smoothly, and nagging details about character motivations became less bothersome (although they don’t recede entirely). As for things like ‘Why didn’t Vickers run away to the side of the crashing ship?’ (SPOILER), it seemed to me that she WAS running away to the side, albeit at an angle; the sheer size of the Engineers’ ship doesn’t make it clear how futile her actions were.

This is all just idle fan nit-picking, of course. I suspect Scott is an astute businessman and recognised the need for a tight theatrical cut that came in as close as possible to two hours. But I also suspect a longer version of the film is done and dusted and waiting to be shipped on dvd and blu-ray. I can’t wait to see it, and I’m willing to bet that it will come to be seen as the definitive version of the film, just as the special edition of James Cameron’s Aliens is now viewed as the superior cut of that movie.

Incidentally, you’d be forgiven for thinking early on that Prometheus is actually a remake of Paul W.S. Anderson’s unloved 2004 spin-off Alien vs Predator, which similarly posited the notion that the Xenomorphs had connections with Earth’s long distant past, and that a man called Weyland had known of their existence long before his eponymous company sent Ripley and her crew to investigate planet LV-426. In fact, the AvP films are not only ignored by Prometheus but are cut loose from the franchise altogether (which one suspects won’t be the cause of too many shed tears).

Oh, and if/when the sequel is eventually announced, what are the odds it’s going to be called Prometheus Unbound? You can have that one for free, Sir Ridders.

Review: Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott’s return to the massively popular Alien franchise he helped launch in 1979 shoulders an enormous burden in audience expectations – this is his first science fiction film since Blade Runner, after all – and it’s little short of a miracle that he succeeds in delivering a worthy follow-up. It may not be the equal of its classic progenitor or his landmark 1982 future noir, but Scott proves he still has it in him to deliver a beautifully crafted, mature slice of sci-fi while keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. Raising as many questions as it does answers, the director and Twentieth Century Fox have successfully resuscitated one of the studio’s key properties by delving in to its origins (much as they did with last year’s X-Men and Planet of the Apes reboots) instead of churning out a redundant remake, managing the difficult act of keeping long time fans onboard without (ahem) alienating newcomers.

Full review: Prometheus | Cinema Review | Film @ The Digital Fix

Waiting for Prometheus

Prometheus poster
TOO. MUCH. INFORMATION.

So, Prometheus then. I know I’m not the only person eagerly anticipating Sir Ridley Scott’s latest project. As we all know by now, it’s set within the Alien universe before the events of his classic sci-fi horror, though to what extent it serves as a direct prequel remains to be seen. It’s in 3D (which saddens me a little). It stars Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce. Fassbender’s character is an android. And it has something to do with the origins of the mysterious ‘Space Jockey’ corpse briefly seen in the first film.

That’s about as much as I know, and I’m desperately trying to keep it that way. Occasionally a film comes along that you really, REALLY don’t want spoiled for you. That you want to unfold afresh before your eyes, letting the story take you to its conclusion with no knowledge of the journey to come. To allow the surprises to catch you unawares. In short: to really, truly, honestly experience it.

It’s a tricky thing in the age of the internet though. Scripts are reviewed online before they are even greenlit. Spoilers abound everywhere. Images are sneaked and spread through social media. Trailers are available across hundreds, if not thousands of websites. Even the trailers themselves now have trailers.

To ignore all of this about a film you are desperate to see requires a significant amount of willpower. In fact, it requires you to embark on some sort of hermit mission by inhabiting a kind of digital cave, only occasionally venturing out to see what’s new in the weird and wonderful land of civilization. Needless to say, I haven’t been completely successful. New images from the film crop up on sites like Facebook unbidden and I am forced to click hastily away, mentally renewing my sworn oath of spoiler chastity.

Mercifully, the release date for Prometheus is slowly ticking round and within a matter of weeks I will be privy at last to its mythical contents. Until then, please don’t tell me anything about the film, otherwise I might be forced to kill you, and then eat you. Just in case, you understand.

The Day That Time Stood Still

If you’re still lucky enough to have a job, especially one of the office variety, then no doubt you will have had to endure those sorts of training courses which have been deemed as “essential” for all staff. You know the sort I mean: data protection, financial regulations, health and safety; generic courses full of worthy-but-dull legal speak which merely serve to wash the employer’s hands clean of any liability should an employee do something wrong, stupid or naughty and get caught in the process.

I had the misfortune to sit through another one of these courses on a recent Tuesday afternoon. You can instantly tell when you are in the midst of one, because they share the same characteristics:

  1. Einstein’s theory of relativity is confirmed, by the manner in which time grinds to a halt. The clock in the training room, which is always large and prominently featured, takes great pride in displaying how long a single second can be drawn out.
  2. Other employees, the vast majority of whom you have never seen before and almost certainly never will again, turn up expressly for the purpose of engaging the trainer in long-winded, drawn out conversations about minute aspects of the subject which are only relevant to their area of work, thereby prolonging the agonising dullness of the course for everybody else.
  3. You take far greater interest in your fingernails than is normal.
  4. You start to envy the freedom of nature through the window, which will invariably show smug-looking birds flying around in the air in a deliberate attempt to taunt you.
  5. You begin to daydream…

This last one is a serious weakness of mine, something I am particularly susceptible to when the course in question is becoming bogged down in legalese jargon or has succumbed to ‘death by Powerpoint’. The upside to this is that I can amuse myself with fantasies of some never-to-be world where I have become impossibly successful or dashing. I shan’t bore you with the details, but these moments do help stimulate other thoughts. For instance:

  • Who would I cast as a new Ghostbuster in the upcoming sequel…?
  • Who should direct a new Alien film…?
  • What might make a good title for a new Indiana Jones movie…?
  • Which essential, must-have dvds are missing from my collection…?
  • How much would a new surround sound system cost…?

Alas, the problem with modern training courses is that one is not allowed to fall ever deeper in to these private thoughts, because all courses must now include some element of interactivity and, God help us, “role-play”. Role-play: one of my most dreaded words. Suddenly you’re thrust in to the centre of the room and forced to make an idiot of yourself, desperately trying to marshal whatever thoughts you can recall from the course so far, hoping that someone else will be just as bad or possibly even worse than you at whatever exercise you’ve been asked to do. It’s quite a shock to those of us who are more of the “sit-quietly-in-the-corner” ilk.

Eventually, after what seems like an eternity, freedom is granted and you make your way merrily back to the office, grateful to do something as uninteresting as checking emails. The problem is that the private thoughts tend to stay longer with me than the contents of the course, the latter usually managing to quietly sneak out of my brain that very same evening. Still, even if the course failed to linger for very long, at least I have a better idea of who should play the new Ghostbusters.

Alien: Rebooted

News that I had been dreading for quite some time (ever since Aliens vs Predator: Requiem tanked) finally broke a couple of weeks ago – 20th Century Fox are drawing up plans to remake/reboot Alien. Only chit-chat so far, but there seems little doubt that a new project is in the works, and is unlikely to be a direct continuation of the original series.

It seemed inevitable somehow, given the current fad for rebooting/remaking anything that ever made a reasonable amount of money in the past. The recent box-office success of Star Trek has only intensified studio efforts to look at which proven money-maker could be dusted off next. But that does nothing to quell the anger and despair at seeing something you love being butchered, broken up and sold off to make a fast buck. News that should be some form of consolation, namely that Ridley Scott would be co-producing this new take with his brother Tony, does little to asuage my fears.

My problem is that any sort of prequel or reimagining would destroy the elemental mystery of the original. Of course it would be interesting to know the origins of the Alien, and also that of the doomed Space Jockey. But do we really want to know? Would it not cancel out the original film’s unique atmosphere of ancient and otherwordly terror? Is it not better the leave the creature’s true origins obscured, impossible to determine, thereby enhancing its unnatural horror?

I trust Sir Ridley enough to assume that he has thought this through already and found a story angle that won’t ruin his first masterpiece. But I can’t help but fear that I will follow each new announcement of the project with a sinking feeling inside – especially if the director turns out to be a “hot new talent” from the world of music videos or visual effects. Spare us that at least.

The new Predator project (possibly to be directed by Neil Marshall it seems) appears to be a sequel of sorts to the originals. Let’s hope the new Alien will similarly respect the qualities and intentions that marked out its original so vividly.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

And so we come to the fourth and (thus far) final film in the original Alien cycle, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection. It is in some ways ironic that this is (thus far) the last of the series (not including the Alien vs Predator spin-offs), as it was heralded on its arrival as the saviour of the franchise – a return to form after the negative response to Alien 3; to get it “back on track”, as Kim Newman described it in his Radio 4 review. My sense is that, on the contrary, time has proven A:R to be the weakest of the line.

This was the first Alien film to be exposed to internet fan speculation during its development, where fact and fiction often walked in hand. Rumors abounded of the direction that a new film might take (one story suggested that the events of Alien 3 would be written off as a hypersleep dream, paving the way for the return of Hicks, Bishop and Newt). How big a part the still-young world wide web played in the actual decision-making process is of course questionable, but it was clear there was still a great hunger for more sequels. This was despite the apparently final conclusion of Alien 3 that saw Ripley’s own story come to a memorable close, even if the film itself was not as beloved by audiences as its predecessors. It was this lingering dissatisfaction that seemed to drive demand for a new entry; questions still needed to be answered and more Xenomorph-style terror was desired, in the belief that Alien 3 was merely a blip.

At least, that’s what it felt like from a fan’s perspective. From the studio’s point of view, this was a series that was still solvent and capable of making more money, just as the Planet of the Apes series had done for the same studio two decades earlier. That might sound cynical, and it probably is, but there’s no doubt that if it wasn’t capable of making money, a new chapter would never have got made.

The studio does deserve some credit though. All three of the earlier films had been directed by up-and-coming directors of talent and vision, who all went on to equal or greater successes (Ridley Scott made Blade Runner and Gladiator; James Cameron made Terminator 2 and Titanic (yes, yes, I know); and David Fincher made Seven and Fight Club). Commendably undeterred after the mixed reception to Alien 3, Fox and the producers stuck to their guns and went after another visionary for the new episode. One early frontrunner included Danny Boyle, who had just come off Trainspotting. In the end they signed up Jeunet, despite his speaking little English and not having directed a feature-length film by himself before; his earlier films, Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), were co-directed with Marc Caro. Jeunet of course went on afterwards to direct the wonderful Amelie (2001).

A:R bears all the hallmarks of having been conceived as the start of a new series of films, perhaps a new trilogy. Writer Joss Whedon certainly tries to give audiences what they wanted from a new film. Firstly Ripley herself is resurrected, using the then-trendy plot device of cloning. Sigourney Weaver was tempted back with a whopping paycheck. Clearly the producers felt that her involvement was crucial to get the series going again; earlier attempts to get an Aliens vs Predator film off the ground came unstuck, so it’s not surprising that Weaver was drafted in. It does smack a little of desperation though, almost like the producers felt it would be too risky trying to create a new character to carry the franchise.

To be fair, the idea is interesting and has potential: two centuries after the events of Alien 3, Ripley is cloned from stored blood samples by military scientists (will they never learn?) aboard a spaceship attempting to recreate the Alien (something to do with “urban pacification”); this results in her DNA becoming mixed with that of her nemesis, making her a rather different Ripley from the one we remember. The idea that her ultimate sacrifice was in vain, and worse, she is now bonded with the evil she has battled to eradicate, does pose some intriguing questions. Of course, the Aliens manage to escape their shackles and start to do what they do best: kill, kill and kill again.

Whedon’s script ticks other crowd-pleasing boxes too. Back come the colonial marines from Aliens; back too comes the spaceship setting from the original, complete with ship’s computer called Father (as opposed to Mother in the first film). The basic story is also familiar, as a dwindling group of survivors try to make their way out of the infested ship alive.

For the first time in the series, Weaver’s name was not alone headlining the poster: joining her was Winona Ryder. Ryder’s addition to the franchise is convincing evidence that the studio were looking for a new name to carry the series on if and when Weaver bailed out (though the revelation about her character that comes towards the end of the film is slightly bizarre if she was indeed to pick up the torch as the new star of the series). Unfortunately Ryder doesn’t fare well in the film, being altogether too weedy and annoying, and Weaver easily keeps the limelight to herself.

Ryder is not the film’s only fault however. The most serious flaw is a very uneven tone, one that lurches from thriller to farce and back again. It’s often a frustrating film to watch, as one feels that in the hands of a different director, A:R could have been a much stronger addition to the series. Instead, Jeunet adds moments of pure silliness when what we really want from an Alien film is horror and suspense. Scenes like Dan Hedaya’s death-from-behind, looking at his own brains; or the frankly bizarre ‘conception’ scene as Ripley is ‘smothered’ by the Alien Queen, resulting in the entirely risible Newborn. The style of humour here is totally out of place; it might work in Whedon’s Buffy tv series, but an Alien film needs to be grounded, believable, scary. Hedaya’s whole character seems to have walked in from a sitcom shooting next door.

These supposed innovations only serve to distract from a story that seems fine on paper, but actually turns out to be more like a greatest hits compilation of its predecessors. Whedon’s script included some colonial marines, but only one actually plays anything like a significant role. And for all the guns on display, desperately trying to evoke memories of Aliens, there’s precious little shooting.

Which would be fine, if there was horror and suspense to replace it. But sadly the film is deficient here too. Certainly there’s nothing to match the terror of the first or second films, or even Alien 3. There’s the odd moment of excitement, such as the underwater swim and the egg ‘farm’ where the survivors emerge, or the scene where the abducted passengers awake to find themselves each suspended above an Alien egg just about to hatch. But the trouble is it’s all been done before, and better. Jeunet may have an imaginative eye with the camera, but he doesn’t seem to know how to build a tangible atmosphere of tension or dread.

This does all rather sound like I hate the film, but actually I don’t. Even if Jeunet proved to be the wrong man for the job, he didn’t necessarily deliver a bad film – just an unsatisfactory Alien film. Certainly there are enough ideas of interest to make it worth a look. The tone may not be right, but the setting is good; in fact Whedon reworked this space smugglers scenario to much better effect with his short-lived but much-missed TV series, Firefly. The smuggler crew are an interesting bunch of characters, including the likes of Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott, and they help keep the film afloat. The build up to the escape of the Aliens is quite involving. The action may be a disappointment, but the sets and cinematography continue the series tradition of looking superb, both claustrophobic and moody – it certainly looks like an Alien film, and some pleasure is derived from that fact alone. Sadly the Aliens themselves are not as scary as they once were, the film over-relying on CGI and therefore automatically losing some of the horror the first two films had. There are some neat touches though, such as the way the Aliens escape from their cells by killing one of their own. The other standout moment is the scene where Ripley encounters the earlier attempts to clone her; failed experiments horrificly gone wrong, yet unaccountably kept alive.

But much of the good work is lost when the ending with the Newborn arrives. The best that can be said here is that if the studio wanted their director to inject something unique in to the film, then they certainly got it. Unfortunately, the creature is more often  laughable than the tragic beast he seems intended to have been. And the whole idea of a human-Alien crossbreed as the product of what seems to be a sexual liaison is just too silly for words. I’m amazed the studio let it get by.

So in the end it’s a mixed bag really. Some good bits, some bad, some imaginative, some absurd. It was a noble attempt to do something different with the franchise, to make it feel familiar yet new, whilst getting the series back on the road to success. Unfortunately audiences didn’t get onboard with it and the moderate box-office returns it generated meant the series was put on hold indefinitely. Still, if this was the weakest of the series to date, then that shows the strength of the franchise’s quality overall.

An Alien 5 has been mooted now and again, with Cameron and Scott apparently interested in making a fifth and final chapter that visited the Alien homeworld. Sadly it was overruled by the studio in favour of the long-gestating Alien vs Predator… but that’s a review for another day.

[xrr rating=3/5]