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

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

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.

Alien vs Predator (2004)

Last year, in a fit of unabashed love for my favourite film series, I reviewed all four Alien movies. I don’t normally write reviews on my blog, having neither the requisite skills nor time to do so on a regular basis, but this franchise is a big part of my movie DNA and a personal write-up extolling their virtues seemed long overdue. The Alien franchise consists of four films, but the Aliens themselves proved to be too big for one franchise and they managed to appear in two further movies: a spin-off series co-starring another monstrous intergalactic species of the cinema – the Predator. Yes my friends, I’m talking about the oft-maligned Alien(s) vs Predator, and for the sake of completeness I’m going to review them both. Strap yourselves in, because we’re on an express elevator to Hell.

After Alien: Resurrection’s mediocre financial and critical reception, a fifth entry seemed to be an increasingly remote proposition. Sigourney Weaver’s fee alone was probably a major part of the financial headache, even if a satisfactory storyline could be hammered out, which apparently it couldn’t. Years went by, but fan interest in a new chapter remained steady. Somewhere along the line original Alien director Ridley Scott started to circle a new instalment, raising the hopes of many a sci-fi fan. His story preference was to visit the Alien homeworld, a quite daring idea which would demand a director of his vision and calibre to deliver a film that could live up to the fanbase’s high expectations. Aliens director James Cameron was also reported to have joined the effort in a writing and/or producing capacity, to try and move the franchise forward. Surely with these two Alien alumni onboard, the next chapter was a surefire winner?

Well, 20th Century Fox obviously didn’t think so, because it was abandoned in favour of their long-gestating crossover concept, Alien vs. Predator (commonly shortened to AvP). AvP started out as a comic book series in 1990 (titled Aliens vs Predator, as Cameron’s film was by far the more popular of the two flicks at the time) and was famously suggested in the same year’s Predator 2 when Danny Glover’s character examined a Predator’s hunting trophy case, among whose contents was a very familiar looking elongated skull. The popularity of the idea did not go unnoticed by the studio and they bought Peter Brigg’s initial treatment in 1991. But Weaver dismissed the idea as terrible and, unable to finalise a satisfactory script, it was shelved.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, when the Alien series seemed to be without life (as did the Predator – a third film was in development for much of the early 90s, but failed to progress). Pitches for an AvP movie had come and gone with no success. Then in 2002, seemingly out of nowhere, the project was greenlit. Cue much rejoicing… until, that is, it was revealed the man into whose hands the long-cherished project had fallen was none other than Paul W.S. Anderson.

To say there was disappointment would be to understate the reaction. Anderson was by and large loathed by the genre community. His adaptation of hit video game Resident Evil (2002) was met with derision by fans, while his earlier Soldier (1998) starring Kurt Russell was universally agreed upon as a complete waste of money and talent, despite the original script receiving strong reviews. The previous year’s Sam Neill/Laurence Fishburne starrer Event Horizon had appeared to show some promise, though it failed to live up to its pre-release hype as the scariest sci-fi horror since Alien.

Hopes had been dashed, expectations cruelly slashed, skinned and strung up like a victim of the Predator itself. Two franchises with strong fanbases felt betrayed. Not even the casting of Aliens veteran Lance Henriksen could lift the general air of gloom about the project. The problem was that Anderson was (and is) a hack, a director who does enough to make a decent-enough looking film, but no more. We were treated in the past to some great directors of vision and true craftsmanship. Anderson is neither; prone to MTV-style editing and effects, and shameless in his ransacking of older, better movies, his films lack any memorable, outstanding or original moments. They totally fail to conjure any sort of tangible atmosphere, and the less said about his writing, the better – the word “cliché” apparently does not exist in Anderson’s book. I won’t go so far as to say he cannot direct at all, as his career clearly shows that he has managed to; but no discernible talent has yet been displayed, so quite how he manages to continue bagging top Hollywood directing gigs is beyond me.

When the film opened in 2004, it was met with predictable criticism. The usual Anderson trademarks were on display: little-to-no characterisation; awful dialogue; no atmosphere; gaping plot holes; silly SFX scenes; and the overall pervading air of desperation and eagerness-to-please. Of all the crimes committed in this film, the bullet-time shot of a facehugger flying through the air is about the worst, though I’m sure everyone could list their own personal ‘favourite’. In particular, the decision to aim for a PG-13 rating in the States was singled out as a chief flaw, though I doubt a bloodier version of the same film would have improved matters much.

For non-fans it seemed to be an acceptable enough 90 minutes of sci-fi action, and to be fair it is competent studio product, but for me that’s the point: the other Alien films were much more than just product. They were ‘real’ films, born of a director’s vision – even Alien 3 was such, despite its infamous history of studio interference. Anderson is not a visionary like Scott, Cameron, Fincher or Jeunet, and unless something spectacular happens, he is unlikely to become so. That Fox considered hiring him at all to bring this film to the screen was a crime against cinema.

So what of the film itself? Well, despite all the above, there are one or two positive aspects to it. The seeds of a good story are in evidence: elements of the comic-book are mixed up with ‘Chariots of the Gods’-style historical fantasy, the film positing that Predators have been visiting Earth for thousands of years, worshipped as gods as they used humans and Aliens to establish a rites-of-passage challenge for their young. Interestingly it tries to position itself as a prequel to the first Alien movie: Henriksen’s character, Charles Weyland, is a nod to his earlier portrayal of the android Bishop in Aliens, evidently designed in tribute to the co-founder of the Company.

To his credit Anderson does try and build up atmosphere by concentrating on the human characters to begin with, delaying the onscreen introduction of the two monsters for a good while. And if the film had to be set on Earth (which it didn’t), then Antarctica is a good location choice – the inhospitable environment has the makings of a very alien setting (and of course it was mentioned at the start of the first Alien film). The pyramid under the ice set looks fantastic, and the first time an Alien comes face-to-face with a Predator is the closest the film comes to being genuinely exciting.

Sadly, Anderson squanders it all by failing to make any of the human characters interesting or the action thrilling. The aforementioned bullet-time facehugger is a classic head-slapper, but there are many others, like the opening lines of the dire dialogue: “Where’s the signal coming from?” “Sector 14.” “But there isn’t anything in Sector 14.” “There is now…” Ooooooh, scary. Actually, no it isn’t – it’s risible.

Plot holes abound: if Predators visit this pyramid every 100 years to hunt Aliens, then how the hell did the Aliens hatch in 1804, 1704, etc. when no humans were on the continent to act as incubators? Did they just turn around in their spaceship and fly home, grumbling to themselves about coming all this way for nothing? Why on earth would Weyland’s team bring that much firepower to an archaeological expedition? And the Alien lifecycle seems to have been sped up significantly for the convenience of the plot…

It’s all very frustrating, because with a director of just a bit more talent, a half-decent film could probably have been churned out. As it is, it’s not even half-decent. The sense of disappointment considering its enormous potential means it will forever be a rather sad experience for this fan. That said, it looks pretty good (at least the production values are easy to admire) and there are one or two potentially cool moments, which makes it better than some of the direct-to-dvd dreck you might otherwise encounter. So if you do find yourself watching it for whatever reason, then just remember to tell yourself: it’s a comic-book spin-off, not a real Alien movie. It helps lessen the pain, and who knows? You might even not hate it.

[xrr rating=2/5]