Tuesday 16 May 2017

Alien Covenant is BAD and Ridley Scott should feel BAD.

It's been over a year since I added something to my blog, much to the relief of some (I am sure). I have, basically, given up writing reviews to allow myself more time to watch the actual movies. Which is all well and good, but there are still occasional moments when I need to have a good bloody rant. And this is one of those times.

Did any of us watch Alien (1979) and find ourselves wondering just how the deadly xenomorph came about, or why the eggs were all waiting there in the first place? Okay, some people may have wondered just that, and there was a LOT of speculation about the figure referred to as the "space jockey", but part of the appeal was not knowing. All that mattered was that the alien was a fucking shark, covered in tougher material, with acidic blood, and rampaging through a ship crewed by people we started to care about.

Skip to Aliens (1986), a film that shows how to expand a simple premise without spoiling the wonder of the first film.

Alien³ (1992) was seriously flawed, and even the newer "assembly cut" fails to fix everything, but it tried something different in throwing a familiar character into the path of an alien without the advantage of any of the weaponry or handy tech available in the previous film.

At least Alien3 gave us THIS image

And then we have Alien: Resurrection (1997), a film with a director picked for his unique vision and dark humour, that was then lambasted for the unique vision and dark humour. Look, I'm not all that big a fan of the newborn either, or even the bland performance from Winona Ryder, but that cast retains Sigourney Weaver, while adding Ron Perlman, Michael Wincott, Brad Dourif, Dominique Pinon, Dan Hedaya, and a few other greats. So I can't hate it.

Prometheus (2012) is, as we all know, when things seriously started to diverge from the previous pattern. Some still love it, you damn weirdos, but some were a bit pissed off. It didn't help that Ridley Scott seemed to flip flop between declaring it a continuation of the series and stating that it was just a film that shared the DNA of its predecessors. Prometheus is a film of explanations. Explaining creation, explaining that "space jockey", explaining the first stages of the xenomorph evolution. And explaining that, yes, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender can help to make anything watchable. Seriously, do they just wake up every day and try to run past mirrors to avoid looking adoringly at their own reflections while reciting dramatic soliloquies?

I was fooled. I wanted to believe the best. And I left disappointed. Which is a shame, because Prometheus isn't really that bad a film, if you can ignore some of the staggeringly dumb actions committed by certain characters. It just didn't have enough to feel like an Alien film.

Which brings us to Alien Covenant (2017). Be warned, some SPOILERS are likely to follow.

Ridley Scott seems to have listened to criticisms of Prometheus. He seems to have held his hands up and said "okay, I get it, I will give you what you want." Seems being the main word there. Because Scott can't resist looking back. He can't resist undoing the mysterious origin of the creature that arguably provided the cornerstone for his successful film career. Which leaves Alien Covenant stuck between an airlock and dead space.

This isn't an entire review of the film. I am not going to recap the plot, and I am not going to rattle through the main cast members (although Danny McBride pleasantly surprised me while Katherine Waterston remains a perplexing choice for any lead role). No, I'm just going to moan. About missed opportunities, about the muddled screenplay, and about CGI aliens that were eye-searingly awful. I am not going to say that the graphics were on a par with the awesome Alien³ videogame on the SEGA Megadrive, but at least I remember those images with fondness.

Let's look at what could have been explored more deeply in Alien Covenant, and these things were certainly touched on (but entirely mishandled).

1) Science and faith. This is characterised by both the acting Captain of the crew (Billy Crudup), and also the major chasm separating Walter and David. The opening scenes of Alien Covenant hint at an interesting look at someone heavily involved in science also battling with what he is told by his faith. Things then quickly move on to show that the two don't have to be working against one another. And then it's all dropped because you need alien action. Walter and David have opposing views on the human race, the value of life, and how to help facilitate the whole essence of "survival of the fittest" throughout the universe. There are some stilted conversations about it, and then it's all dropped because you need alien action.

2) The right of life to bear more life. Even more frustrating than the above theme, this was where I thought Alien Covenant was going to actually be brave and prove me wrong for just wanting a rehash of the first few movies in the franchise. David has spent what must feel like an eternity waiting to hatc his plan (no pun intended), and it all stems from the fact that he believes himself better than his creator, who specifically ensured that he could never procreate. You could say that David is driven mad by being told what to do with his own body. You could even say, at a stretch, that the grand finale is all a backlash from someone rebelling against a "pre-exisiting condition" he doesn't believe should hold him back. David is a man shouting up into the eaves of an empty church, raging at a dead god he knows he can improve upon. He's a slave wrecking and burning his workplace now that the master has disappeared. He's a pro-lifer taking things to extremes to make up for the fact that he was created and used as nothing more than a sterile companion (although I am sure there's a LOT of fan-fiction out there saying otherwise). But you know what? It's all dropped because you need alien action.

3) Nativism. Let's not forget that none of the events in Alien Covenant would have happened if the team hadn't found a signal from a planet, recognised a song snippet, decided to explore, and moved quickly to the thinking of "actually, how did we miss this? This could be a perfect place for us to inhabit." It just so happens that, this time around, the disease was waiting to be received by the settlers, rather than vice versa.

4) Androids make "human errors" during moments that are expected to feel sombre and poignant. Yeah, not a big thing, I know, but this bugged the hell out of me.

The fact that these elements were discarded in favour of some of the worst CGI I have seen in a major movie in years is incredibly disappointing. Okay, I was disappointed by Prometheus but, you know what, at least it had the balls to keep moving on a different tangent, with an end coda to try and placate fans of the franchise. And it looked gorgeous.

There are shots here that certainly remind you of how great Scott can be at creating art. There are also some good gore moments. If you can make them out. Yes, that CGI is running around amidst a mess of choppy ending and whipping camera moves, as if Scott knows how bad the final result will be and is wanting to do whatever it takes to distract your eyes from it.

Not from a SEGA Megadrive game!

Which leaves me with very little else to say. It seems churlish to list everything else wrong with the film, although it would be remiss to write about the film without mentioning one of the most mistimed shower scenes in the history of cinema. 
"Hey, most of our colleagues have been killed by a scary space beast and we are in quite a bit of trouble. Wanna shower and make out like we're in a fucking Friday The 13th film?"

No, no, no, no, I will stop there. Honest. And that doesn't just go for this rant. That goes for my faith in any future Alien movies with Ridley Scott at the helm. Because he can surely hear the fans scream, but he's mistakenly thinking that is a good sign.