Sunday, 10 September 2017

Review #1,246: 'Alien: Covenant' (2017)

Ridley Scott's ambitious but ultimately flawed Prometheus attempted to somewhat distance itself from the Alien franchise, or at least the silly money-spinner it had become. While very much set within the Alien universe, Prometheus made a crack at some big themes, particularly man's obsession with meeting its maker, but ended up leaving us with far more questions than answers, with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the decapitated synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) leaving to find the Engineer's planet to find the answers to the very questions we are left with. After the success of the brilliant The Martian, Scott seems eager to get back into the familiar stalk-and-eat/impregnate routine of his genre re-defining Alien. Indeed, Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel to prequel Prometheus, but Scott seems more interested in straight-up horror than further exploring the deeper themes of its predecessor.

It's 11 years since the Prometheus expedition, and the spaceship Covenant is drifting through space on its way to a distant planet that its crew and passengers hope to colonise. Two thousand colonists lie in stasis, and only the crew are awoken when a stellar neutrino burst almost destroys the ship. As repairs go underway, they pick up a faint radio transmission from an uncharted planet, which sounds suspiciously like John Denver. Following the death of the ship's captain (played by James Franco, who appears for roughly 30 seconds), the newly-promoted Oram (Billy Crudup), against the wishes of second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), makes the decision to follow the signal in the hope of finding another habitable planet. When they touch down, they find an alien ship, a sea of extraterrestrial corpses, and the planet's seemingly lone inhabitant, the long-haired synthetic David. Soon enough, a couple of crew members become infected by alien spores, and the rest you already know.

1979's Alien, which still has the power to terrify, has little in way of plot or alien action. Its power comes from the simplicity in which its story unfolds, and the fantastic ensemble of actors bringing to life the human interaction between those brief moments of sheer menace. They talked about shitty working conditions and bad pay, and felt like actual people rather than just the clothes they wore. There was something fascinating about watching these blue-collar types, hundreds of years into the future, and seeing that we haven't changed one bit. In Alien: Covenant, characters are defined by the things they say about themselves or their accessories. One of the first things Oram reveals is that he is a man of faith, as if the audience is too stupid to work out for themselves that the story essentially represents humanity's search for God. Chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) is a cowboy because he wears a cowboy hat and, well, his name is Tennessee. Daniels rocks a white vest and a tough, slightly sad demeanour, so we instantly think of Ripley without any actual character development required.

The film spends most of its time having the characters explain the plot to each other. At one point, a character proclaims that so little of what is happening makes sense, and I refuse to believe I'm the only one to spot the glaring irony in this statement. Characters are introduced and killed off before we had the chance to care about them, while most of the audience will still be trying to figure out how all this 'black goo' fits into the overarching story. Thank the Engineers then, for the presence of Michael Fassbender. He was the best thing in Prometheus, and it's no different here. Doubling as both the American-accented synthetic upgrade Walter and his unhinged, English-accented predecessor David, his scenes are the film's eeriest. Scenery is chewed, certainly, and there is a ridiculous, homo-erotically charged moment I won't spoil, but it's only during these moments that Covenant doesn't feel like a re-tread of every other Alien movie there's been, only done worse. Covenant's main problem is that it is trying to explain and expand on a mythos that doesn't require it. In Alien, the alien arrived without explanation and that was part of its appeal. It was a slimy, unpredictable unknown, and perhaps we now know too much.

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir
Country: UK/USA/Australia/New Zealand/Canada

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Alien: Covenant (2017) on IMDb

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