Friday, May 19, 2017

In Theaters: ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper. Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Guy Pearce, James Franco, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Goran D. Kleut. (R, 120 mins)

Despite the pre-release tap-dancing around the issue, it was obvious that 2012's PROMETHEUS was Ridley Scott's return to the universe he created with the 1979 classic ALIEN. After PROMETHEUS' ultimate reveal as a prequel, Scott has returned with no illusions about what's going on with ALIEN: COVENANT. Picking up ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS, COVENANT centers on a colonization mission on the space vessel Covenant, with a crew of 15 carrying 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos on a seven-year, hypersleep mission to an oxygenated planet known as Origae-6. They're under the watchful eye of "Mother," the ship's computer, as well as Walter (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic in charge of maintaining the ship. A "neutrino burst" causes significant damage to the ship, killing some sleeping colonists and forcing Walter to bring the crew out of stasis. Second-in-charge Oram (Billy Crudup) is forced to assume command when mission leader Branson (a barely-seen and uncredited James Franco) is killed in a freak explosion when his pod won't open. They're still seven years from Origae-6, and Branson's wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston, Sam's lookalike daughter), who's also on the crew, voices her objection when Oram decides to investigate a signal (someone singing John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," in a garbled audio transmission that's effectively creepy in an EVENT HORIZON way) from a previously unseen planet just a few weeks away that's showing even better habitability figures than their intended destination.

I guess Daniels is the only one who's ever seen an ALIEN movie or an ALIEN ripoff, since this is obviously a decision worthy of a Bad Idea Jeans commercial. While the Covenant and pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) stay in orbit with two other crew members, a smaller vessel piloted by Tennessee's wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) takes Oram and the rest of the crew to the surface. They split up, with Oram's biologist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) collecting samples with soldier Ledward (Benjamin Rigby), who unknowingly stirs some alien spores that enter his ear and go undetected, taking root in his brain. Meanwhile, Oram and the others discover the wreckage of the spacecraft in which Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and synthetic David (also Fassbender) escaped at the end of PROMETHEUS. When a soldier in that group, Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), also gets infected by spores, they head back to the docked vessel where a creature has already burst out of Ledward's back and killed Karine, eventually leading to an explosion that kills Faris. A creature erupts out of Hallett's mouth and soon, others similar to the franchise's signature xenomorphs start attacking until the whole group is rescued by David (also Fassbender), who's been living alone in what appears to be the ruins of a Pompeii-like civilization. Dr. Shaw was killed in a crash landing ten years earlier, and when David isn't weeping at a shrine he's set up in her memory, he's been surviving on his own. He clearly has other intentions, as evidenced by his barely-contained enthusiasm upon being told that there's 2000 hibernating colonists and 1000 embryos aboard the still-orbiting Covenant.

ALIEN: COVENANT is consistently interesting, but it's still a hot mess. The biggest obstacle that it can't overcome--and it didn't seem apparent to me until I considered it and PROMETHEUS as a whole piece--is that knowing the backstory to the events of ALIEN and the whole Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) saga is completely unnecessary. When the actual H.R. Giger-designed xenomorphs finally appear in the last half hour or so, we see entirely too much of them, and in their sleek new CGI incarnation, pinballing all over the screen like sprinting zombies in 28 DAYS LATER, they lack the sense of tangible menace like the aliens in ALIEN and its equally great 1986 sequel ALIENS. This whole saga of PROMETHEUS and COVENANT ultimately feels like little more than ALIEN fan fiction that does nothing to enhance the movies we've been watching for going on 40 years now. Scott throws in enough bizarre and unexpected elements that COVENANT has always got your attention even when it's stumbling--the whole midsection of the film, showing David's routine around the ruins of the society he's adopted as his home, is another example of the director's occasionally insane side making its presence known. But in the end, it doesn't go far enough, like a lobotomized Ray Liotta eating his own sauteed brain in HANNIBAL or Cameron Diaz fucking a car in THE COUNSELOR. Before long, we once again start getting that PROMETHEUS feeling that Scott realizes he needs to appease the studio and abandons the project's unique ideas in favor of rushing through the last 30 or so minutes because he seems to suddenly remember he's making an ALIEN movie. In other words, almost right down to the minute, the same flaws in PROMETHEUS are repeated in COVENANT, with the added detriment of a laughably predictable twist ending and an attempt to turn David into a quipping, synthetic android Freddy Krueger.

Fassbender is fine in both roles, especially as David, with his gentlemanly sinister demeanor and erudite line delivery recalling Peter Cushing not just in his performance, but also in the echoes of Cushing's Nazi mad scientist living on a deserted island among his aquatic zombie creations in 1977's SHOCK WAVES (instead of CGI-ing Grand Moff Tarken in ROGUE ONE, they should've just hired Fassbender to do his Cushing impression). ALIEN: COVENANT feels like three movies in one, all of them tonally different (a late shower kill with gratuitous T&A as an apparently pervy xenomorph peeps in on a cavorting couple feels like it belongs in an '80s slasher movie or, at best, a Roger Corman ALIEN ripoff like GALAXY OF TERROR). Waterston makes a tough, gritty heroine, but elsewhere, there's too much distracting stunt casting, whether it's McBride coming off as "Kenny Powers in space" and not selling lines like "That's one hell of an ionosphere!" or Franco turning in his finest performance in years as a burnt corpse (Guy Pearce also appears as evil CEO Peter Weyland in a prologue). It's intriguing that the crew is almost entirely made up of married couples, with some sociopolitical commentary in Oram being established as conservative and bitching that his faith has held him back in his career, or that Hallett and badass security head Lope (Demian Bichir) are a gay couple, but it's never really explored other than as transparent thinkpiece-bait. Ridley Scott owes no explanations to anyone, and it's great that the 79-year-old legend is still full of piss and vinegar and able to work so much in his emeritus years, but like others in his age bracket such as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, his average of a new film every year or year-and-a-half is an indication that maybe a break and a recharging wouldn't be a bad thing. Scott is just spinning his wheels here, and so is the ALIEN franchise.

1 comment:

  1. When I saw the poster, I thought, as she grows older, Katharine Waterston is basically a fem-faceapped version of her dad c.Oppenheimer.