Cinema Dispatch: Alien: Covenant

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Alien: Covenant and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox

Directed by Ridley Scott

Before I get into the review proper, I feel it might be worth discussing my thoughts on the series as a whole in order to provide the proper context for everything else I’m about to say.  Ridley Scott’s original film from 1979 probably holds up the best; even more so than James Cameron’s Aliens from 1986 which is still a VERY fun action film and one of the few BIGGER IS BETTER sequels out there (matched only by his own Terminator 2 in 1991).  I give the edge to the original because it’s a straight up horror film and those tend to hold up better than shoot-em-action flicks (the quality of special effects changes rather quickly while what scares us transcends generations), but both are damn near the pinnacles of their respective genres.  Alien 3… not so much.  Oh sure, there’s PLENTY of aspects in it that are outright brilliant and awe inspiring (as well as bone chilling and utterly haunting), but they’re all wasted on a portentous and sluggish script that’s too impressed with its own sense of self-importance to pace itself properly, and yes I’m referring to the Assembly Cut which has most of the stuff that David Fincher wanted in it.  The one thing this movie DIDN’T need was to be over two freaking hours (also, killing the most interesting new character off halfway through didn’t help things either).  That said I would watch that movie TWICE if it meant I never had to watch Resurrection again.  Good GRIEF is that a monstrous product of its time!  I don’t think I’ve seen a franchise so thoroughly 90s-ified in the worst ways imaginable outside of that Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie!  Needless to say that the franchise needed a fresh start in order to get things back on track; and it wasn’t gonna be with those FREAKING Alien vs Predator movies!  I REALLY enjoyed Prometheus which seems to be a minority opinion for some reason, and I’m not sure why.  No matter how “scientifically minded” you are, there is always gonna be things you didn’t expect when traveling to ANOTHER FREAKING PLANET and people are gonna make mistakes!  Honestly, it seems less like a true critical consensus (film stands at a solid 72% on Rotten Tomatoes) than some inexplicable backlash due to it… not being completely scientifically accurate I guess?  What was your first clue?  Was it the giant humanoid albino dudes or the baby alien growing in that one person’s stomach?  Now I didn’t know ANYTHING about Alien: Covenant walking into it other than it was Ridley Scott directing and that it will indeed have Xenomorphs throughout, but considering how much I liked Prometheus I was hopeful that some of the cool stuff Ridley was working with in that movie would find its way into this seemingly straightforward Alien creature feature.  Does Ridley Scott succeed in his true return to the franchise he started all those years ago, or it time to end this bug hunt once and for all?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with the crew of the Covenant, a spaceship with thousands of cryogenically frozen humans and almost as many frozen embryos, being violently woken up due to some sort of science catastrophe.  Now normally the crew is left to sleep with the passengers, all of whom are headed to a new planet to colonize it, while their Synthetic buddy Walter (Michael Fassbender) takes care of everything, but with this… solar flare or something?  I don’t know, let’s just go with that.  With this solar flare causing havoc on the ship, all of them need to be woken up and at their posts to avert disaster.  Most of them are fine, but sadly enough the captain (James Franco in a very brief and crispy cameo) gets burned alive in the chaos; leaving the second in command Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge.  So already things are going pear shaped on this trip that’s gonna take another seven years to complete, but they just so happen to pick up a strange signal that might be the answer to their problems.  The signal traces back to a rather close planet which they scan and find to be very hospitable to their needs, even more so than the planet they were heading to in the first place!  Despite the protestations of one the scientists Danny Branson (Katherine Waterston), Chris decides to at least investigate the place and see if they can locate the source of the strange signal as well as check if the planet really is as good as their scans indicate it to be.  Of course it’s not.  You KNOW it’s not.  This movie isn’t called Pleasant Space Cruise; it’s called ALIEN COVENANT!  The question isn’t IF they’re gonna get killed by monsters; it’s HOW MANY of them will!  Aside from the obvious revelations, does the crew of the Covenant find something unexpected on this seemingly perfect planet?  What was the source of that strange signal to begin with?  Maybe it’s someone from one of the other films who’s playing someone new in this movie!?

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My multiple lips are sealed!

There are a lot of movies out there that feel like a compromise between a director who wants to tell a story and a studio who wants to maximize the profits; both worthy goals by the way as you don’t always want a director to run rampant on a production (*cough* Pan *cough*).  Now sometimes this can escalate into a serious clash that inevitably dooms the final product like it did with Alien 3, but other times you get a movie like this which is DAMN good, but feels a tad bit forced in certain places that will probably help boost its box office earnings but feel somewhat out of place otherwise.  For those of you who think this is a reboot of Alien or takes place outside of any of the previous films (like I did walking into the theater), it’s not.  This is Prometheus 2 in everything but name and not only are those are the parts that work the best here, they’re also the majority of the film so we get a good amount of Ridley Scott brilliance in the two hours he has to tell this story.  Even when we start introducing the Xenomorphs which are noticeably shoehorned into the narrative (especially when they tack another fifteen minutes onto the ending just to give them one more chance in the spotlight), it’s not BAD by any means.  Hell, this might even be the best use of them since the James Cameron film which admittedly is a pretty low bar to pass, but it feels like that Ridley Scott, if he HAD to put them in somehow, at least made sure they were interesting and had SOMETHING to do with the story; extraneous as they may be.

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“Ridley!  It’s time!”     “Alright, FINE!  Someone go get the eggs…”

There are some notable differences between this film and Prometheus, though most of them pertain to style more than anything else.  While the last one was much more about science, philosophical ideas of exploration, and in general had a cold and calculated cinematic approach (at least until shit started blowing up), this is far more interested in building up bigger than life characters, making everything look much more gritty and naturalistic, and focusing on action and humor in a way the last film didn’t.  It certainly gives the film a much pulpier feel to it which I guess is going to appeal to those who thought Prometheus was boring, and while I feel this movie didn’t need ALL of those things to work, they at least carve out a unique niche in this franchise that’ll set it apart from the other films.  In terms of the original films, it feels like a hybrid between Aliens’s shoot first and don’t give ‘em an inch mentality with a degree of focus and blood curdling horror that feels more reminiscent of Alien.

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That and an 80’s slasher film, but that’s not NECESSARILY a bad thing!

So they basically took the two best films in the franchise, and blended them together with a movie that I seemed to have liked a lot more than most people!  Sounds like a slam dunk, right?  For the most part it is, but there are some issues with the script that kept taking me out of the film.  Early on, the crew of the ship HAS to somehow get themselves stranded on the planet and the way they go about making sure of that is completely ludicrous.  I understand that people can make rather poor decisions when they are EXTREMELY stressed out, but this one character’s single-minded determination to cause their own death for NO FREAKING REASON is right up there with the teenagers in Tucker and Dale vs evil.

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“I BURNT THE TOAST!!”

That’s probably the worst individual example of it, but stuff like that happens throughout the movie; whether it’s the fact that no one seems adequately careful enough to be exploring this strange new planet, the big final twist which couldn’t be more obviously telegraphed, or even the gratuitous shower scene that you forget was even in the trailers before it pops up out of the blue.  I really didn’t have much of a problem with the stupid scientist decisions in Prometheus that seemed to put a bee in everyone’s bonnet, but with this movie I think I kind of get it now.  More than once, I was frustrated with how characters would make REALLY stupid choices and would be EXTREMELY trusting of a situation for no adequate explained reason other than the film needing to meet a body count quota.  This is why I feel the film might be a SLIGHTLY weaker entry than Prometheus, but all the fantastic qualities that this film has manages to compensate for these shortcomings in the plot.  There’s no denying just how beautiful this film is which genuinely makes the planet look like a mixture of our own and something totally alien; not to mention how great the creature designs are in this from the Xenomorphs that we know and love to the variations of the creature that we see throughout.  I’m still not the biggest fan of the aliens being some sort of pseudo virus thing, but the way they play with that idea and how it can be bred in specific ways based on its host is rather fascinating and well explored here.  The key to everything though is the cast they’ve assembled which includes Michael Fassbender returning as David from Prometheus on top of being Walter from the Covenant’s crew, Katherine Waterston as the NEW new Ripley (essentially replacing Noomi Repace from Prometheus), and Danny McBride trying REALLY hard to make that John C Reilly leap to serious drama.  All of them are excellent, even McBride who’s over the top but in a rather believable way as I easily buy that some dude flying a spaceship would be a total cowboy about it, and that’s not even naming some of the other supporting characters that make all of this work.  I’d say that if there was a weak link in the cast (in terms of performance and their material rather than through lack of on screen presence) would be Billy Crudup as the new captain of the ship that’s REALLY insistent on letting you know JUST how religious he is!  Seriously guys, he wants to make sure that is VERY clear!

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“Is this gonna be another bug hunt, sir?”     “I prefer to think of it as a Holy War.”     “Okay…”

We’ve been talking about how good the Mise-en-scène is and the great performances, but that’s not what you want to hear.  I mean, that’s what elevates this to being a great film, but what you want to know is how gross is it and do they blow up shit real good!  I’m happy to say that the action is intense, creative, and very well shot, while the creatures in this have never been more repulsive!  There’s this fantastic action scene towards the end of the movie that I won’t spoil here, but the use of gravity and the location they have to fight on is downright ingenious and one of the better action scenes that I’ve seen all year.  That’s one place where this movie overwhelmingly succeeds over Prometheus which had SOME action and spectacle, but it felt rather perfunctory in a story that didn’t really need it.  While this movie still feels like a monster mash tacked onto a Ridley Scott sci-fi story, the action is integrated much more gracefully into the flow of the story.  Now as much as I do love the classic creature designs here and some of the new stuff they bring to the table (the aliens in this can be LEGITIMATELY scary at times), it does feel a bit… showy I guess?  There’s an extended alien birthing sequence that goes on just a bit too long for us to take it seriously, but it feels like stuff like things of that nature in this movie were the more overt places where the studio were pushing Scott to make this a bit more Aliens than it was Prometheus.  Nothing too egregious to detract from the rest of the movie (just like all the other flaws in this), but it’s still something that stood out.  At the very least, we aren’t dealing with the crap they tried to pull with the monsters in Resurrection.

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“Hello my baby!  Hello my honey!  Hello my ragtime gal!!”

Trying to find this movie’s place in the greater Alien catalog is proving to be a difficult task, but what isn’t up as hard to determine is whether it’s a good movie in the first place.  Yes.  It is absolutely worth going to see if you are a fan of this franchise, though I would try and squeeze in a viewing of Prometheus before going to see it as it is a DIRECT sequel to that despite its title change.  It’s well made (of course it is; we’re talking about Ridley Scott here), it’s a solid if notably imperfect script, and the actors do such a fanatic job with what their given; all of which comes together to be an incredibly satisfying experience.  I’m not quite sure where they plan to go now if Scott gets to make another movie in this series, but let’s hope that Prometheus 3 is better than what we got with Alien 3.

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