Thursday, August 17, 2017

Back to the Beginning - Movie Review of "Alien Covenant"

In 1979 director Ridley Scott shot to stardom and made sci-fi/horror mainstream with the release of ALIEN. The movie was so successful in birthed a sequel  (ALIENS) which was even more popular and a franchise was born. However, since the release of ALIENS, the Alien franchise has had some serious missteps, beginning with ALIEN 3, one of the most nihilistic mainstream films made.  After years of toying with the idea, Ridley Scott finally returned to the Alien franchise with PROMETHEUS. That movie was a prequel to the Alien franchise that is both a sci-fi/horror film and a piece of philosophical pondering that examines the mythology of the Alien universe as well as human metaphysical questions. Scott has again returned to the Alien universe with the release of ALIEN: COVENANT, a sequel to PROMETHEUS.

Set over ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS, ALIEN: COVENANT follows the crew of the colony ship Covenant.  All  of the ship’s passengers and crew are kept in stasis, except for the android Walter who monitors everything during the seven-plus year journey. An unexpected phenomenon while the ship is re-powering causes the death of several passengers as well as the ship’s captain. While undergoing repairs, the ship receives an audio transmission from a nearby, but unknown planet. Despite objections from the second-in-command (and the former ship captain’s widow), the new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate the signal. Initially, the planet seems better suited for colonization than their original destination. However, when two crew members are infected with alien spores, things begin to go horribly wrong. The crew of the Covenant seems to find some sanctuary when they are rescued by David, an android survivor from PROMETHEUS. But in space no one can hear you scream and on an alien world, things are definitely not what they first appear to be.

As a sci-fi action film, ALIEN: COVENANT is a better movie and an improvement over PROMETHEUS. There’s not as much mythology and metaphysics and more action and violence. While the movie is a sequel to PROMETHEUS and contains characters from that movie, a person unfamiliar with the Alien universe can watch the movie and enjoy it on its own merits; familiarity with the Alien universe isn’t a necessity for ALIEN: COVENANT.

However, with that said, the film does answer some questions that were left unanswered in PROMETHEUS. In addition, it illustrates the origin of the xenomorph creatures audiences first saw in ALIEN.

In terms of acting, the standout performance in the film belongs not to Katherine Waterson, but to Danny McBride. McBride is mostly known for his comedic roles. However, even in those tv and movie comedies, McBride often shows a glimmer of a more serious actor who can actually act and in ALIEN: COVENANT those talents are in full display. The movie is a piece of sci-fi/horror, but McBride helps ground the film in human sentiment and reality. He’s not the story’s central protagonist, but he might as well be because without his presence, the movie becomes uneven and would falter beneath its more unrealistic elements.

While ALIEN: COVENANT is a good movie, it does have a couple of flaws. First, it suffers from the flaw of bipolar pacing. The opening segments of the movie move as slowly as most of the scenes in PROMETHEUS. Other scenes move as fast the best scenes in ALIENS. This flipping back and forth never stops. I realize that the movie is trying to copy a technique used in many horror movies, but it just doesn’t work very well in this film.

The second flaw of the movie is how unrealistic most of the characters act. Take Oram and Daniels. While trying to decide whether to investigate the radio signal, Oram explains why they should investigate. His reasons are completely legitimate. Daniels, on the other hand, is completely against the idea. At this point, it’s understandable why Daniels doesn’t seem logical: she just lost her husband. The movie makes a point to try to get the audience to agree with Daniels and illustrate she is right, but it’s actually Oram who is correct during this discussion. However, after this point, Daniels can do no wrong and everything that happens during the rest of the film is supposed to be vindication of her disapproval of visiting the planet near the beginning of the movie. On the other hand, after his correct decision to check out the signal, everything Oram does is either a mistake or set-up to make the audience feel that he was in the wrong at the beginning and should have listened to Daniels. Oram, who at the beginning was the most logical of the characters, makes one decision after another that are clearly mistakes and not like his character. This inconsistency of characterization happens with all of the characters, including Danny McBride’s Tennessee: women go off alone to wash up; couples copulate in showers almost immediately after major skirmishes with aliens; people lose their loved ones and attempt to endanger the lives of other crew members because of that, etc.

Overall, ALIEN: COVENANT is a better movie than PROMETHEUS. It walks the middle ground of the metaphysics of that movie and the sci-fi/horror elements of ALIEN and ALIENS. For fans of the Alien franchise, it does answer some questions (while offering more unanswered questions) from previous films. It’s also a movie that a person unfamiliar with the franchise can watch and enjoy.

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