Monday, May 29, 2017

ERASE/REPLACE: a review of "Alien: Covenant"

Based upon characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Story by John Paglen and Michael Green
Screenplay Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Directed by Ridley Scott
**** (four stars)

And the interstellar nightmare continues...

As I ponder this fact, it is indeed more than a little strange to me to think that we are now just a hair up to 40 years since Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979) was unleashed into the world.  Honestly, and despite its unquestionable influence upon the science-fiction film genre, especially from the groundbreaking special effects as well as the set, production and of course, H.R. Giger's iconic creature design aspect, the original film is really not much more than a creature feature depicting an especially lethal haunted house in space. But yes, it is one that was brilliantly realized by Ridley Scott as he created an evocative and merciless future vision that only continues to inspire, enthrall and terrify.

As one who tends to give horror films a wide berth, even I could not escape Scott's grasp all of those years ago as "Alien" was a film I would visit and re-visit often, marveling at the cast of seven and anchored by the ever resilient Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, who all addressed each other by last names while existing upon this immense yet junky space freighter, each adorned with boiler suits, baseball caps and gym shoes. To my pre-teen spirit, it was a fantasy world to get lost inside of for certain, just as much as George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977), but one that felt so oddly tangible due to the gravity of the human beings who would soon be slaughtered one by one by the chest bursting, acid dripping behemoth.

Ridley Scott's conception felt to be so complete and self-contained than any extension of that particular universe felt to be impossible. And yet, Writer/Director James Cameron achieved just that and then some with his superior, relentless and equally groundbreaking sequel "Aliens" (1986). For my money, and despite Director David Fincher's best intentions with "Alien 3" (1992), I fell out of favor with the series as inspiration and invention turned strictly to commerce. I was only attracted back to the fold with Ridley Scott's grand return with "Prometheus" (2012), the beginning of his prequel installments to his original film.

For some, "Prometheus" was a grand disappointment, mostly due to the lack of...well..aliens doing what they do so ruthlessly. For me, I really did love that film (despite some flaws--why are Scientists so stupid?) as Scott actually seemed to be having fun behind the camera again after helming one beautifully filmed but dourly presented feature after another. Even for a film that honestly does not necessitate a prequel, I had to give it to Ridley Scott and his writers for devising a history, an origin story, and something that straddled the barriers between the cerebral and fervently nihilistic as the film set to try and delve into nothing less than the beginnings of our existence.  And still, it made time for a spectacularly gonzo sequence of one character self-administering a C-section/abortion while imprisoned inside of a cryo-tube.

With the prequel/sequel, Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" has its human cake and violently eats it too as we are indeed given quite a substantial bang for our buck. Certainly those who were disappointed with "Prometheus" will be more than satisfied with this new installment as the xenomorph and their endlessly ravenous brethren are frighteningly center stage. Yet, even so, I was more than pleased to see Scott, not only continuing to be re-inspired and re-invigorated, he is also steadfast in his desire to keep unearthing the meaning of it all...albeit one chest-burster at a time.

Opening in the year 2104, 10 years after the events in "Prometheus" and 10 years before the events in the original film, Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" finds the film's titular colonization spaceship-- containing 15 crew members, 2000 colonists, 1000 embryos and overseen by the ship's synthetic crewman named Walter (Michael Fassbender)--en route to the remote planet Origae-6.

When a sudden electrical burst occurs, damaging the Covenant and killing some of the colonists as well as the ship's captain (James Franco in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo), Walter awakens the crew from hypersleep in order to make crucial repairs. Once the repairs have been made, the crew receives a mysterious transmission from a nearby, yet unknown planet that readings indicate is somehow habitable for humans.

The newly ranked captain, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of faith who feels it is the Covenant's destiny to fulfill their mission of colonization, orders a full investigation of this planet despite the protests of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the wife of the ship's original captain, who wisely and ominously feels that "if it's too good to be true, it probably is."

And from this point, I am certain you can anticipate where this film is going...

A portion of the Covenant crew heads down to the planet where they inadvertently trigger and are indeed encountered by an eco-system ready to reproduce the horrific beasts and waiting to slash them apart. Yet, more unexpectedly is the presence of David (also played by Michael Fassbender), the synthetic from "Prometheus" who was last seen travelling the universe with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in search of the source of their respective creators.

As crew members continue to find themselves slaughtered and the true intentions of David rise to the fore, it is up to Daniels on the planet's surface in tandem with Tennessee (a surprisingly strong Danny McBride), the Covenant's chief pilot to make their great escape.

Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" is a masterfully mounted installment that seems to cherry pick the best elements of this long running series and has merged them to greatly sinister,often thrilling and gruesome effect.

Working with his strong cast and his first rate team of collaborators, most notably Dariusz Wolski's crystalline cinematography and Composer Jed Kurzel's urgent score, Ridley Scott has taken the close quarters horrors and body terrors of his original film, the brutal nihilism of "Prometheus" and the war film pyrotechnics of Cameron's "Aliens" to fuel an experience that again surprised me with its inventiveness, and full throttle bombast, excitement, and dire intensity.

To think, and much like the 72 year old George Miller, who emerged with the extraordinary "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015), Ridley Scott, who will turn 80 years old this November (!), is also showing no signs whatsoever of slowing down or going away quietly. In many ways, with"Alien: Covenant," it feels like a film that allows Scott to rage violently against mortality itself.

Perhaps that is the core of the "Alien" series as a whole, especially with what Scott seems to be working towards or through with his prequel series. Clearly, the films feel formed from the mind of a passionate atheist as he has devised of a film universe where the nature of God or some sort of supreme entity is as challenged as much as it is sought, the nature of creation itself seemingly born out of some malevolent sense of power and unspeakable cruelty.

"Alien: Covenant" delves further into the mind (such as it is) and motivations of the synthetic David, who even from "Prometheus" was more than a little creepy and not at all a genteel seeker of human understanding and consciousness. He was always one to have an ace up his synthetic sleeves and in "Alien: Covenant," he becomes a truly vengeful force and completely instrumental in the continued evolution of the series' titular monsters.

And still, at his and the film's core, sits the theme of creation as we learn in Scott's purely Kubrick-ian prologue sequence that David named himself, carries a predilection towards the music of Wagner and already views his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) as inferior as Weyland will one day die while David could essentially live forever. Once David is confronted with the ore sympathetic Walter, David seethes, "When you dream, do you dream of me?"--certainly an echo as well as conceptual link to the replicants in Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) and his upcoming "Blade Runner: 2049" as directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Furthermore and with a disturbing insidiousness, David utilizes whatever compassionate and inquisitive nature of humans completely against them (a tactic that makes those Scientist's stupid decision feel more plausible and even inadvertent at times), ultimately, creating a schematic in which, I think Ridley Scott himself is arguing: human beings are the sole engineers of their own destruction.

Even so, "Alien: Covenant" finds Ridley Scott wrestling through the primary and primal themes of every film in the series as it is a study of humanity and survival within an inhumane and unforgiving universe.  The fight for survival and the right to exist is the connective tissue that links David, the human characters and the aliens together in a ferocious Darwinian battle of the fittest and displayed spectacularly during the film's climactic battle between all three beings, in which there is one winner by film's end but a war that will rage onwards in the overall storyline as well as in what I am feeling will be potential future films (stay healthy Ridley).

These are the qualities that separate "Alien: Covenant" from other creature features like say, the increasingly lucrative yet brain dead "Jurassic Park" series, where there really is nothing in its head other than finding new ways for stupid people to do stupid things in order to find themselves eaten. In those films, it if as if none of the characters of subsequent installments have heard of anything that had occurred in the previous films, making the experience overall so meaningless. Yet, in the "Alien" series, none of the characters have even really heard of anyone else from different installments, thus making each film a singular event of such terror, while building a larger conceptual arc of nihilistic fury.

Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" finds a legendary filmmaker returning once again to where it all began for him, and miraculously mining new territory while also providing more than our fair share of the familiar elements of face huggers and chest bursters. This was propulsive, provoking, punishing entertainment, demonstrating that sequels need not be money chasing time wasters but ones that can inspire feverish excitement and dread all over again.

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