Alien: Covenant… Increasingly familiar

Recommendation: NO

Summary: Colonists find their ship hit by solar winds, leaving their captain toasted and the rest of the crew unwilling to reenter their cryosleep pods lest they befall the same fate. The acting captain, a man who believes his religion makes him untrustworthy in the eyes of the crew a mere 10 years after a devoutly religious person was part of the crew of the most expensive space expedition to that point, gives into popular demand to investigate a much closer, possibly hospitable planet rather than travelling their years long journey to their actual, safe destination. Due to terrible safety protocols, things go wrong.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat:

  1. Alien: Covenant is not a good film
  2. Alien: Covenant is not a good Alien film
  3. I prefer Prometheus to Alien: Covenant

If Prometheus is what happens when you take a slasher film and hurriedly retrofit it into a “thinking person’s science fiction film”, Alien: Covenant is what happens when you go the other way.

Be warned, if you were at all even the slightest bit interested in finding out why the Engineers created us and why they wanted to destroy us, prepare to be disappointed. That plot thread is hurriedly swept aside in a flashback in an attempt to course correct towards being more closely connected with the Alien franchise. But people hated Prometheus! Isn’t a course correction towards the rest of the franchise a good thing? Let’s take a moment to remember what else was part of the Alien franchise:

  • Alien 3
  • Alien Resurrection
  • AVP
  • AVP: R (I don’t remember what the R stood for, but it was probably Requiem or something equally terrible)

And let’s also take this moment to remind ourselves of a slow, ponderous science fiction film that Scott directed that wasn’t looked upon kindly until a few years later:

  • Blade Runner

Ultimately, what I am trying to say is that in the grand scheme of things, people don’t know shit; neither the authors, nor the audience.

And that is evident in Alien: Covenant. The ponderous core of Prometheus has been swapped out for that of a sleazy thriller, one that operates in the vague neighbourhood of Alien (complete with a condensed recreation of that first film in what passes for Covenant’s third act) after taking a detour through 80s slasher territory. People do stupid things for the sole purpose of delivering gory kills for the audience to enjoy, there is a lurid sex scene that gets bloodily interrupted, and the alien itself, far from being an unknowable walking metaphor for violation and sexual assault, is nothing but a bad special effect. They even managed to do the alien POV shot worse than it was done in Alien 3. Think on that.

Save for some two scenes of body horror (neither of which entirely approach the heights of the cesarean scene from Prometheus, though the first one gets close), the film is almost always better when the aliens are not on screen. In an Aliens movie. Prometheus at least had the good fortune of being distanced somewhat from Alien so it could be its own weird slow burn thing.

But aside from the aforementioned body horror and some effectively atmospheric gothic production design, Alien: Covenant is a film that puts on a show of being a horror film without actually committing to it. Everything else good about it comes as part of its past life as a Prometheus sequel. And all of its grandiose and “literary” discussions of the relationship between creator and created were better suited by Prometheus’ more consistently considered pacing. Sure, I did not think Prometheus got it right, but it sure as hell was better built to get it right than Alien: Covenant.

The one (two?) saving grace(s) of Alien Covenant is Michael Fassbender. This time playing a new Synthetic named Walter and returning as the creative and unhinged David, Fassbender electrifies the screen with his winning take on the uncanny valley. Affecting an American accent in something of a Lance Henrickson impersonation, Walter is a character that impresses in his coldness and restricted affect. And he is the perfect foil to David, a creature designed with a desire to create and understand. No better is this weird undercurrent of “humanity”, for lack of a better term, seen than in the film’s opening, a prologue introducing us to David’s first few hours. So much of the contempt between creator and created is suggested through reactions and body language as David prods and pokes at Peter Wayland’s insecurities about his mortality to see how far he can push and get away with it.

And then we have the scenes where the two synthetics interact. These sequences are crackling with an uncomfortable yet captivating “Platonic homoeroticism” while the two explore each others boundaries and try to seduce each other to their way of thinking. It really, really makes me wish the movie jettisoned the Alien connection altogether and became its own psychosexual thriller. But the aliens, creatures created out of unconvincing CGI, are the main draw, and Covenant: These Two Gay Robots are Totally Amazing would not a winning investment make.

And so we have part homoerotic thriller, part mad scientist movie (that totally robs the mystery of and defangs the Xenomorph), and part movie that dresses in the discarded skin of a gothic thriller by way of 80s slasher. A movie with no idea what to do with itself for an audience with no idea what is actually good for it. It’s time to put this franchise to bed before anymore damage is done to one of Cinema’s most iconic horror creations.

I am a Criticiser, not a Critic, and I matter.

Come with me on a little journey. It was a lazy night spent procrastinating in front of the computer. My anxiety was getting the better of me, and instead of working on my assignments, I took to twitter to bury myself in a sea of Jurassic Park rerelease buzz. You see, Jurassic Park has a special place in my heart. It has a special place in the hearts of many people who were 5 years old in 1993. It’s just the way things work

It was during this browsing that I came across an article on Film.com, superficially about Jurassic Park. I read it and realised I was tricked into something much more interesting than an article discussing the flaws in Jurassic Park, that clever writer…

And it was this article that got me thinking about why I do not consider myself a critic, even when my friends have told me otherwise. No, I am not a critic. I do not have nearly enough of a knowledge to actually critique works of cinema, discuss the social, political and cultural significance of the pieces, or talk in depth about any problems they have on a thematic level. At times I wish I did, but I do not have the capability or the will to absorb a library’s worth of information.

What I can do is criticise cinema. I can point out more technical flaws. I can discuss things that dragged me out of the experience. I can talk about things that reminded me that I was still a man sitting in the dark of a theatre, surrounded by other people watching a dance of light and sound for 90 minutes and up.

This is everything wrong with modern film critique, I agree. It is not everything wrong with modern film criticism. The ability to differentiate between the two, I believe would serve to only benefit consumers and those interested in the world of cinema.

A film is not its themes and its cultural identity in a vacuum. It is a product of technique, or lack thereof. Having a discussion of the more thematic side of cinema can only serve to enrich our culture and promote intelligent analysis and discourse about art and its importance.

Having a discussion about the flaws of a film can serve on a more consumerist level. Perhaps I am taking a leaf from games reviewing, where a discussion of the mechanics and technical accomplishments of the game seem to take precedence over discussion of the narrative, both textual and interactive that the game affords. It is a very consumer-centric approach, treating the game as a product, and not as a work of art. It informs potential customers, the layperson, whether a product is worth their money or not. It is a service that is not without its merit.

Let’s look at two cases.

Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park is a film with some (at times severe) flaws. The assault of the T-Rex on the cars at night comes to mind. You will find numerous explanations for the sudden appearance of the cliff on fansites across the web. Their dedication to resolving this issue makes me look like a person with a passing interest in the film. It is also a film in which I can overlook these flaws, because it is otherwise so well crafted, provides such a sense of wonder and terror with such a deft hand, that I find myself swept up in the experience. I have seen this film at least 40 times since its release, and I am actually craving another watching right now.

Could it have been the masterful score? The amazing sound design? The visual effects that still stand up today? The wonderful performances by its actors? The witty dialogue? The wonderful handling of both the light hearted moments and those meant to terrify? I think it’s a perfect storm of all these elements that make Jurassic Park a film that holds up after 20 years.

Prometheus, on the other hand, was a film with ambition. It was a film that tried to seem intelligent. It was a film with incredible flaws to match its incredible cinematography. It was a glorious mess of a film. It was wonderful to look at, yet did not offer anything in particular that stood out visually. It had interesting art direction, but many of the curiosities it offered were discarded quickly in favour of the next pretty/grotesque thing to look at. It had a sweeping score, that felt out of place with the rest of the film. It attempted to ask questions and prompt a discourse of some incredible and deep concepts with the audience, but ended up only hinting at the existence of these concepts. It was also a film with some uneven performances, quite horrible dialogue, and a not so wonderful sense of time.

These are all flaws, yes, and they stood out more to me in prometheus than the massive flaws in Jurassic Park did.

Yes, Prometheus had some interesting talking points, more so than Jurassic Park, but I really could not afford to engage with them because the film dropped most of them as quickly as they were raised. The score, the dialogue and the narrative of the film kept dragging me out of the moment, reminding me that I was a man in a cinema, watching a show of light and sound desperately trying to be more than the sum of its parts, and failing.

Its thematic weight was artifice as flimsy as the world it took place in. It did not allow me an opportunity to ponder its more interesting aspects because its flaws kept coming hard and fast. They were loud, louder than what the film was trying to achieve.

In fact, I enjoyed Mr Scott’s interviews about the film’s themes much more than the film itself. They were stimulating and provocative, and made me sad that the film did not live up to this.

I believe my take on the film, as a film, a product to be consumed as a whole, is valid. I believe that discussions of how the film’s flaws overshadowed the film’s positives is valid. I believe my opinion that the film could have been much more if it weren’t for its shortcomings, and that the film may disappoint people because of this, is important.

And I believe it is just as valuable as an after the fact dissection of the film in the context of its promotional material, the thoughts of its director, and its relevance to greater themes of spirituality, religion, and science in society at large.

Because a film is more than a statement, it is also a product.

A Second Opinion of Prometheus (spoilers)

A second opinion of Prometheus can be read here.

I really do believe this review, filled with spoilers, raises some interesting points about Prometheus. More specifically, in delving into spoilers, it is able to discuss the thematic underpinnings of the film in greater detail.

Prometheus does cover some interesting ground, the nature of the rift between creator and creation is explored through the human crew attempting to make contact with the aliens (that looked like Greek statues) and David’s attempts to understand and win the approval of his creators, humanity. I do find the fact that the way the relationships played out were reversed to be quite an interesting touch. David experimenting on crew members and mentioning that he would appreciate being free and that every child wants to see their parents killed was the opposite of the aliens who engineered and created humanity and then chose to destroy it.

I have already mentioned I enjoyed the brief exploration of faith in the face of undeniable proof to the contrary. I also enjoyed the aliens looking like Greek statues. It was interesting to see the aliens take the form of the human ideal rather than some monstrosity. Their design served as visual shorthand for their status as our creators, a role that is often filled by God in a theological sense. That our “gods” would want to kill us is a disquieting notion indeed.

The main issues I have with the film lay in the screenplay. It was an incredibly weak screenplay committed to an otherwise excellent production. The writing did not do the deeper philosophical questions any favours. The poor characterisation did not do the human drama or tension any favours. The scattershot nature of the menace presented by the alien planet did not do the horror any favours.

I am not complaining that the movie did not answer all its questions. I do enjoy a bit of ambiguity in movies. It makes for a much more interesting cinematic experience. I am complaining about the fact that so many things were thrown into the mix that they were dropped almost as quickly as they were brought up. A film that raises a question, explores it, and then leaves you to make your own mind up is a satisfying film. A film that raises a dozen questions and then focuses on attempting to one up the director’s other films instead of said questions is a film that feels like a first year philosophy essay, full of points of interest with no underlying thesis.

I was wondering why the video game media would mark down a game like Spec Ops: The Line because despite the fact it tackled some heady themes about dehumanisation and morality during armed conflict, it stayed too close to conventions of gameplay mechanics. I think I finally have an answer for that after watching Prometheus. It was a movie that aimed high but was ultimately dragged down by its uninspired characters that made the same mistakes that dumb, stoned, teenagers make in teen slasher movies. The conventions of horror dragged it down because the film did nothing interesting with them. It just laid them out on the table and said, hey, this will get the body count up and that’s good enough for us.

Another film that explored ideas while being forced to follow horror conventions was The Cabin In The Woods. It stuck so true to horror movie conventions that you could almost predict how and when certain characters would be killed and why. However, unlike Prometheus it used its strict adherence to horror conventions to convey its message rather than undermine it. Smart writing allowed characters to be bent into archetypes they did not originally fit because it served the death toll’s best interests. However, the characters being bent out of character was an in story occurrence and not a product of a screenplay that forgot which characters behaved in which ways.

I suppose the type of message Cabin was trying to get across also helped with lessening the impact of the film’s strict adherence to horror conventions. It was not talking about man’s relationship with god, a parent’s relationship with its children, the horrors of pregnancy and the sadness of infertility, the makings of a human being compared to an automaton, the adherence to one’s faith when challenged by empirical evidence to the contrary, or the dangers of using biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction to both the target and those deploying them. A simple and cliched horror script does not do those lofty ambitions any favours.

But at least Prometheus tried to make us think. It may not have been as successful about it as it had hoped it would be, but it tried its little heart out and looked pretty while trying

Prometheus

Prometheus was a film that totally did not deliver enough Titan action. In fact, I am fairly sure, for a film titled Prometheus, it did not show a single Titan in it. The lack of Titans in films with titles otherwise suggesting their presence hasn’t been seen since… Clash of the Titans.

The only thing is Prometheus had another Titan to contend with. While Clash of the Titans is held by many to be a classic, if only for its then revolutionary special effects, I don’t think anyone had high hopes for the remake. It looked pathetic and it performed pathetically. The titan that Prometheus had to deal with was Alien.

Prometheus is a semi-sequel to Alien. It is set in the same universe as the Alien films and attempts to expand on one throw-away detail in the first film. It began production as a direct prequel, but then became its own beast. I heard about the shift away from being a direct prequel and was a little concerned. I then read what the film was about and my heart sank. I was grateful they decided to make it its own thing based on what the screenplay ended up being.

However, the final product used so many iconic images from the Alien franchise that it became difficult to disentangle it from the rest of the movies. This is where the majority of my dissatisfaction with the final product stems.

Put simply, Prometheus is not a great film. Put even more harshly, Prometheus is not a good film.

Now that’s out of the way, I can begin to talk about the film on its own terms. I am trying something out here and I would like you to play along. I would like you to read through the following twice. The first time I would like you to ignore any of the indented text. Then when you re-read it, I would like you to read all of it.

In the near future scientists discover a star system that has been hinted at in numerous ancient artworks from a number of unconnected civilisations. This prompts the Weyland Corporation to fund a trillion dollar expedition to the system to seek out answers to humanity’s origin and the rare opportunity to meet our makers.

The rant about titans at the beginning may seem spurious, but the film actually strives to make a thematic connection to Prometheus’ quest to bring fire to humans and his eventual punishment. It is mentioned in dialogue in fact. This is one of the problems with the film. It is thematically grand in scope, but nothing ever ties in with anything else. Prometheus’ betrayal of the Gods and eventual punishment, religious faith, morality, the fear of mortality, the nature and use of biological weaponry, and the meaning and purpose of humanity are all themes that Prometheus name drops and then decides to do nothing with for the rest of its runtime. Any one of these themes tackled with seriousness and care would have made for a strong, thinking person’s horror film. In the end, the film was much too ambitious for its own good and its kitchen sink approach allowed for only superficial exploration of the questions it raised.

The kitchen sink approach to the writing permeates all levels of the film. Characters are not characters as much as they are devices to provide impetus to the plot. They are exactly what they need to be in order to lead to the next horrific development. At points in the film characters will do something in complete contradiction to their previously stated course of action with no justification at all. For example, early in the film two characters are spooked by a particular room in a formation the crew is exploring. Later on they voluntarily return to the same room they were eagerly attempting to escape, have no fear of the room, and then even engage completely out of the character they are meant to be. The characterisation in this film was on par with, if not worse, than that in Avatar. Avatar may have had boring, utterly flat characters, but at least they were the same person throughout the film.

This disregard for characters’ motives and professions expand to almost the entire cast. Biologists approach foreign and clearly hostile lifeforms with little regard for their safety, geologists spend half the movie being represented as gruff security specialists before suddenly informing everyone that they are not hired muscle but are actually scientists, characters aren’t even introduced and just show up later in the film, and no character save for Fassbender’s has any clearly defined and consistent motivation. It is worth noting that his performance is also the strongest. He really disappears into his character, and that is something special to see.

In sharp contrast, Alien spent its first act developing each character, building motivations and relationships and adding dimensions. They were not archetypes or stereotypes, they were miners in space. Miners in space that just wanted to go home and get paid.

Moving on, there are many horrors that await the crew of the Prometheus. None of them are at all well developed enough to be seen as a credible threat. By this I mean to say that a new threat pops up seemingly at random with no foreshadowing and no build up only to be dealt with by scene’s end. Prometheus is so busy throwing cool and unusual menaces at your face that the film loses all sense of tension and feels akin to an amusement park’s haunted mansion ride.

Alien, on the other hand, was a slow boiling flick that introduced a clearly defined, singular source of danger and then built tension around the crew members’ fight to survive it.

Unfortunately, for a film that attempts to not be a direct prequel to Alien, it ends up being rather derivative of it. Fine details are different, of course, but the structure of the film’s first act, the exploration of the ruins and the introduction of body horror elements all call back to Alien. The film being set within the same universe makes it all the more obvious. With the themes it paid lip service to, Prometheus could have truly been its own beast. It could have been a thought provoking exploration of adherence to religious faith in the face of indisputable evidence to the contrary. Instead Prometheus ended up feeling like a failed attempt to make the lightning strike twice with only the barest attempt to give it an identity of its own.

Things that can be said to be in the film’s favour are its spectacular special effects, amazing art design, and beautiful cinematography. Prometheus may be an absolute mess of a film, but it is a gorgeous to look at mess of a film. It basically looks like a more polished version of Alien given the amount of art direction they share. I would not say this is a bad thing at all given how spectacular the art direction was in Alien. As mentioned, Fassbender’s performance is one of the high points of the film and he brings a real sense of menace to the film that is sadly lacking in other areas. There are also one or two sequences in the film that deserve attention for how well they were staged. An encroaching sandstorm and an impromptu caesarean are two sequences to watch for, though the latter is not as grisly as some may have you believe. It may still make some viewers uncomfortable, mind.

Prometheus was a mess. It was a well executed, at times exciting, and always visually stunning mess, but the fact remains that the film could have really done with a rewrite or twelve. Inconsistencies in the characters should really have been picked up and dealt with. The film should have been less thematically ambitious and stuck to one idea and done it well. The idea of a person dedicated to Christianity discovering that humanity was engineered and brought into creation by an alien species rather than God and her struggle to justify her continued faith to the rest of her crew would have made for a much more interesting film. There were elements of this conflict in the film but they were pushed aside far too quickly to be explored by the audience. Even dropping the theologic angle, the film could have ramped up the body horror, trimmed the cast and developed the characters and it would have been better than a visually stunning, quasi-intellectual generic slasher flick set in space.

That is the sad part, really. It had the potential to be so much more and just ended up being a slasher film with some sci-fi trappings.

All in all, a gorgeous and sporadically exciting disappointment of a film with great potential in the hands of more competent writers.

Imagine I gave the film a 6/10. I’d say if my deconstruction of the film could be boiled down to a number out of 10, 6 would be it.