Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of Alien: Covenant (2017)


(Please stop reading if you haven’t seen Alien: Covenant yet!)

Most of you are well aware of how much I love the Alien canon—that’s Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), and Prometheus (2012), recently evidenced by my 2012 review/dissertation of the same name.
You might also know that I’ve been tracking Covenant from the time it was announced as Paradise years ago.  So you might be surprised to hear that I was pretty annoyed at the end of my first Covenant viewing, and here’s why. 

Ridley Scott must think that I am stupid. 

Synopsis: Weyland crew in cryosleep, awakened by Mother, receives and follows unknown signal from unknown planet, takes lander to surface, interacts with alien egg or spores, breaks quarantine by bringing infected crew member back on board, things burst out, alien begins a killing spree of crew, turns out that synthetic is duplicitous and is trying to save the alien species, finally one (or two) crew member blows monster out the airlock. 

Sound familiar?  It should, since it’s the exact plot of the original Alien.  And Covenant.  Evidently there really is nothing new under the sun. 

Characters: When Eva and I saw it (on our wedding anniversary), her overarching comment was that she didn’t care about any of the characters, and only recognized Daniels, Tennessee, and David/Walter throughout.  I agreed, but then on my second viewing was able to concentrate more on the roles of Lope (Demian Bichir, who I first saw in The Bridge), Faris, Karine, etc.  I wouldn’t say I found them more developed, but it did make me feel a little better about the secondary cast. 

But then...we had flute lessons with David and Walter. “I’ll do the fingering” earned a collective groan from our audience, “No one will love you like I love you,” and my favorite, which was also a Night Ranger song from the 80s, “When you close your eyes, do you dream about me?”  I’m not even discussing the kiss (or the one with Daniels).  I thought Ridley Scott was too smart for this.

Other incredibly stupid lines from David: “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”  Someone down the row from me actually said “Jesus Christ, really?” out loud.  Hear, hear.

Perhaps my expectations were too high; Scott did direct The Counselor.

Fassbender as the Mindbender: Everyone talks about how amazing Fassbender is—I agree that he is a great actor, but he was hamstringed in this role in similar fashion to the entire cast of the Star Wars Prequels.  Even the greatest actors can’t make poor dialogue and plot points fly.   And coming up with the pseudo-Texas drawl accent (which sounds like he has marbles in his mouth) isn’t going to garner any award consideration.

I knew in advance about the two roles, and figured out the “major plot twist” within about five seconds of the landing party being rescued temporarily by David.  If not, there were 500 clues dropped before David reveals himself to Daniels after the log cabin spiel in the final act.  I mean, come on. 

Beliefs: Oram and being a “man of faith?”  That’s fine to explore, but have it mean something—similar to Shaw in Prometheus.  Faith had no bearing on anything he did, and his fate led you to believe that Scott was making fun of it, rather than using it as a departure for a discussion about creation and purpose.  As such Billy Crudup was completely underutilized, as his character was useless.

Effects: One of the scariest elements of the original Alien was the practical effects.  The beast was a guy in an alien suit, and it was scary because it looked real.  And speaking of real, the gestation period of the aliens has gone from days to hours to minutes. 

In stark contrast, Covenant's CGI is laughable.  Granted, I will give you the backburster scene—no one does that kind of thing like Scott.  But the neomorph, protomorph and xenomorph all reminded me of what destroyed Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend.  CGI isn’t scary.  Not at all—even when thrown at you during “gotcha” moments (really fast-moving CGI monsters attacking people with epileptic seizure-inducing lighting and lots of super-loud sound effects).   Seeing something practical is always more scary than the alternative.  Take the Evil Dead remake for example.

Score:  Jed Kurzell is no Marc Streitenfeld.  And quoting the iconic 1979 Goldsmith score doesn’t make you a genius.  In fact, the highest point was the orchestral quote of Prometheus in David’s chambers (not the flute version, come on—I’m pretty sure David did not know Streitenfeld).  In fact, the opening sequence of Prometheus alone was better than all of Covenant in the score department.  Not even Wagner could save it.

References: If you know the original Alien well, you remember the teeter-totter bird in the crew mess of the Nostromo.  Of course, we have one here as well, but it’s not even obscured for fans like me to find.  It’s part of a slow dolly shot that makes the obvious even more obvious.  You might also remember the little flared readouts from Mother (the opening credits do this as well), and also the countdown screens for the Nostromo detonation—those show up in Covenant if you watch the computer screens during the neutrino emission. The shower scene belongs in a summer camp slasher film.  Perhaps you were uncomfortable for a second when the tail made an appearance?  You should review Alien again and see how you feel right before Lambert gets it the same way, just not in a shower.

Stupid: I realize not every person who sees this film has seen the original alien over 30 times (and takes photos of the TV screen with captions and sends to his friends whenever it’s showing on regular cable), or saw Prometheus 10 times in the theater (twice the first day it was out). But I don’t like Ridley Scott dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator moviegoer, and that’s what I feel happened here. I imagined a scenario when they shot the last scene with Daniels and David, and Fassbender looks up and asks, “What would David say here?”  To which Scott asks the crew, “What’s the most ridiculous thing he could say right now that will get slow people on board with this plot twist?”  Some grip in the back says “How about ‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite?’”  Scott says “SPLENDID!  And ACTION!”

There was so much potential for this film—so many unanswered questions.  What was the black goo?  Where did the engineers come from?  Why did they want to destroy the human race?  And even within the film—why did David go completely insane and destroy the entire population of engineers on their planet?  Are there engineers on other planets (there have to be)? Why did David kill Shaw?  Will Origae-6 become LV426 (it can’t, really)? How will we connect between Covenant, Awakening and the original Alien?  Is Daniels Ripley’s mother?

Conclusion: So did I like it?  I enjoyed moments of it—I love how Scott frames the space shots and the sheer amount of detail involved with every set piece, but it all felt like “Prometheus Light” to me, both in space and on the planet surface.  The backburster was awesome up until the point that the neomorph went from fetus to fully-aware-and-functional predator in about five seconds.  I was surprised by Danny McBride—I expected him to be comedy relief after Eastbound and Down, but he was enjoyable, as was Katherine Waterston as Daniels (and how much did James Franco get for that cameo?).   

But the bad clearly outweighs the good for me on this outing, so I’ll call this a 2.5/5 and wait for It Comes At Night, the IT remake, Blade Runner 2049 and The Last Jedi to round out my year at the cinema. 

2.5/5 stars