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Review: Alien Covenant

What can I say? Sometimes reviews come and go out of order. Foregoing the gap of time between seeing this new “Alien” film and this review, let’s get on with it. “Alien: Covenant” directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen, and Michael Green is a gigantic improvement over Scott’s last foray into space philosophy with “Prometheus” in my opinion. However, while I was not a fan of “Prometheus”, “Covenant” has given me pause to reconsider elements of that initial film.

This time around the focus is on the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship headed towards a new planet for humanity to thrive on. Aboard the ship Walter (Michael Fassbender), a newer model Android with a middle-American accent roams around keeping an eye on the colonists and runs the ship’s tech. Unfortunately for the colonists (but fortunately for the audience), they never make it to their destination of Origae-6. A neutrino blast rocks the spaceship carrying two-thousand frozen colonist members and causes quite the havoc- outright killing the captain (James Franco) and damaging the ship in the process. After the chaos has calmed the crew comes across a signal that Tennessee (Danny McBride) recognizes as a John Denver song. They investigate and find a planet even more suitable for colonization than Origae-6. The former first mate and new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the decision to go for the much closer planet, dismissing the lone contrarian Daniels’ objection (Katherine Waterston), the widow of the late captain.

Only shortly after landing on the seemingly vacant planet does the crew realize the grave mistake they have made. For those curious to know if Ridley Scott could still handle the inherent gore and gross out antics of the xenomorphs, fear not (Or, maybe do?). Scott tries to outdo his own initial chest-bursting alien scene with a fresh and bloody violent vigor. The crew is quickly outmatched by the albino proto-xenomorphs and that may have been the end of it, had it not been for their savior in David (Michael Fassbender, again), the A.I. android from “Prometheus” (coincidentally the best part of that film). The first and third acts of the film are decidedly more “Alien” in nature than “Prometheus” was, however the second act delves back into the Gothic space philosophy that permeated the first film- and this film balances these differing styles and aesthetics fairly well. Scott’s obsession here lies in the big questions surrounding David himself, and he goes to great lengths to give weight to David’s inner turmoil.

David takes great interest in Walter, teaching him to play the flute at one point cleverly pointing out the obvious distance between the models. Walter can take direction and learn, but only David can teach and create. In fact we learn a great deal more about David in this film and the story paints a much more complete picture of his motivations and purpose, which I assume he himself does a lot of thinking on as well. Once again, Michael Fassbender is the best part of this series of films. Having him become the linchpin of these films was a distinct choice and it paid off for Scott. I know some were disappointed in the more predictable “Alien-ness” of these films, and while the ending can be seen from miles away, I love that this universe is finally shaping up to become more recognizable in form. This film at least felt as if it existed in the same universe as “Alien” and “Aliens”, there was even a bright yellow exo-suit worn at one point as a visual reminder and I admit, I cracked a smile at the sight of it.

While this film is not near the heights of the first two films, it is the third best “Alien” movie in the franchise. There are a few moments here and there that were questionable though. At one point David mimes to a freshly born Xenomorph that stands upright and I outright laughed at the screen- it was cheese-tastic and it immediately brought to mind the scene in “Spaceballs” where a freshly chest-burst Xenomorph dons a hat and cane singing “Hello My Baby!”. Probably not the response that was intended or wanted, but hey- don’t do that next time. There was also a sequence where we, the audience, are given the Xenomorph’s perspective a la “Predator”, and that was just an awful idea to be honest. So, while not perfect- this film is highly enjoyable and has finally hooked me into Mr. Scott’s curious prequel series of Alien films. What Ridley Scott does next is anyone’s guess, but I am now invested in finding out what that will be.

Final Score: 2000 Doomed Colonists and 1 Mad Robot

 

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More ‘Aliens’, Less ‘Prometheus’ please

Recently news broke on twitter by director Neil Blomkamp himself stating that he would be moving on to other projects for the moment as preproduction has been halted on his ‘Alien 5’ film to make room for Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ sequel. Personally I think this move is a mistake. I’m critically biased, though, in that I don’t necessarily love Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ and have a deep connection to his original ‘Alien’ and James Cameron’s fantastic sequel, ‘Aliens’. But my concern comes from more than just fanboy woes. This ‘universe’, if you will forgive the overused term, of Alien films seems to be at odds with each other as one film is fighting to reinstate the old nostalgia filled canon of yore, while the other wants to build a film series around looming existential questions within the world that the Alien films inhabit.

What excites me about Blomkamp’s installment in the Alien series is that it has the potential to put the spotlight back on the Xenomorphs and showcase just how much of a threat even one of those space raptors can be. I feel that the films that the Xenomorph has been a part of in the last decade (and its own sequels in the 90’s) have only weakened the monster’s image as a large hulking terror that thrives in the shadows (Something I believe the videogame ‘Alien: Isolation’ aesthetically nailed. Check it out!). Both of the ‘Alien vs Predator’ films portrayed the slimey villain in large numbers being taken out quickly by humans or Predators, which is hard to argue against at times as that IS what the predators are there to do. Simply having the two iconic sci-fi/horror villains on the same screen might be a problem of too much excess. An embarassment of riches if you will.

Blomkamp’s iteration was also rumored to be ignoring the events of ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’ a wise choice. This would only solidify the series and reestablish tone that was lost in the transition from ‘Aliens’ to its much maligned sequel sisters of the 1990’s. Having the series revisited by an innovative filmmaker like Blomkamp, who is also a large fan of the series, is something that not only seems to be serving other studios interests well, (ie Marvel Studios with the Russo Brothers and Star Wars with JJ Abrams and Gareth Edwards to name a few) but will also inject a new style with a robust and clear love of the material as well.We also have to consider that Sigourney Weaver isn’t getting any younger. If we want a true sequel that continues with the character of Ripley then we ought to get moving, something the ‘Indiana Jones 5’ property is also likely dealing with considering Harrison Ford’s age as well.

Then there’s ‘Prometheus’. A film that asks many big questions, and answers none of them. A film that feels oddly out of place in the Alien canon it tries so hard to insert itself in. The film commits several sins throughout the runtime in its attempt to both connect itself and yet stand alone. *SPOILERS* The ending in particular is the most egregious error if memory serves correctly. In the final scenes the captain of the good ship Prometheus crashes the ship in an attempt to stop the engineer’s spacecraft to avoid the potential calamity of a biological weapon being released on Earth. This wouldn’t be so bad if this entire story took place on the moon from the original ‘Alien’ movie, but it does not. It takes place on an entirely different moon, which makes one wonder why the marketing sold the movie as a direct sequel setting up shots of the sideways fallen Engineer spacecraft that fell on its side in the exact same fashion that the one on a different moon in the future must have done(?). This wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it hadn’t been for the fact that the moon that Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley investigates in the first Alien movie is the one that the crashed ship ‘Prometheus’ distress signal is coming from! A fatal flaw in my mind, why would you go out of your way to contradict yourself and name the location of the events of ‘Prometheus’ as entirely different from ‘Alien’, since Ridley Scott made both films, I seriously question this obvious obstruction.

Even Scott himself has said that the movie only has strands of continuity relating to the Alien universe. I could go on, ‘Prometheus’ does some things very well, particularly Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of David the Android, but the film’s story feels muddled, stretched, lazy at times, and convoluted. The scene where the central character ‘Shaw’ has to cut a version of the alien out of herself is pretty intense and enthralling, but there are so many other parts of the film that just don’t coalesce. So, in my opinion, if Ridley Scott wanted to make a film about big existential questions set in space, why didn’t he just create a new property? This easily could have been it’s own film series,and that’s fine! There’s no need to force other intellectual properties to burden themselves with other sets of expectations and tone unnecessarily. Scott has even said his sequel might not even include any version of the eponymous Xenomorph at all! Which begs the question, why make a movie set in the Alien universe without including the famous baddie in some fashion? The current title for that project is “Alien: Paradise Lost” So hopefully they stick to their roots, we’ll just have to wait and see!

If I had my way (Don’t we all wish for that?) I would simply switch the fate of these two films. ‘Prometheus’ didn’t wow me, but here’s hoping Blomkamp can go above and beyond the line of duty and revitalize a franchise both legendary, and a piece of film pop culture.

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Review: The Martian, Saving Private Ryan.. again… in space

*Warning, certain plot points pivotal to the movie explained here contain SPOILERS*

Ridley Scott’s new film ‘The Martian’ is a rousing realism bound sci-fi flick for our time. Its easily the best film Scott has made in the last decade and is thoroughly riveting. This does not mean, however, that it is not without flaws. The film rests the weight of its purpose on Matt Damon’s tried and true shoulders, and because of this, it soars. Damon embodies Mark Watney with a tremendous amount of humanity and heart, and it shows throughout the film’s runtime. And while the cast that lives and breathes on the outer edges of Watney’s story serves their purpose, some better than others, a few performances feel shoehorned in.

In case you didn’t know, Mark Watney’s tale is that of an interstellar castaway. In the midst of an unexpected superstorm on the red planet of Mars, Watney’s team moves to evacuate their base lest their ship topples and strands them there. During this trudge through the storm to the ship Watney is knocked away from the team by a piece of equipment and his captain, Jessica Chastain, makes a hard choice in leaving him behind, as they assume his death. Watney’s team ascend from the red planet and make way for home before he awakens the next day with fresh wounds and a short air supply. From there it is Watney’s perogative to stay alive at whatever the cost, even though he himself knows the almost innumerable odds he faces, ” If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab beaches, I’ll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen. I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m fucked.” This begins the movie with a tangible and tense sense of urgency.

The film does many things quite well, but every so often there is a hiccup that hinders the overall experience. The cinematography, for example, is top notch and really utilizes the landscape to the audience’s advantage. The pacing of the film is also great-most of the time. At times the weight of the two hour and twenty minute runtime can be felt as montages trod on, or when there is time for Watney and others to reflect. Basically, every time the tension is gone, so too does the focus of the film, if only for a scene or two. Which is probably why Watney is thrust into many situations that he must out-think to survive. There are some impeccable sequences in which Watney must react quickly, and intelligently, or he will cease to exist. In fact, the problems Watney frequently encounters are the core thrust of the film in my perspective. They define the film because it is the calm and collected strategy that Watney, and eventually NASA, approaches these problems with that should be hailed with praise. Maybe not for writing’s sake in terms of originality, but in the grand scheme of it all, that despite all odds, we continue. We continue to be, and to be human is to explore, to step out of the cave and do something with ourselves. Fear is crippling, and we shouldn’t let that stop us from advancing, and that is something this movie showcases tenfold. It is something I admire greatly about the film.

There’s also one key scene that reminded me that I was watching a movie rather than being involved in the experience of the movie. When the crew is discussing how to save their man left behind Kate Mara’s character rattles off a line or two that when thought about momentarily was complete movie science lingo garbage. Most of the film does not commit this sin, but that one was particularly brutal. Speaking of the crew, the rest of the cast is quite good. An excellent bunch of actors to be honest. The aforementioned Jessica Chastain gets a few moments, moments where she is referenced particularly by Watney about her mostly disco music selection, which is heartwarming at a time when Watney reflects on his lonliness. With the exception of Jeff Daniel’s CEO of NASA most everyone else is there for exposition, ‘My God!’ scientist scenes, or particularly one note performances. Donald Glover in particular felt especially shoved in, as if his character was from a different movie altogether, not that his performace was lacking, rather that he might not have been given the proper logistics as to what the tone of the film would be.

The moments that do lack however are small and fleeting as most of the movie is with Damon on the lonely red planet, and that’s where the film sizzles. Near the third act news of Watney’s isolation and rescue plan are released to the public and the effect of global teamwork and rallying around the cause of bringing our guy back home is enough to cheer for! Its inspiring and it makes you feel warm in all the right places when you see everyone come together, just to save one man on another planet, 140 million miles away.

Final Score: 8/10