Thursday, May 25, 2017

Creatures of the Fright: ALIEN: COVENANT



The dictates of blockbuster franchising have taken Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece of a claustrophobic spaceship creature feature, and expanded its grim point of view. Each iteration sends a crew of humans into space never to return, devoured inevitably by the memorable, acid-dripping, body horror-manifesting, otherworldly beasties. Through sheer repetition and accumulation of incident, this is now a rigorously cold and isolating perspective for a popular film series. It says humans are capable of great things – space travel and sci-fi tech and all that stuff – but that we will invariably mess it up. We’re doomed, essentially. Our species will bump up against our cognitive and sociological limitations to die alone in the cold emptiness of outer space. Fitting that the franchise which began with the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” has only made the sentiment darker, sadder, and more disturbing.

After largely enjoyable sequels helmed by a rotating director’s chair of popcorn auteurs (James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Paul W.S. Anderson), Scott took control once more with the 2012 prequel Prometheus. That brilliantly austere film asked big philosophical questions about creation and existence in cold frames and cool designs while still managing a pulpy monster movie sending an all-star cast to their memorable dooms. A direct sequel to the prequel, Alien: Covenant doesn’t manage the balance quite as well, but Scott is a consummate craftsman, able to navigate complex sequences and ambitious design for an intelligently crafted picture. It may just be another Hollywood spectacle riffing on images from once original concepts long since passed into brand deposits. But would that all such productions be made with such considered design and calculated awe. Here is a movie made by filmmakers at the height of their powers, executed with tension and dread, heightened by a sense of the eerie and sublime. At one point, it packs a mind-bending epic into a short, evocative flashback – images of spinning spaceships raining Black Death on an old future world – wrapped in 19th century poetry intoned by an inscrutably villainous android. Talk about handsome pulp.

The film follows a predictable pattern, first introducing a large crew on a colonization mission to a distant planet. Something goes wrong mid-flight and they awake to hear a distress call slightly off their course. They check it out, and are immediately imperiled by mysterious creatures who latch on to their anatomies and don’t let go – not just the series’ famous facehuggers, but spores that bore into nostrils and ear drums, and embryonic aliens birthed by splitting men in two with geysers of gore. The screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper does not ask much of its famous faces, but the welcome likes of Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Jussie Smollett, Carmen Ejogo, and Amy Seimetz go a long way to selling the weary professionalism and increasingly frazzled nature of deep space dilemmas slowly morphing into all-out survivalist horror. Best is Michael Fassbender as the crew’s android Walter, a kindly protective useful thing, and David, the older model abandoned on a dead world with a human survivor (Noomi Rapace) after the events of the previous film. He’s now becoming something of a mad scientist with an ego to match. The dual role plays between a new, perfectly manicured robot built to serve and an old robot who has unsettlingly developed eccentricities and long shaggy hair. Any movie that can stop dead in its tracks for twin androids to practice playing the recorder and maintain the film’s core creepiness is alright in my book.

Scott designs the movie with a tension between the wild sci-fi scope of his gods’ and monsters, intelligent design, dark, space epic and the tiny, drooling, chamber piece horror as the characters are confronted with the terror of the unknown. We see in the robots and spaceships – and the long, loving, detailed effects shots of the technology in action – hints of Kubrick’s 2001 and Scott’s own Blade Runner, but he’s mostly riffing on his own franchise at this point, feeding plots and images back into the ouroboric endeavor of big-screen mythmaking. We’ve been here before, but never exactly like this. It has humans capable of traveling into the unknown only to be brought down by their own hubris, caught between forces beyond their control – nature – and those which they begat – technology. The universe doesn’t care. Either way, they’ll die. It’s the exact opposite of his last feature, The Martian, which said all outer space problems can be solved through science, teamwork, and determination. Here he’s ensured his flagship franchise is an entertaining and deeply pessimistic one, encompassing killer robots, drooling monsters, ancient aliens, and intergalactic genocide. The deliberate one-by-one slasher pace set against the backdrop of vast mysterious vistas and beguiling futurist detail this time finds its cast a mere facet of the production design, a routine but ponderous formula that works well enough again.

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