Sunday 18 June 2017

XENOREVIEW: Alien: Covenant

I was chatting about Covenant with a friend during the build up to its release, and one thing he said was inarguably true: there is no need for another Alien film. In fact, there hasn't been a need for an Alien since 1986, when Aliens took the intense, terrifyingly suspenseful original and spun it out into an adreneline-fulled military nightmare (and I say that as a fan of Alien3). However, we are in the era of the franchise and there will be more and more new Alien films until the money stops rolling in, and for all their flaws, they are still enjoyable sci-fi horrors.

Alien: Covenant sees Ridley Scott continue the story he began five years ago with Prometheus. That film was deeply flawed, but I nonetheless remain something of a Prometheus apologist, and feel that much of the film's poor reception was due to the huge hype built up around its status as a prequel to Scott's seminal Alien. The problem lie in the movie's weird existential status, with Scott and the writers seemingly unable to decide whether it was a prequel or a new story. On its own merits, it was a fun slice of sci-fi hokum, albeit one that thought it was far cleverer and more original than it really was. As a lead-in to Alien, it was wholly disappointing, and the film fell uncomfortably between two stools.

Covenant, with four writers helping create Scott's vision, is still unfocused, but it at least accepts its place as an Alien film wholeheartedly, as well as a sequel to Prometheus. In fact, it makes Prometheus a stronger film, making some of the weirder story choices a little more sensible in retrospect. The utterly bizarre alien life cycle from Prometheus is laid down as little more than a runaway experiment, one that the android David has continued, creating a new stage of alien evolution. This version, beginning as an airborne spore that invades the body, has some similarities with the hotchpotch of monsters in Prometheus, but is perhaps more akin to the infectious version of the Alien that was originally suggested for Alien3. It hasn't the visceral horror of the the facehugger, but the so-called neomorph makes its marks, erupting from its victims' bodies not through the chest, but through any available route. The design of the neomorph is something of a success, especially its scurrying nymph stage, which would doubtless been dubbed "Rat Alien" if Kenner had produced a figure. Of course, the neomorph is just a stepping stone to the ultimate life form, with the final result being the xenomorph we know and love.

Well, almost. When the classic Alien finally reveals itself, it's a slick CGI creation, that is both faster and less cunning than the creature that infiltrated the Nostromo. The original man-in-a-suit had an ungainly, unnatural quality to its movements that made it far more unsettling than the ferocious creature of the Covenant climax. Still, the shower scene has to stand up there as one of the creepiest and most chilling scenes of the Alien franchise.

We're getting ahead of ourselves, though. Before all that, there's the tragic events of the colony ship Covenant, which leaves the command crew decimated. There's a big difference to those we've seen in previous films. Alien gave us a bunch of jobbing space truckers; Aliens a hardened squad of space marines; Alien3 and Resurrection criminals and Prometheus some of the least intelligent scientists ever committed to film. The crew of the Covenant are specialists chosen for the mission for their technical skills, and are also all couples, a requisite for a colony mission that needs to maintain close ties and build up its numbers quickly. It adds a different dimension to the cast interactions and its a welcome change. However, it's a large crew, and in such a frenetically-paced story, many of them are lost as characters. Really, the film belongs to three actors: Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride and Michael Fassbender.

Waterston is extremely likeable as the strong, emotionally intense yet very human Daniels, who is thrown into the spotlight when her husband (James Franco in a role almost completely confined to a prequel short film) is killed in a space accident. She exists in the Ripley role, that of the powerful female character that holds the film together, just as Noomi Rapace was in Prometheus. Some may complain that this has become a trope of the Alien films (even Sanaa Lathan in AVP fills a similar role), but I think a strong central female lead is a good constant to have. Waterston centres the film in the same way Rapace centred Prometheus, and makes the overall ensemble work. Out of all the remaining crew, it's McBride who makes the most impact. Partly this is because his character, the pilot McBride, actually makes it through the film, but he also brings a lot of charm and guts to a rare straight role.

But this is Fassbender's movie, as the twin androids David and Walter. He dominates his screentime in both roles, making each of the machine people distinct. He does make some questionable accent choices, but otherwise he makes the most of his roles, and is clearly relishing the out-and-out villainy of David, who has now set himself up as the creator of the next dominant species of the universe. His place as a sort of otherwordly Doctor Moreau is a highlight of the film, his disturbing genetic laboratory and the fate of Rapace's character Shaw providing more scares than the monsters he's created. Walter, the supposedly more advanced redesign, has had the emotions stripped out to make him less uncomfortable for humans to work with (they're basically Lore and Data from Star trek TNG). Nonetheless, he has a deep connection to Daniels, with some fine chemistry between Fassbender and Waterston. Plus, of course, we have scenes with two Fasseys opposite each other, which is going to sell a film to me regardless (although the droid-on-droid kiss is definitely creepy rather than erotic). I like that David and Walter are named to reflect original Alien producers David Giler and Walter Hill, but I'm oddly put out by how it buggers up the alphabetical naming of the droids in the franchise (Ash, Bishop, Call, David... Walter).

The film ends on a predictable but effectively chilling note, and the future of the Alien is ensured. We're still some way from the Nostromo's encounter with LV-426, and the semmingly inexplicable discovery of the Engineer spacecraft riddled with xenomorph eggs. There is a ninth Alien film currently in the works which fill, presumably, bring the story right back up to the original film. On the strength of Covenant, it's unlikely we'll ever see an Alien film that matches the horror of the original or power of its sequel, but there should be plenty of entertainment to be had on the way.

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