Thursday, June 8, 2017

Alien: Covenant

On a far-off planet in the distant future, a crew member is infected with an unknown organism that violently bursts from his body and begins picking off the other humans. Meanwhile, a human-like android proves treacherous.

I've heard this song before.

I neither liked nor disliked Alien: Covenant (2017). I admire the craft that went into the movie and enjoyed some moments and performances, and director Ridley Scott continues to explore interesting thematic territory in the series, but the movie feels hollow. When you get down to it, it's yet another story about nasty xenomorphs that stalk dark corridors and kill humans.

Picking some time after the events of Prometheus, Alien Covenant follows the crew of a colony ship on their way to settle a new world. Curiously, the crew is comprised of married couples while the cargo includes a couple thousand other would-be colonists and embryos in stasis to populate their intended home.

Frankly, I would have liked more of this material. The Alien movies have traditionally examined different types of ground-level, blue collar characters - truckers, marines, prisoners - and that gave the series a hard-boiled, gritty edge that separated it from, say, Star Wars, which is more escapist fantasy. I was curious to see how these colonists would settle and adapt to a strange environment. The aforementioned truckers and marines were basically passing through alien territory; these people aim to set up the rest of their lives there.

Alas, once the crew lands on a different planet (responding to a strange signal), it doesn't take long for the blood and guts to start spilling, and the colonization effort gets forgotten about. The movie becomes a run, hide, and escape plot.

Look, I know it's an Alien movie; the aliens have to turn up as some point, but I'm disappointed because the movie bull rushes through to get to them, ignoring potentially more interesting story threads and shortchanging characters. I kept losing track of who was who, what they were doing, and when bad stuff happened to them, I didn't  care. The crew we follow is 15 people plus an android, and only a handful make any kind of impression. Most are just monster chow.

Thank God for Michael Fassbender. In a duel performance, as the upgraded android Walter and the returning android David, he is excellent as both. The scene where the two "brothers" talk about their creator and David instructs Walter how to play the flute is wonderful, a quiet yet ominous moment in the midst of all that running around and screaming by the other cast members. Neither of them can create as humans do, and while Walter is OK with that, David is not.

It is the arrival of David, who first appeared in Prometheus, that got me most interested. In a sense, he has been cast as the fallen angel of the series: a perfect creation, a robot, rebelling against his creator, the human race. Lucifer's most famous line in Paradise Lost is quoted in the movie, and David has created a race of monsters that would challenge humanity.

Yet, as intriguing as this is, it does take away from some of the aliens' mystery. They have gone from strange beings of the unknown cosmos humanity stumbles upon to the creations of a rebellious robot. Maybe future sequels will make this development worthwhile, but right now, the Alien universe feels smaller.

Elsewhere, Katherine Waterston makes for a tough enough, competent heroine in Daniels, but the biggest surprise acting-wise is Danny McBride, quite good in a rare serious as crew member Tennessee; he stays on board the ship in orbit while his wife goes down with the landing crew. Billy Crudup, however, as the replacement captain Oram is given little to do, and towards the end, his character makes a monumentally stupid decision when he decides to examine an alien egg.

A lot of characters do stupid things that get them killed, like wandering off alone in hostile territory or having sex and not being able to hear the impending danger. It's the kind of cliched nonsense I wouldn't expect from an Alien movie or Ridley Scott.

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