Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Alien: Covenant' review

Ridley Scott may be turning 80 years old in 2017, but the famous director isn't slowing down one bit. Fresh off The Martian, one of the best films of his career, Scott is once again returning to the franchise he created with Alien: Covenant. This is Scott's second crack at a prequel to his 1979 classic, the first being the sci-fi epic Prometheus back in 2012. During the months leading up to that film's release, anticipation was at a fever pitch. I was 13 years old at the time, and I was practically drooling at the thought of a massive, big-budget R-rated science fiction movie. Nobody knew much about the story or how it would connect to the series, but Scott made sure to emphasize that the film contained "Alien DNA." Mix in a trailer that incorporated the screeching noises of the iconic teaser for Alien, and most Xenomorph fans knew something was up.


And then people saw the movie. Prometheus quickly became one of the most hotly debated titles in recent memory- some people loved the film's bold ideas and breathtaking vision, while others were underwhelmed by the moronic characters and frustrating ambiguity. The prequel was a box office hit, but it didn't exactly catch fire with audiences or critics. When I finally got around to seeing the film, I had issues, but I could only come to one conclusion- I wanted more. Five years later, Scott is back with Covenant, a film that exists as both a direct sequel to Prometheus and another step closer to reaching the time period of the original. For many fans, the ultimate goal of this chapter wasn't immediately clear. Would it answer the burning existential questions of Prometheus? Or would it lead us all the way up to Ellen Ripley's fateful adventure on the Nostromo? 

The answer is somewhere in between, but Scott manages to expertly mix the philosophical leanings of the 2012 film and the horror that made the original a classic. While the latest installment certainly involves some familiar territory, Covenant feels like a singular vision from Scott, a brutal, intelligent, and ultimately insane experience. Bolstered by a dark sense of atmosphere that pervades the entire film, a unique crew dynamic, and a pair of incredible performances from the ever-reliable Michael Fassbender, Covenant is a fever dream of violence and gore that is as beautiful as it is terrifying. And oh, is it bloody. So very, very bloody. Covenant has clearly been a divisive movie, but its astonishing mixture of hard sci-fi and epic filmmaking is an intoxicating combination that is hard to resist.


Picking up some time after the events of Prometheus, this installment finds a new crew from the Weyland-Yutani corporation on the starship Covenant heading for a planet to colonize. The 15-person crew is made up of couples, led by Captain Branson (James Franco, in a brief cameo), while the cargo includes 2,000 colonists and several additional embryos. The ship is maintained by Walter (Fassbender), an android who is a more efficient model of the arrogant David, the first creation of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). During an attempt to re-charge the ship, an energy surge from a nearby storm causes a malfunction, waking up the crew several years early and causes significant damage to the ship. In the process, several colonists are killed and Captain Branson is horrifically burned alive in his pod. His wife, the strong-willed Daniels (Katherine Waterston), is completely mortified and the crew is totally heartbroken.

Oram (Billy Crudup) achieves the role of captain, and he's immediately put at odds with Daniels and the rest of the team, who hope to have time to honor Branson. However, the mourning only last so long, as a rogue transmission from a nearby planet leads them to discover a habitable world within their reach. With a crew hesitant to get back in the hypersleep pods, Captain Oram makes the decision to investigate this nearby planet, even though nobody from the Weyland Corporation has the slightest idea of what could be down there. After landing on this mysterious planet, the crew discovers a beautiful landscape that is lush with greenery and even some human vegetation. But as always with the Alien franchise, there's more than meets the eye to this newfound paradise. Things quickly go south, as they discover ancient beings, brutal creatures, and an old friend with vague intentions on this disturbing adventure into the depths of hell.


Going into Covenant, my primary concern was that the film would be a mere rehash, recycling elements from the original Alien without bringing anything new to the table. I should have put more faith in Scott, as the filmmaker declares from the very first scene that this will not be a glorified remake. Covenant certainly revels in its Xenomorphs and the bloody results that come from their actions, but the horror never feels familiar or overwhelming. The same can be said for the meandering existentialism that guided Prometheus- it's present, but it doesn't slow the story down to the point of stagnation. The result is a film that feels like a perfect mix of the two, as Covenant succeeds in being an effective action movie with quite a bit on its mind beneath the blood-soaked extraterrestrial antics. Covenant is brutally, relentlessly dark, darker than any Alien film Ridley Scott has ever made before. It's a big-budget horror movie that quotes classic poets and features set design elements that recall ancient epics. While I can't claim to have seen every Alien film, Scott is most definitely bringing something new to the table here.

Scott left us with plenty of questions at the end of Prometheus, questions that nobody was really sure if he had the answers for. Judging by what we see in Covenant, I don't think he really did. There's no big revelation of who the Engineers were nor do we get much explanation for the "why" of their actions. Somewhere between the two films, Scott realized that he had posed massive questions that he couldn't possibly comprehend- he had painted with far too broad of a stroke. So instead of solving the fundamental question of humanity, Scott chooses to follow-up with one character in particular- David. Fassbender pulls double duty as both Walter and David, the latter being the more interesting of the two. In fact, David just may be one of the most compelling antagonists in recent memory, emerging as the perfect way for Scott to explore these key questions while also setting up the threads of Alien. Some of the film's best scenes take place solely between David and Walter, and some of the most wickedly fun (and gory) moments come when David is in control.


In Prometheus, David began as a mischievous android, curious to discover the origins of humanity and the story behind the race that created him. As David continued to realize his discontent with his robotic makeup, he became determined to transcend what his creators intended, a philosophy that leads to his desire to play a role as some kind of malevolent god. It's fascinating to see this mad scientist ideology pitted against Walter's model of efficiency, as the newer rendition is kinder and gentler, created in stark contrast to the dangerous David. Fassbender pulls off both characters with a remarkable ease, shining in each android's own respective scenes, as well as the dynamite moments that they share together. As Walter, Fassbender is laid back and coolly smart, the kind of charming sophistication you'd expect from an android. As David, Fassbender gets a chance to unleash his most villainous character yet, a purely evil being with ideas that surprisingly make quite a bit of sense. Hell, there's even a little bit of sexual tension between the characters that comes off as both playfully funny and chillingly bizarre. This is Fassbender's film through and through, and he is absolutely mesmerizing.

But don't worry Alien fans, you'll still get plenty of what you're coming for. To match the dark tone and haunting antagonist, Scott has concocted a hellish and gory Alien film that doesn't just bring the franchise back to its glory days of terror, it practically ups the insanity to a level that would be nearly impossible to top. For all the complaints of dumb characters doing dumb things, Covenant seems to embrace the idea of the impending demise of the characters, placing them in an unforgiving terrain controlled by a mastermind with no soul, no remorse, and nothing but the desire to kill them in the most horrific way possible. Covenant puts its characters in the depths of madness, making it feel less like an Alien movie than the high-concept work of a sci-fi maestro. And when people start dying, this film just doesn't let up. For context, the opening moments feature a man being burned alive in a hypersleep pod as his wife and friends are helpless to watch. And it only gets worse from there. Backbursters, chestbursters, decapitations, enough blood to fill the elevator from The Shining several times- Covenant is a gory extravaganza.


And beyond the core elements that make Covenant work, Scott brings a new crew to life that proves to be filled with strong characters, albeit ones that don't always make the best decisions. The fact that the ship is made up of a couples feels like a design flaw from the Weyland Corporation, but it allows for more dramatically satisfying moments when the heads start to roll. Katherine Waterston proves to be a worthy successor to Sigourney Weaver, a tough as nails female protagonist who expresses a great deal of vulnerability while also kicking some alien ass. Billy Crudup is also fairly impressive as Oram, the captain who believes that his faith has ostracized him from both the crew and the Weyland Corporation. After Elizabeth Shaw's faith was featured prominently in Prometheus, it's fascinating to find that topic being tackled once again. Danny McBride is surprisingly good as Tennessee, while Amy Seimetz, Demian Bichir, and the rest of the crew have some interesting moments as well. This is the Michael Fassbender show, but that doesn't mean our Xenomorph fodder can't be sympathetic or interesting.

But while there's a good deal of human intrigue in this story, Covenant is first and foremost a rollicking, beautiful blockbuster from start to finish. It's a true action epic- bold, pitch black, and horrifyingly grotesque. It's both a film of massive, thought-provoking ideas and a film of rich atmosphere, so dark and so intense that it practically consumes you. And perhaps most importantly, it's a top-notch cinematic production, with gorgeous cinematography from Dariusz Wolski, an expert score from Jed Kurzel, and a plethora of incredible design elements. Ridley Scott may have relented and given fans more of the Alien prequel that they wanted the first time around, but in no way did he compromise his vision of utter madness. This is the kind of grand sci-fi entertainment that should be embraced, and even if it has the Alien name slapped on it, Covenant feels like the original work of a genius. It's a great summer thrill ride, and the fact that it's an excellent, thoughtful piece of hard science fiction is just the cherry on top.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.5/10)


Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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