Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review - Alien: Covenant

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

          It is a clear day in Seattle - those darkened rain clouds that this city is so famous for have, for the time being, ceased to blanket the sky with grey and instead have left us with a bright and pale azure. As I casually walk down the bustling avenues in this sprawling metropolis, a crisp breeze rustles through the tree-lined streets, and I am once again reminded why this place is sometimes called "The Emerald City" as I look up at the shivering leaves, fully grown and lush on this weekend afternoon. Alas, such a picturesque scene is my indication that summer has begun to creep into the Puget Sound area. And with the onset of summer come all of those traditional activities that Americans are apt to partake in this time of year. Hiking in the Cascade Mountains. Having a picnic with friends and family on the 4th of July along the shores of Lake Washington at sunset, anxiously awaiting the firework extravaganza. Navigating one's way through the hustle and bustle of Downtown trying to take advantage of this year's summer sales in Seattle's cosmopolitan shopping districts. Preparing brisket and ribs on a charcoal grill or in a smoker, and serving them with a side of cornbread and coleslaw on checkered plates at the neighborhood barbecue. Windsurfing or sailing out on the shimmering waves of Lake Union with the sun looming gleefully overhead. Friends sharing stories with a couple of beers around the fire pit at dusk. Indeed, many Americans have a lot to look forward to this summer. Meanwhile, while all of this is happening...I will be sitting in a darkened theater watching people getting their faces ripped off by Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant.
          Yes, the 2017 summer movie season is finally upon us! And I underscore the "finally" in that previous statement - cinematically speaking, 2017 has been off to a sluggish start, with very little in the way of movies being released in January and February (at least, very little of anything that looked remotely interesting), and only a small handful of decent titles being released in March. Now, however, we have arrived at that time of year where film studios will try to capitalize on the extra free time families have, now that the children are out of school and adults tend to take advantage of their employer's PTO, and release a number of what are often billed as this year's "blockbuster" films between the months of May and August. Naturally, leading into this year's summer movie season, I reflect on previous years. I distinctly recall declaring 2015 one of the best years for film that I have seen in a long time, with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Spectre, Crimson Peak, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens leading the charge into the future, handing off the banner to 2016 to continue down the path of innovation. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to its decorated predecessor, 2016's dramatic charge was cut short when its fearless steed stumbled right out of the gates and fell face-first into a pit of quicksand and died, as 2016 was an absolutely abominable year for film. The 5th Wave, my first cinematic outing of 2016, remains one of the worst films I have ever seen, with the likes of Gods of Egypt, Batman v Superman, Ghostbusters (2016), and Suicide Squad serving as additional dead weight to make sure that no part of the sinking horse is left sticking out above the sand. It wasn't until the closing months of 2016, when we were served Doctor Strange and Rogue One, were we offered any glimmer of redemption (I will grant Deadpool honorable mention as well). What is reassuring, however, is that, unlike last year, where my Spidey-senses allowed me to intuit that 2016's summer offerings were going to crash and burn before they even took off, I cannot sense such an omen hanging over 2017. My optimism is further reinforced by the fact that my summer kicks off with an entry in the Alien series, a series that I have long been a fan of.
          Now, having seen Covenant, I can say that my faith has been rewarded. Alien: Covenant is the sixth installment in Ridley Scott's acclaimed Alien series, a series that dared to blend science fiction with elements of the most shocking and atmospheric horror, the first of entry of which, 1979's Alien, has become the standard-bearer for the "lost in space" sub-genre of science fiction. Serving as a follow-up to 2012's thought-provoking Prometheus, Covenant continues what has been dubbed the "prequel" series of the Alien brand, serving as a kind of origin story for the Xenomorphs (the eponymous aliens). And Covenant certainly has some colossal shoes to fill. Alien and Aliens (1986) featured so many elements that have since come to define the series, allowing it to stand out from what can be considered your other "run of the mill" science fiction films: a strong female protagonist (this was virtually unheard of in science fiction before Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of Ellen Ripley), a successful blend of the slow, heavy atmospheric pacing of horror with the otherwise worn-out science fiction blueprints of the time (exemplified by the darkened, dangerous corridors of the ship where the mysterious Xenomorph could be lurking around every corner), and an approach to art design that pushed the limits of imagination (H.R. Giger's designs for the Xenomorphs and alien technology were famously both laughed at and deemed too spooky for audiences by Fox Studios). While reception of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection has been mixed, Prometheus again renewed interest in the series, juxtaposing the verdant hills and flowing rivers of intergalactic landscapes with the dark, bio-mechanical, psycho-sexual demeanor of the Xenomorphs, presenting a yet-unseen artistic contrast in the Alien series. Prometheus also introduced a new layer of philosophical abstraction to the series by introducing the "Engineers", an advanced race of humanoid aliens, as a much more civilized foil to the primal Xenomorphs, and asking the question of where both the Xenomorphs and humans come from, the answer to which supposedly centers on the mysterious Engineers. Covenant continues this story of evolution where Prometheus left off.
          Alien: Covenant opens up in a bright, white, and semi-rotund room, with a grand piano tucked off to the side, a replica of Michelangelo's statue of David in the rear, and a soft, high-backed chair in the front, facing a large, panoramic window overlooking a green mountain landscape outside. Megalomanic Peter Weyland activates a new android (referred to as "synthetics" in the series), who quickly adopts the name of "David" after looking at the statue, to serve as his new companion in his quest to answer the ultimate question of where humans came from, refusing to accept that human genesis was a mere accident of nature.
          Fast forward several decades. In an effort to propagate the human species, the colonization vessel "Covenant" has charted a course for the uninhabited planet Origae-6, carrying roughly 1000 human embryos and 2000 colonists, including about 10 crew members suspended in a stasis sleep. Synthetic Walter, along with an AI simply known as "Mother", oversee the operations of the ship while it embarks on its journey to Origae-6, scheduled to take another 7 years. During its voyage, a nearby neutrino burst rocks the ship, damaging its power structures and the hibernation capsules of several of the colonists, including the ship's captain, Jake Branson, who perishes when his capsule bursts into flames with him inside it. The remaining crew are awakened from stasis just in time for terraforming expert Daniels "Dany" Branson to see her husband get cooked inside his capsule. Chris Oram, man-of-faith and first mate of the Covenant, assumes command of the remaining crew and they set out to repair the ship before continuing their voyage.
          While repairing the exterior power structures of the ship, chief pilot Tennessee's communication signal with the rest of the crew is interrupted by a rogue transmission broadcast into deep space. Back inside the ship, Tennessee shares a replay of the transmission with the rest of the crew, which is very distorted and fuzzy, but complete enough for them to make out that it appears to be a human signal. Mother is able to trace the signal to a nearby planet, which the crew is shocked to find is both uncharted and merely weeks away. Despite some passionate protest from Dany, Oram makes the executive decision to reset the Covenant's course for this new planet.
          Upon arriving above the planet's stratosphere, a portion of the crew descend from the Covenant to survey its surface. After struggling through a bit of turbulence descending through the clouds of an ion storm, the crew land on the planet's surface, which is covered with high mountains, thick vegetation, and crystal-clear lakes. While marching through the surrounding woods, a member of the expedition team, Ledward, ingests a thick, black, airborne spore spurted by a bizarre grey fungus while Dany makes the observation that there don't appear to be any native fauna on this planet - just native flora. Ecologist Karine and Ledward break away from the rest of group before the expedition comes across what appears to be a crashed alien ship. While exploring this inside of this mysterious vessel, another member of the team, Hallett, ingests the same black spore while Dany discovers the identification card of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a member of the science vessel "Prometheus", which disappeared some 10 years earlier. As the team finds the source of the rogue transmission inside the ship, both Ledward and Hallett begin exhibiting symptoms of some kind of severe illness. Karine escorts Ledward back to the landing ship while the rest of the expedition team begin their trek back with Hallett.
          After the landing pilot and Tennessee's wife, Faris, fearfully quarantines Ledward inside a medical cabin aboard the landing ship, inadvertently locking Karine inside as well, a small, albinoid creature, erupts from Ledward's back, killing him. The creature proceeds to maul Karine before breaking through a window in the locked door of the medical cabin. Faris attempts to hunt down and kill the pale Neomorph using one of the military-grade rifles aboard the ship, but ends up blasting the very large canisters that read "EXPLOSIVE MATERIAL" in big, bold letters, ultimately blowing herself away while destroying the landing ship and their primary communication channel to the Covenant. The rest of the crew makes it back to the landing ship in time to witness it being engulfed in flames while, at the same time, Hallett violently coughs up another pale Neomorph, which scurries away into the tall grass as Hallett dies. While attempting to radio a distress call to the Covenant, the two Neomorphs return and attack the crew, killing a crew member by the name of Ankor and eating Walter's left hand. The crew manager to kill one of the Neomorphs, but the other proves difficult to hit. Before long, however, a bright flare explodes overhead and the remaining Neomorph disappears, and a mysterious figure emerges from the light and beckons what remains of the crew to follow him.
          This mysterious figure leads the crew to a dark and derelict city, populated only by himself and thousands of petrified, humanoid statues. He reveals himself to be the Synthetic David, the sole surviving member of the Prometheus, who had crash-landed on this planet in an Engineer ship with Dr. Shaw. During the crash, says David, Dr. Shaw perished and the black spore was released on the planet, killing all the natural fauna. At this point, Rosenthal, a member of the expedition's security unit splits from the group. Unfortunately for her, she encounters the remaining Neomorph, which decapitates her. Later, David finds the Neomorph hovering over the pieces of Rosenthal's body and tries to befriend it just before Oram arrives and kills it. Demanding answers, Oram pressures David into revealing what he has been up to these past 10 years: David has been secretly incubating the black spore and aiding in its evolution process, and that, contrary to the previous account of Dr. Shaw being killed in the ship crash, David had actually killed her and subjected her carcass to experimentation. Oram is then escorted down into a cellar-like chamber and shown a number of large egg pods by David, who claims they are the apex of his experiments. While peering into the top of one of the egg pods, a Facehugger erupts and latches onto Oram's face, implanting him with an embryo. Meanwhile, the few remaining members of the crew manage to re-establish communication with the Covenant and indicate they need an immediate evacuation. David stumbles across Dany who also learns of David's deceit, having found the mutated body of Dr. Shaw. Walter arrives to save Dany from David and a fight between the two synthetics ensues, all while a newly evolved Xenomorph erupts from Oram and begins hunting what remains of the crew, killing security operative Cole and injuring another security operative, Lope.
          Tennessee arrives on the surface in a small mining vessel to try and evacuate Dany, Lope, and Walter, who appears to have survived his fight with David. The Xenomorph also manages to hop on to the ship as it is trying to take off, causing Dany to go full Ellen Ripley and take on the Xenomorph outside on the ships mining deck. Dany manages to eventually crush the Xenomorph using the ships crane and the team is able to return to the Covenant. Not too long after arriving back on board, however, Lope dies as another Xenomorph erupts from his body, presumably from an embryo that was implanted in his injury. With the help of Walter, Dany and Tennessee manage to lead the Xenomorph into a large hangar, where, once again, Dany works up the courage to antagonize it, this time culminating in the Xenomorph getting impaled by a giant truck and knocked into space through the open hangar door. At the end of the day, Tennessee and Dany return to stasis to continue their journey to Origae-6. Just before Walter hits the button to force her to sleep, Dany asks Walter about a plan she had with Jake to build a cabin on Origae-6, a plan she had revealed to him earlier. Noticing Walter's lack of knowledge about this, Dany realizes that she is actually talking to David, not Walter, who then forces her to sleep. Alien: Covenant ends with David putting two Facehugger embryos in the refrigerator with the human embryos and asking Mother to continue the voyage to Origae-6.
          Despite my reverence for the Alien series, Covenant is not exempt from my normal modus operandi of weighing the pros and cons of a film in order to determine whether or not it is actually good. Fortunately for Covenant, however, its pros do indeed outweigh its cons. In particular, Michael Fassbender delivers what may very well be the best performance I have seen from him yet, and the art direction and design of Covenant remain faithful to the precedent set by Prometheus. This is not to say, however, that there aren't any questionable moments in Covenant. The overall plot seemed rather stock and generic, with the only real depth in the story centering around the motives of David. As a side effect of the comparatively shallow plot, Covenant doesn't seem to ask the same kind of thought-provoking questions as Prometheus, which I thought was one of the highlights of its predecessor.
          Michael Fassbender's performance in Covenant may very well be one of his best. Fassbender had the unusual task of portraying two characters, both synthetics David and Walter. The challenge in such a task is to portray them as two wholly distinct characters in the same film, which may not seem like a large hurdle for an actor, but the twist here is that they also have to be similar enough as to preserve those characteristics that mark them as synthetics. Fassbender, however, seemed to be able to do this with relative ease. Both Walter and David, for example, approach the world around them with the calm, calculated, and semi-indifferent demeanor that you would expect from an android - as soon David is activated, he seems to acquiesce to Weyland's commands without any kind of emotion or preponderance, much in the same way that Walter is able to calmly and coolly strut down the decks of the Covenant as the neutrino burst rocks the ship and the colonist capsules are damaged. Of course, all of this changes for David by the time of the events of Covenant, as his relationship with Weyland and the events of Prometheus have caused him to seemingly develop human traits and emotion, as demonstrated by his admiration for Shaw, an aspect of David that Fassbender is able to capture flawlessly. Even Fassbender's decision to create a contrast between Walter's and David's speech (Walter has an American accent, while David has a British one) helps to establish the distinction between the two significantly (I may also point out that I recently watched another film, The Circle, in which a noteworthy British actress, Emma Watson, attempted to do an American accent...let's just say that Fassbender's accent for Walter was more convincing). It is not too often that actors are tasked with portraying two different characters in the same film with virtually no change in their physical appearance, leaving it solely up to the behavior and mannerisms of the actor to mark the difference. As such, Fassbender's success in doing this adds a layer of depth to Covenant unseen in any recent science fiction entry.
          The aesthetics and art direction of Covenant also live up to the expectations set by previous installments of the Alien series. There is a principle in art known as contrast - the idea that human perception better notices those areas where colors and tones differ from each other markedly, as opposed to those areas where colors blend in or are harder to detect, subliminally resulting in the psychological side-effect of humans tending to remember those areas or events more. It is a very primitive and rudimentary principle, a principle that Covenant takes advantage of and utilizes to its maximum potential. I think both Prometheus and Covenant can be considered a "clash of tones" - on the one hand, we have the peaceful, verdant landscapes and natural beauty of the planets explored in both films, on the other, we have the advanced, white, pure, and digital beauty of human technology, as exemplified by Mother and the Covenant's computer systems, as well as the technology of the Engineers, and in a third hand, we have the dark, sweaty, distorted countenance of the Xenomorphs and their bio-mechanical domain, serving as a kind of chaotic virus infecting the perfect order of the other two. All three of these tones contrast in Covenant in the same way that white text contrasts with a black background, or red stars stand out against a backdrop of blue, a very simple yet profound contrast. And, as a further testament to the lasting impression of H.R. Giger, Covenant remains faithful to his works, presenting us again with the images of humanoid beings tainted with an appearance sometimes Lovecraftian (the Engineers' space suits come to mind), sometimes Freudian (many have pointed to the phallic shape of the Xenomorph's head as an example of the psycho-sexual undertones of Giger's work).
          Of course, Covenant is not without its flaws. Particularly, the plot this time around struck me as much more lackluster than its predecessor. Prometheus presented us with a very provocative narrative, asking the right kinds of questions and, at times, asking the audience to piece together events. A megalomaniac who refuses to believe that humans evolved from a primordial soup by mere chance sends an expedition into space to try and find the origins of life on Earth, an expedition that learns of the existence of a race of highly advanced humanoid aliens that have the ability to manipulate biological and genetic structures, even at a microscopic level. Wrapped in layers of religious allegory, these "Engineers" eventually become angry at humans and develop a biological weapon to exterminate them, but, much to the horror of both humans and the Engineers, they lose control of this "sin virus", a pestilence which brings about a destruction that actually constitutes the evolutionary steps of something more sinister. Indeed, reflecting back on Prometheus, I may be audacious enough to say that it may have had one of the better narratives we have seen in recent years. In Covenant, however, it wouldn't be too disingenuous of me to summarize the plot by saying that a team of human colonists land on a planet where a crazy android cultivated the evolution of the black spore and that "something more sinister" came along and wiped out most of the humans (i.e. they all get killed by a monster created by a crazy guy). There is just no depth to Covenant's story, save for maybe the mystery surrounding David's true intentions, but even this plot point is not enough to bring Covenant up to the level of Prometheus. Granted, Covenant's story is already leagues ahead of almost anything that came before it in 2016, and is not any more or any less engaging than Ghost in the Shell from earlier this year, which I enjoyed. However, I must refer back to those "colossal shoes" that I mentioned several paragraphs back - if a film is going to serve as an installment of the Alien series, and directly follow in the footsteps of Prometheus, it has to have a plot that does justice to its roots, lest it inadvertently undermine those roots and ruin all that was captivating about its predecessor.
          Overall, Alien: Covenant gets a recommendation. While the depth of its narrative may not live up that of Prometheus, all of the very basic things that you would expect of the Alien series are there: slow, atmospheric horror, vivid landscapes and imaginative technology, solid acting, and a faithfulness to Giger's art design. These things alone are already enough to make Covenant stand out from the rest of the sci-fi lot in recent years, and put it on par with most other big films that came before it in 2017, such as Logan and Ghost in the Shell. This leaves me optimistic for the rest of the summer movie season, and really gives me a good point of comparison as I expect the rest of the summer's offerings to be very eclectic and diverse, from the international indie films I will be seeing at the Seattle International Film Festival to the remake of The Mummy.

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