Saturday, 20 May 2017

Alien: Covenant – frustrating and fascinating

If ever a film was deserving of the description ‘mixed beast’ then Alien: Covenant is it.

Dissatisfying and satisfying in approximately similar amounts, it prompted me to consider ratings and what I’d give it, and I’d probably do three stars out of five.

On the cons side, it suffers from a number of things –- not least being the latest instalment in the Aliens franchise. Part one is an icon of the horror genre, with part two not far behind. Part three was dire, while the fourth instalment is as divisive as Marmite (I like it).

Then there was a long gap before Prometheus. Which was awful – a point not helped because it didn’t ‘feel’ as though it belonged to the same family as any of the films that had gone before.

In many ways, neither does this. It feels as though it belongs somewhere else – and that's not a bad thing.

It begins before Prometheus, with the perfect synthetic David being ‘awoken’ by his father/creator Peter Weyland, and then moves us fast forward a decade to the ship Covenant, which is on a long trip to set up a new colony, with 2,000-odd humans and a thousand embryos sleeping/stored until they arrive.

The crew too is asleep with only a synthetic, Walter, around to run routine operations with Mother, the ship’s computer, when a fluke of an accident sees the crew woken and the captain dead.

As they repair the ship, the crew comes across a human transmission – someone singing a John Denver song. When they discover that the signal is from a nearby planet that seems perfectly suited for human habitation, reluctant acting captain Oram overrides arguments that it’s all too good to be true, and sets them on course to investigate.

Down on the planet, Oram and a team find more than they bargained for  not least, David – ‘brother’ to Walter and last survivor of the Prometheus.

Frankly, the first chunk feels slow and is far from great – not helped by having a generally unmemorable crew. Compare that to the first film with it’s outstanding ensemble.

Katherine Waterson as Dany and Danny McBride as Tennessee are really the only two who make – are allowed to make – any impact.

Where the film starts coming into its own is when David and Walter meet – and it benefits hugely from two superb, intertwined performances by Michael Fassbender as both synthetics.

There are gory deaths aplenty as we are introduced to whole new flavours of aliens – someone has been playing god with genetics. And there are some very clever twists amid the horror – slipping on blood in an attempted escape is just one.

Some of the visuals are superb, but the script by John Logan and Dante Harper is flawed.

While there are enjoyable elements of philosophical questioning – the nature of gods/creators and the act of being creative; the question of artificial intelligence overtaking the human intelligence that creates it and more – having made a point of Oram having a religious faith, it then fails to explore this.

One is left only with the vague notion that perhaps Oram’s ignoring of reasoning in his desire to quickly find a paradise, is indicative of religious faith.

Perhaps much of this is director and producer Ridley Scott continuing to work through some of the same subjects that he has for years – see Blade Runner, for instance – with the added intensity of age.

The ending is genuinely creepy and the use of Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Wagner’s Das Rheingold to bookend the film is actually very effective, not least because of the different ways it’s played: by solo piano initially and then in the full orchestral version – indicating a theme developed.

Flawed without doubt, it is a movie that nonetheless gets under the skin. But while the themes can be explored in other settings and contexts, please let’s make this a day for the Alien franchise.

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