Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant Review

The Alien series is on balance, as much about creation as it is about destruction. Prometheus attempted to steer the narrative away from genre archetypes that previous films relied on, instead focusing on Scott’s pet topic of man’s origin. The result of the attempt to square the history of the franchise against this new direction means that the overarching narrative has now reached MCU levels of baffling, with its twisted self-referential story, and a repetition of certain formulaic elements.

Alien: Covenant falls foul of these issues, ultimately robbing itself of any purpose as it is simply a stepping stone for a larger story. The film opens with Weyland (Guy Pearce) having a portentous conversation about mankind and their legacy with his uncanny artificial son (Michael Fassbender). We then skip forward to see a later android model, Walter (also Fassbender), attempting to correct a failure that threatens the lives of the cryogenically frozen colonists on the titular ship.

The disaster takes out the ship’s captain, who is also the husband of this film’s female centrepiece, Daniels. Katherine Waterston handles the central role well, largely playing up to the role created by Weaver’s Ripley - one of the many elements of previous films that are needlessly referenced. The crew are littered with famous faces like Danny McBride’s Tennessee and Billy Crudup’s Oram who both cause friction as their respective camaraderie and faith clash with their responsibilities, ostensibly justifying the rash decisions various members make later on.

Scott’s handling of pacing is tight, and the framing often beautiful as the planet's lush, harsh scenery lends a more feral slant to proceedings. The action that commences at planet fall is a heady mix of dread, gleeful body horror and abrupt violence. A cloaked stranger eventually rescues the crew and leads them to a desolate ruin which is a mix of the hellscapes of Bosch and the ruins of Pompeii, littered with allusions to DorĂ©'s art for Paradise Lost.

It’s clear that these classical references are not just skin deep, with a meeting between synthetic brothers allowing Michael Fassbender to dip his toe into some delightful thespian onanism over the meaning of existence. David teaches Walter how to play the flute (coming dangerously close to Bacall’s famous “you know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?”) and the pair batter through a bevy of aphorisms and other ostentatious literary quotations.

There's no doubt that these sequences are the best the film has to offer outside of its inventive body horror, and exploring the motivations and the character of David are the real guts of the film. The film's original title of Paradise Lost comes into play not only with evocation of that famous artwork, but also in David's close ties to Lucifer. The sequence between Weyland and David sets up the android as instantly frustrated with his master's inferiority and his implied subservience, and a flashback that shows David arriving in the Engineer ship and bombing them with the weaponised virus ends with a shot of him looking every bit the part of the angel cast out of heaven.

It's clear from the trajectory of Prometheus and Covenant that David is Scott's main focus, and his interest in the character shows. Plenty of time is spent exploring how he has been entertaining himself for the past decade, and its clear that he is enacting the role of the renaissance man, sketching his surroundings and cataloguing the planet like Da Vinci. His explorations extend further than simple cataloguing however, and he uses the rich Eden of the Engineer's planet to continue his experiments with the xenomorph virus, ultimately attempting to create the purest lifeform he can, in the hopes of taming it and surpassing his creators aspiration.

As with Prometheus, the theme of the fall of man is mused on heavily, with the planet acting as a spoiled Eden, ruined by a single infraction. Walter suggests to David that one note out of order can send a whole symphony crashing down, and it’s a line that lingers in the mind long after the film. Does it fully justify some of the baffling decisions made by members of the crew or is it just a reference that’s specific to android’s battle of wits?

Scott makes it hard to tell as so much of Covenant is retreading old ground. A tense and well choreographed action sequence between Daniels and the Alien (the real deal this time, not the Neomorphs of act one) subverts the conventions by being set in broad daylight, on top of a speeding mining platform to great effect.  A final act twist involving the identical androids is rendered moot by its inevitability, and an inability to do anything more interesting in the last few moments than repeat the same finale that the rest of the series has traded on for over 30 years.

There's definitely a greater desire to play with the DNA of the series on show here in places, but Scott is slowing this evolution down by resting on a handful of the same formulaic elements. By the time the film ends, it never really feels like it has accomplished anything beyond a few stand out thrills, and some piece moving that sees David returned to the flock.

Now that the Alien itself has been defanged through its constant overuse, and the ability to suspend disbelief at yet another crew of corporate bodies being devoured by the horrors of birth and capitalism is feeling besieged, the series needs to pull something special out of its kit to reinvigorate itself, lest it succumb to the same hubris that consumed Weyland.

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