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Posts Tagged ‘Alien’

I’m aware that these little pieces which aspire to inform and educate about films can be a little on the long-winded side. It’s unusual for one of them to come in at less than eight hundred words, and most of them are over a thousand. Is all this verbiage strictly necessary to get my views across? Frankly, I’m not sure: I was at the pictures just today, and as the closing credits started to roll, my companion turned to look at me, and expressed his opinion eloquently and passionately using just one single monosyllabic word of Germanic derivation. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck; but on the other hand there’s also the fact that I have many empty hours to contend with and writing single-word film reviews wouldn’t do much to fill the time.

Anyway, the film which moved my friend to such a model of forthright concision was Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, which I think you’ll agree sounds jolly portentous. What dark deal has been struck, and how does it relate to H.R. Giger’s famous acid-blooded extraterrestrial killing machine? Well, um, er. The film has the portentous subtitle Covenant because it’s about a spaceship called the Covenant. Why is the spaceship called Covenant? Because the film needs a portentous subtitle and Alien: Saucy Sue or Alien: Spaceshippy McSpaceshipface just wouldn’t cut it. If this at all gives you the impression that the Alien franchise is showing signs of vanishing up one of its own glistening, biomechanical orifices, well, I commend you for your perspicacity, readers.

Scott’s last visit to this series, 2012’s Prometheus, enjoyed one of the most inescapable advertising campaigns I can remember and was generally hated by people expecting an Alien movie which had, you know, the actual alien in it. Things have been marginally more restrained publicity-wise this time around and it seems to me that a definite effort has been made to keep the fanbase on-side. Certainly the opening movements of the plot mimic those of the original 1979 film very closely: partway through a long-haul deep-space mission, the crew of the spaceship Covenant find themselves unexpectedly awakened, and detect a mysterious signal coming from a nearby planet. The captain (Billy Crudup) decides that they will go and take a look, much to the unease of his second in command (Katherine Waterston). The ship’s android (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion either way.

On arrival on the planet’s surface, the crew are presented with various mysteries, the primary one being a huge, horseshoe-shaped alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, one of the expedition is exposed to an alien life-form which uses his own flesh to gestate a vicious, lethal creature which puts everyone’s lives in danger…

Well, it’s not quite the play-by-play knock-off that I’m probably making it sound like – the relationships between the crew are different, not to mention their characters – Captain Oram is plagued by self-doubt and takes himself just a bit too seriously, for instance. But we are in rather familiar territory, and if you’ve seen the earlier movies you will certainly know the tune even if some of the words have been tweaked.

However, things go off in a new and slightly unexpected direction as the crew of the Covenant encounter David (Fassbender again), another android and apparently the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission, ten years earlier (in case you’re wondering, his body seems to have grown back since the last movie: this is handwaved away rather). The newcomers accept his offer of shelter against the perils of the planet’s ecosystem, but are startled when he takes them to an ancient ruined city built by alien humanoids. What happened to the planet’s original inhabitants? And exactly how has David been passing his time for the last ten years…?

One of the things we discussed while waiting for the movie to start were the similarities and differences between the Alien series and the stellar conflict franchise currently owned by the Disney corporation. Both started in the late 1970s, have dedicated fanbases, have provided many iconic screen moments, and have indulged in some dubious prequelising; you could argue that both ultimately owe an enormous debt to Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune movie. And, I would argue, both of them trade enormously on the reputation and quality of their initial couple of films: personally I didn’t find any of the stellar conflict movies completely satisfying between 1980 and last year (your mileage may differ, obviously), and while everyone seems to like Alien and Aliens, the other films in the franchise are much less loved (and a couple of them have apparently been stricken from the canon). The question in the case of the Alien series is quite simple: what new things can you find for this particular monster to do? Audiences, I suspect, just want more of the same experiences that they had during those two films.

When I eventually prevailed upon my companion to unpack his thoughts on the film a little, he complained that the new film wasn’t ever actually scary or particularly thrilling, and that all the most memorable and interesting bits should have gone into the Blade Runner sequel instead. He couldn’t understand why Ridley Scott had bothered to return to the Alien franchise if (as seemed the case) he had nothing new to bring to it, and even muttered darkly about the director going senile (note to Mr Scott’s lawyers: please don’t sue).

Well, my expectations were lower, I expect, because while I wasn’t tremendously impressed with Covenant, I found it fairly enjoyable for most of its running time. In many ways it’s much more of a direct sequel to Prometheus than I expected. One of the little commented-upon consequences of Prometheus’ release was Guillermo del Toro abandoning his long-cherished desire to film Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, on the grounds that the plot and atmosphere would be just too similar – and the Lovecraftian overtones carry on into Covenant to some extent, with the action taking place in and around cyclopean alien citadels, with terrible secrets of a hostile, impersonal universe coming to light.

That said, they are careful to put some proper aliens into this one, including at least one interesting new variation on the classic beastie. The notion of a whole alien-influenced ecosystem is a fascinating one, but unfortunately not much gone into. The same can really be said for some of the film’s ideas about human teleology and ontology: there are scenes which set up this film as having some grand philosophical ground to cover, but in the end it just devolves into highly familiar running and screaming and shouting. It looks fabulous throughout, and Fassbender gives a brilliant double performance – through the magic of digital effects he gets to do all manner of things to and with himself, and the realisation of this is flawless.

However, this kind of leads us to the stuff about Covenant which I didn’t like, and this is a not inconsiderable matter. If the film-makers want to rewrite the ‘rules’ of the series, that’s their prerogative – the alien life cycle, which used to operate over a period of hours, if not days, is here compressed to a matter of minutes or seconds – but no amount of authorial wriggling can remove the problem that the plot of this movie is built around a reversal that simply doesn’t make sense, in terms of how it’s presented on screen at least. You can also argue that a key plot twist is extremely guessable. I liked much of Alien: Covenant enough to indulge it for most of its running time, but together these things conspired to kick me out of the movie for its final segment.

The film concludes with a relatively short concluding section which seems, again, designed to resonate and chime with fans of the first couple of movies. I suppose it works on some level, but it – along with much of the ‘traditional’ Alien-themed material – almost feels like a contractual obligation in a film which is perhaps at its best tackling the same kind of grand philosophical concepts as Prometheus.

The problem is that Prometheus arguably failed, as an Alien sequel at least. The job of this kind of sequel is essentially to remind you of what a good time you had watching the original film, by restaging it in a slightly modified form. Innovation in a sequel is always a risky proposition and one best done very sparingly. Alien: Covenant works hard to include all the key scenes, concepts, and tropes you might expect from a film in this series, and if the result is something that feels like a karaoke version of one of the original films, with a slightly odd new arrangement of the melody, then I expect that will do the producers very nicely and allow the franchise to trundle on for a good while yet. But the fact remains that, although good-looking and often well-acted, Alien: Covenant is just too incoherent and slavishly derivative a movie to give the audience the same delighted sense of intertwined novelty and familiarity provided by the last stellar conflict prequel. In space, no-one can hear you scream – but in a movie theatre, you can certainly hear the person next to you grumble, and with pretty good reason in this case.

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In this world, there are advertising campaigns, and there are Advertising Campaigns – and, let there be no doubt, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has well and truly been the recipient of the latter. It feels like every time I’ve been to a film with a vaguely appropriate certificate over the last few months, it has been preceded not simply by the trailer for this movie, but also by a short film ‘introducing’ it – basically talking heads of the creative people involved come on and talk about how great it is, while behind the scenes footage rolls. Long ago I learned to be skeptical about this sort of thing.

(And, while we’re on the subject of advertisorial film nonsense, it appears that winsome Kim has been sacked from the reliably irksome Live From The Red Carpet slot in the commercials. What the hell…? Winsome Kim was just about the only thing that made this exercise in utter bumf tolerable, and there are surely few women in the world who can complete a handover to an animated piece of chocolate with the same degree of self-possession and charm that Kim did. Bring back Kim at once!)

Anyway, the promotional carpet-bombing is arguably a dodgy move as it manages to be inescapable across all media, to the point of actually becoming annoying, while remaining irritatingly coy about all the things about Prometheus most people are going to be interested in: namely, this film’s connections with a particular series of well-regarded and hugely successful SF-horror movies.

Scott’s movie opens with breathtaking landscapes and the strange death of an alien traveller, apparently by his own hand. It’s a powerful, striking moment, setting the film’s tone well – everything is reserved, thoughtful, visually awesome, and not a little oblique: there’s something Kubrickian about Prometheus in its most majestic scenes.

From here the story shifts and we meet late-21st century scientists Elizabeth Shaw (insert Doctor Who gag here if you’re so minded), played by Noomi Rapace, and Charlie Holloway, played by Logan Marshall-Green. They have discovered a series of obscure archaeological sites which not only suggest extraterrestrial contacts occurring in humanity’s remote past, but also provide a map to the visitors’ point of origin.

Some years later, the privately-funded science ship Prometheus is approaching that very planet. Shaw and Holloway are on board, leading a science team. Also present are Idris Elba’s rough-diamond space captain, Charlize Theron’s fearsome corporate enforcer, and – most charismatically – Michael Fassbender’s impeccably-behaved android factotum. As the ship touches down on the bleak alien world, a chain of events is set in motion which will reveal much about the origins of the human race – and other things as well. The designation of the planet is LV-233…

So, you’ve got a feisty female lead, a corporate apparatchik with a personal agenda, a reliable old space veteran, an inscrutable android, crews coming out of stasis over unknown worlds, foreboding alien structures, lots of slime… on one level, the makers of this film are enthusiastically revisiting old territory. However, the one question which most people really want answered is the one not even touched upon by the advertising – the question of whether it actually features aliens. Or, to be more precise, the Alien, from the 1979 film of the same name.

Prometheus doesn’t just copy the style and some of the tropes of Alien – from the moment the name of the planet is mentioned, it’s clear that this is openly going to be a prequel of sorts to that film. As well as the characters being drawn from the same set of archetypes, at least one key location reappears, and – rather like in The Bourne Ultimatum – there are moments and lines of dialogue seemingly designed to make you recall moments from the earlier films. Mostly the first two, as you might expect, and the Paul W.S. Anderson take on the franchise is ignored – continuity cops may have fun trying to figure out a way to reconcile those films with this one, but I digress. You yourself may be wondering – does Giger’s masterpiece-offspring make an in-the-biomechanical-flesh appearance? In short, are faces hugged? Do chests burst? All I feel able to say is that I think this element is not handled as well as it could have been.

This is not a major problem, though, as this is a beautifully-designed and lavishly-made SF movie, not afraid to explore big ideas and take, it seemed to me, a genuine delight in doing so. It doesn’t do so in great detail, to be sure, but then again one’s expectations of a $130m studio movie released in 3D must necessarily be limited. Nevertheless, this film is a cut above in most departments, with strong performances from Rapace and especially Fassbender a major plus.

I’m on record as not being a great fan of the original film, to be honest, feeling that Scott’s rather stately and restrained direction didn’t work to best advantage in what was basically an (atypically brainy) exploitation movie. I have to say that, on the whole, I’m rather more impressed with his work on Prometheus – as I said, this is primarily a film concerned with all sorts of big ideas, not an adrenaline thrill-ride or nerve-jangling exercise in suspense. This is not to say that the film is completely cerebral – there’s a memorably grisly sequence about two-thirds of the way through, about which all I will say is that ‘it’s not a traditional foetus’ is a comment no girl wants to hear during a medical check-up – but the plot does seem written to facilitate the ideas rather than vice versa, and the story as a whole never quite engages the emotions.

Nevertheless, I was quietly impressed by Prometheus and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not sure if people wholly unacquainted with the Alien series will find it especially rewarding, while as for people turning up expecting a bona fide new installment, dripping with fresh acid… hmm. Personally I enjoyed the links, subtle and otherwise, to the other films, while the fact that much of the back-story of this movie is left to the viewer to decipher and come to their own conclusions about was not a problem: it’s nice to be treated with intelligence for a change. Prometheus is a superior SF blockbuster; it may be only a distant and slightly strained relation to Alien, but it does its progenitors no disgrace.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 29th 2001:

A long time ago (well, the late 1970s), in a galaxy not that far away, the film studio 20th Century Fox had had a big hit with a movie called Star Wars (you may have heard of it). The Fox suits decided they could use a bit more of this spaceship stuff, seeing as it was so popular, and rang round the junior suits who did all the work. ‘Any scripts with spaceships in them knocking about?’ And they were brought the script for Battlestar Galactica, which they promptly sent away again, because even suits have standards. Finally a script called Star Beast appeared, which even sounded a bit like Star Wars, and they decided to make it as a sort of low-budget exploitation film. Unfortunately they forgot to tell this to Mr Ridley Scott, the director, with peculiar results…

Surely everyone reading this knows the plot of Alien, the movie Star Beast turned into? All right, just in brief… Most of the movie occurs on the Nostromo, an interstellar tug with a crew of seven (plus one pet cat – all great horror movies should have animals in them). The crew spend most of the time asleep in fridges, which makes you wonder why they’re there at all, especially as the plot establishes that a sophisticated android workforce is available. However, they’re rudely awakened by an alien signal emanating from a blasted rockball, and their contracts insist they go and investigate. Down on the planet three of the crew find a huge alien vessel and luckless First Officer Kane (a fairly pre-stardom John Hurt) has a close encounter of an intimate and rather icky kind with the occupant of an alien egg. Despite the concerns of Third Officer Ripley (a definitely pre-stardom Sigourney Weaver, here in her signature role), the landing party are let back on board by twitchy Science Officer Ash (a pre-Baggins Ian Holm). The alien parasite seems to die and Kane recovers. However the ship’s supply of indigestion tablets is insufficient to stop him rudely bursting open in the middle of the crew’s supper, and a metallic-dentured alien emerges and does a runner (or the equivalent) for the bowels of the ship. The rest of the crew are forced to engage in a battle to survive, or else the franchise will never get going and The Terminator will never have any competition for the title of James Cameron’s best film…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Fox may have wanted another Star Wars, but this ain’t it. It’s a weird clash of several different styles of film-making, and arguably the wrong style wins. I’ve never been able to force myself to believe all the hype about Alien, and here’s why…

Style number one is indeed Star Wars influenced: there are frequent loving flybys of bloomin’ big spaceships, and the technology of the Nostromo has a dirty, used look to it, rather like the Millenium Falcon et al. It looks sort of convincing as a working starship. This flows rather neatly into style number two – a naturalistic, almost docudrama approach to the crew mooching about, all talking at the same time over their meals, and complaining about their pay. It’s an effect that reminds me most strongly of a Howard Hawks movie. Hawks was a director and producer of many genres, active from the 1930s to the 50s, and amongst his films was the original Thing From Another World. The Thing was one of the best 50s SF scare movies, and clearly an ancestor of Alien, right down to the traitor in the human camp. Alien was conceived of and pitched as an updated scare movie, a suspense-thriller-horror movie – the haunted house in space.

But the most important name for the Alien saga at this point in time was not Ripley but Ridley – Scott, that is, the director. Here I go into a minority of one, but I’ve never been hugely impressed by a Ridley Scott film. His visual sense is undeniably superb, and his movies are nearly all stunningly beautiful to look at. But it always seems to me that he’s much more interested in filling the screen with pretty pictures than with engaging the audience with the characters or even telling the story.

The next time you see Alien just look at how much of the time is filled with languid sequences where the camera roams around actionless, silent sets, simply showing off how beautiful the production designs are. This drains the film of a lot of the nervous energy it should have, particularly as a suspense horror. Sure, there are ‘jump’ moments, such as when the facehugger falls on Ripley’s shoulder or the Alien appears with Dallas in the air duct – but anyone can contrive that sort of thing. Creating and sustaining true tension is much more difficult and, for me, Alien rarely manages it for long – I just don’t feel drawn into the story.

This isn’t a bad film – of course it isn’t. HR Giger’s creations are incredible and iconic, the rest of the sets equally good. There’s a good ensemble performance by the cast, and it’s interesting that it isn’t until very late on that Ripley emerges as the survivor/heroine figure. Also noteworthy is Ian Holm’s peculiar, nervy performance as Ash – a performance that seems even more peculiar on repeated viewings of the movie.

But for me, Alien is fatally flawed: written and designed as a nerve-jangling horror movie in space, it’s actually directed like an arthouse film, with beautiful compositions and visual effects taking precedence over effective storytelling. The very beauty which makes it so exceptional also deprives it of truly working as it was intended to.

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