Alien: Covenant

mv5bmtkznjuwmtk1m15bml5banbnxkftztgwmjexmdu5mdi-_v1_sy1000_cr0014861000_al_

Alien 6 is a film stuck between Ridley Scott’s fascinations and a flabby, puzzle-box script which doesn’t know what to do with them. Covenant‘s most inspired moments are built around a pioneering crew of space colonists being prepared for every eventuality, but ironically having no expectation of ever encountering them because of this. The titular ship is hit by a neutrino burst early on, a random disaster which incinerates the captain in his sleep. The second in command overcompensates at the panic of suddenly being in charge, badgering his subordinates into compliance while reciting clearly rehearsed pitch-speak. Naturally, they resent him. Later, after one of the group is infected by sentient spores (which operate like the airborne xenomorph strain from William Gibson’s unused Alien 3 draft), another member panics, quarantining a distressed medic in an operating room as her patient convulses and vomits blood. One tries to remain calm, as another group attempts to return, while the other wants to bicker and scream her way out. Then, something begins bursting open the sick man’s spinal column, and the pair go silent. For a few, blissfully horrific minutes, we are treated to snapping, clawing beasts as a catch-all for the chaos which meets the hubris of settling unknown lands.

Problem is, Covenant never allows this uncertainty to overtake the film. Its other big idea, concerning Prometheus‘ David (Michael Fassbender), is the clear drive here. Here, we see the seeds of his duplicity in a prologue where he realizes the paradox in being made both “perfect” and intended to serve weaker, inferior humans. His intersection with the Covenant settlers is disconcerting: seemingly rescuing them, David takes the devastated survivors back to a citadel in the midst of Engineer corpses frozen in place like Mt. Vesuvius victims. The years between films have seen him obsess with the same kind of creation that drove mankind’s creators, resulting in a tiny, candlelit laboratory where the android practices vivisection and sketches out the results. He admits a certain disdain for his own creators in the presence of Walter–a replica model, deliberately subverted to be less than those he serves. For David, as with his quasi-ancestors, humans are nothing but resources to recycle and produce (Fassbender emphasizes “meat” when describing how the black goo infects and changes lifeforms). The result of this tinkering positions David as somewhere between Christopher Lee’s Dracula and Dr. Morbius from Forbidden Planet; a craven fiend who uses flesh to power offspring that act as his id. He is, further, intent on seizing a destiny among the stars from the squabbling, feeble flesh sacs that spawned him.

Intriguing as the idea is, harking back to Ash’s obsession with the alien‘s perfection, its introduction destroys the film. Scott, and writers John Logan and Dante Harper, burn screentime with David explaining his motivations and desires to characters who gawp and listen (despite all the clear warning he means them harm), waiting until the next alien kill gets checkmarked. Scott’s usual visual depth and elaborate set design cast off for franchise-minded exposition. If the goal here is to make David some kind of Satanic figure (there are allusions to Paradise Lost in both the film and its marketing), why make him a tour guide? Why not a background figure, allowing his victims to explore his workshop, stumbling upon traps designed to breed more horror? This approach would have at least connected the Gothic horror premise more tightly to the struggles of explorers facing the unknown, while treating the alien as a centerpiece (rather than an obligation) and maintaining tension. Instead, Covenant devolves into a stock dynastic struggle with a Giger fetish.

Prometheus

mv5bmtg2mti1mjmxmv5bml5banbnxkftztcwmzu1mdyxnw-_v1_sx1777_cr001777776_al_

Ridley Scott’s return to Alien obsesses over dichotomies. Creation and destruction. The divine and the profane. Fascination and revulsion, especially. Prometheus offers a scenario where a bunch of scientists are bankrolled by a wizened, terminally-ill billionaire to blast off into the stars for answers to humanity’s most existential questions, only to find a tomb of horrors. The Engineers–the eight foot tall, paste-white men sought out by the explorers–are found to be endless, tinkering monsters; their entire culture built out of mechanizing and weaponizing organic matter. Their crowning achievement: a black goo which breaks down and reconstructs tissue for maximum predation. A grand, temple-like room with a sculpted head (presumably, their leader) is devoted to housing the stuff. The human children who have come seeking them, however, are superfluous, placeholders for raw genetic material to be harvested and disposed.

Though the script stubbornly insists on Noomi Rapace’s Shaw as the lead, she is stock and uninteresting compared to duplicitous robotic servant David (Michael Fassbender). Shaw never rises above assigned traits: her Christianity, rather than complementing the quest, exists only in her cross necklace and the throwaway line “It’s what I choose to believe” (referencing the Engineers); a revelation about her infertility is handled with clumsy melodrama. At least the latter pays off in a sequence where Shaw discovers she was impregnated with an alien squid and has to abort the fetus, but it’s a moment squeezed between a separate mutant attack and a nonsensical plot twist.

David, meanwhile, exhibits the polarizing duality Prometheus aims for. His attempts to be more like (and closer to, as shown in his obsession with Shaw) his human creators are countered with the passive-aggressive contempt he displays for how they belittle him (most pointedly when Shaw’s husband Holloway says he’s “not a real boy”). These fixations drive David and, in turn, the plot while the humans dither: the robot introduces the black goo into the crew and, later, seeks out a lifeform reading everyone else casually dismisses. There, he finds a massive navigation room, activating a holographic star map in a sequence as big and bold as anything in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scott seems to cherish these little asides, hinting at a generational conflict having exploded into cosmic scale. The overall shape of the film crumbles, moving too fast with too many moving parts, but there’s an admirable earnestness in trying to drag audiences back to the moment in Alien when the camera zoomed on the fossilized skull of a long-dead alien giant.

Alien: Resurrection

mv5bmtm4nta5mda5nl5bml5banbnxkftztywnjg1odu3-_v1_

The 200 year jump in the Alien timeline is, unfortunately, the only promising thing in Alien: Resurrection. And half-hearted, at that. Ridley Scott’s classic brought us a corporate nightmare brutalized by a venereal apex predator. James Cameron’s sequel introduced military fetishism which was met by an overwhelming hive-mind, and the massive Queen at the center of it. David Fincher and some labyrinthine studio notes gave us prisoner monks forgotten on the edge of space, caught up in a battle between an unwavering warrior mother and a murderous demon. Despite some decent effects and set work by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s team, Resurrection is very by the numbers–blandly uniformed military goons and scientists in polyester hazmat/rave-wear outfits walking through lightly industrial-looking environments, all cribbed from the million Alien knockoffs which have sprung up since the xenomorph’s first appearance. The only tech advances made in this far-flung future appear to be plot-device cloning and a (rather useless) security system operated via breathalyzer. The aliens fare slightly better, now appearing to sweat KY Jelly as well as drool it; while a (further) hybridized xenomorph/human Newborn saunters around the third act like a Ray Harryhausen cast-off. The creature has a near-constant frown and whines like a puppy, pitiable if not for its slasher mentality and a quasi-Oedipal complex.

In case that last sentence piqued your interest even slightly, don’t worry: the script is all setup and no follow-through. Ideas are dangled and forgotten instantly. Bringing back Ripley as a hybrid clone, for instance, offers philosophical issues regarding the self (Sigourney Weaver is game, dialing up the glibness to psychotic levels of indifference), but Joss Whedon fails to muster up a story worthy of his star. Ripley-8 acts in fits and starts: she’s first teased as our point of view into this new future, only to be shoved to the background once Winona Ryder’s robot radical and the jokey, proto-Firefly mercenaries/ciphers she joins up with enter the picture. When the aliens break out and force them to work with Ripley, there’s lip service paid to the idea this clone’s alien side will win out, but nothing comes of it. Even a big, revelatory moment involving prior attempts at reviving Ripley/the aliens is dropped in with no buildup or real development; its purpose merely to set up a punchline about women being too emotional.

Alien 3

mv5bzwzjzwjlytetytc3yi00mzzklwe0zjatnmvmzjm4mmi4mzfmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjuyndk2odc-_v1_

A flurry of images greet us as Alien3 opens, telling a story. The Sulaco traveling through space, an open xenomorph egg, Ripley in her cryo-tube, a facehugger extending its fingers, acid and fire, computers flashing warning signs. Finally, the cryo-tubes are ejected, crash-landing on Fury 161 like brimstone. The planet’s residents, prisoners who have converted to a form of fundamentalist Christianity, discover Ripley, slick with grime and sweat as if she crawled from a pit. Her arrival, and the horror she inadvertently brings, coincides with a sunset that seemingly lasts to the film’s closing moments. While far from the Earth-bound showdown 20th Century Fox promised in the earliest teasers, David Fincher’s installment in the Alien saga is easily the most apocalyptic.

Fittingly, the new xenomorph–a hyper-aggressive queen guard occasionally referred to as a “dragon”–takes on a more satanic role. It stalks in the tetanus-infested holes and the hellish-orange tunnels beneath the prison facility, eager to shred and mangle. Rather than the swarming insects of Aliens, it is a figure of death, implacable. Ripley, then, is the flip side of the coin: life, struggling in the face of annihilation. Her fellow survivors Newt, Hicks, and Bishop are dispatched in the opening credits, leaving her to grieve and carry the weight of the alien’s existence. Their fates are intertwined. The inmate-monks who have taken Ripley in become equally fascinated and terrified, blaming her presence for both the alien and their own rapist impulses stirring again. Their leader, Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), is at best tepid towards her, more concerned with his shrinking flock.

Alien3 becomes as much Dillon’s (and his followers’) film as it does Ripley’s. Shaven-headed, largely British and indistinguishable, their brotherhood is uneasy, bound in their shared isolation and distrust of outsiders. They’re prone to violent fits and regression. After thwarting a gang-rape, Dillon talks of “re-educat[ing] the brothers” with a pipe. By contrast to this shaky order, Fincher and Sigourney Weaver portray Ripley as mythic, a destroyer of monsters looking for an end to her seemingly eternal struggle. Even when she discovers a Queen gestating inside her, she never wavers, never chooses to save her own skin. Her values are etched in stone. It’s on Fury 161’s populace to grow, casting off isolationism and throwing down their lives to stop the demon coming for them.

Aliens

mv5bmtiymdu3mtazov5bml5banbnxkftztywmja1ndy3-_v1_

While switching from horror to a more sci-fi/action tenor is the most obvious change, the biggest divergence in James Cameron’s Alien sequel is the nature of the threat. Alien posited a universe where the exploitation of corporate serfdom collided with a prowling, eldritch beast that killed via copulation. The Weyland-Yutani company existed through its artificial proxies, deliberately removed from humanity. Ripley may have been able to deduce their motivations, but much about them remained as unknowable as anything related to the xenomorph. Aliens wastes no time, however, putting a face to this entity: rescued after 57 years in cryo-sleep, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is then forced to rehash the details of her ordeal to a room full of frumpy, dimwitted accountants. Their concern about the Nostromo’s dollar value is callous, but entirely mundane. Likewise, yuppie opportunist Burke (Paul Reiser) elicits disgust when he tries to profit off the alien’s existence, but he’s a pale substitute for cum-blooded alien-fanbot Ash and his oral fixation.

The change to less unknowable horror does allow Cameron and Weaver opportunity to better explore Ripley. While a fierce pragmatist and capable of taking charge the first time around, the film’s ensemble nature meant she wasn’t the focus. Aliens sets the franchise squarely on her shoulders. The film charts her growth from traumatized victim–clutching her chest every moment she’s triggered–to returning to the source of that trauma, overcoming it. To that end, Cameron surrounds her with a child to care for (Carrie Henn’s Newt) and a squad of Marines, trigger-happy and cocksure but also largely supportive and utilitarian.

The nature of these relationships change subtly, depending on whether you’re watching the theatrical cut or the much-celebrated special edition. The latter introduces deleted scenes where Ripley remembers a daughter who died while she was asleep, positioning Newt explicitly as a surrogate daughter. That theme is subtext in the theatrical: Ripley is still tender and steadfast, giving Newt reassuring touches (prominently when she reaches for the child’s hands through a floor grate during a rescue attempt), but their bond is more specifically over the horrors inflicted upon them. They give knowing glances and have muttered asides about the aliens, precisely because no one else has gone through what they have. In many ways, Newt personifies Ripley’s own damaged psyche. Their relationship, and the stability they provide one another, gives them a space to grow from.

Alien

 

mv5bmjiymju2mzixov5bml5banbnxkftztcwmzi2ntuymw-_v1_sy1000_cr0014311000_al_

The most alarming thing for most of Alien‘s runtime is its stillness. Whether in the claustrophobic, geometrically-shaped industrial corridors of the supermassive space trawler Nostromo, or the fossilized, vaginal caverns of the derelict, Ridley Scott opts for glacial tracks and pans. He wants you to pay attention to every detail, every line in the intricately constructed sets. The environments–the two gargantuan vessels, the planetoid, space itself–aren’t dressing, they loom over everything. Even when events spiral into a delirious mad dash to escape, bathed in primary color lights and steam, Scott keeps us steadily gazing. These are inherently frightening places, unfit for human beings. The crew, particularly Sigourney Weaver’s no-nonsense survivor Ripley, gradually come to understand this. Not only is one of their crew infected, birthing a monster that stalks them, but they’ve been railroaded into their predicament by duplicitous A.I. and a robotic snitch, acting at the behest of amorphous corporate masters.

In that regard, the alien is the perfect metaphor for the exploitation at play here: a drooling, insectoid rapist with a metallic body, perfectly camouflaged to the mechanized hellhole its prey is trapped in. It’s also patient, observing the panicked humans before striking from the darkness to either brutalize, violate, and/or abscond with them. The way the Nostromo becomes slick with humidity, and the crew in a near-constant state of perspiration–harking back to the moment John Hurt’s ill-fated Kane comments on the derelict being tropical–there’s also an implication (outside of the famously deleted “cocoon” scene) the creature is fashioning a new home for itself. Like the company, it views the humans already occupying these spaces as property to lay claim to. Grist for its own expansion, or brood mothers fit only to birth future offspring. The methodology might be uncanny and gruesome, but the more we gaze, the more eerily familiar the alien’s behavior becomes.

Get Out

mv5bmtuxmjeznze1nf5bml5banbnxkftztgwndywnjuzmti-_v1_sx1777_cr001777998_al_

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out stresses an all-consuming danger. Its lead, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), has a knowing wariness of every interaction around him. A black man driven up to visit his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family, he doesn’t get into conversations so much as get subjected to them. He’s questioned, touched, studied, physically challenged, at times even mentally subjugated (through hypnosis), yet reassured by his hosts that, yes, they would all have voted Obama a third time if they could. They apologize for “how it looks” that they have black servants. Chris isn’t allowed a space to just be, he is constantly reminded of his outsider status. At best–as when Bradley Whitford’s neurosurgeon patriarch Dean shows a picture of Jesse Owens, before gushing about the athlete’s historic Olympic win–they offer a lurid idealization of the black man’s body. While there are signifiers of plantation lifestyle (even an auction block, with Chris’ photo on display), there’s an altogether different form of capitalizing human beings at play.

While this subtext is driven by a series of script flips (particularly about the suburbs being dangerous, a jokey inversion of a common horror trope), Peele is far more interested in the difference between genuine and rehearsed behavior. Even before overt malevolence sets in, the Armitages are stagey with their behavior: Dean’s drawling “thang” and repetition of “my man”; the way Rose dismisses Chris’ discomfort (and, later, suspicions about the cagey hired help) with a wink; the apologism. It’s all routine to them, an attempt to approximate well-meaning liberalism. Chris finds this off-putting. All he wants is a nice weekend with the parents. Unfortunately, he’s only welcomed so long as his hosts can benefit from him.

A Cure for Wellness

mv5bmtgxmjczmju5of5bml5banbnxkftztgwmzazmze5mdi-_v1_sy1000_cr0015531000_al_

For a movie about a Wall Street parasite trapped in a spa from hell, there is little (if any) bite to A Cure for Wellness. Tension is oddly kept slack, with Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) able to navigate the Gothic castle/sanitarium/wellness center-hybrid facility with relative ease, and every opportunity to wring genuine discomfort from its premise is dashed with a quick cut to the next scene. Lockhart–a sickly-looking shit-stain whose most human quality is wanting to put his mother in a home by the beach–travels to the Swiss Alps, under blackmail for his financial indiscretions, to whisk his boss back to New York to authorize a merger. Once at the retreat, he gets runaround from the staff and clue-piecing chatter from some elderly patients. A car accident gets him admitted (or, rather, imprisoned), and Lockhart becomes haunted by visions of his dead father as he gulps down the water and chases leads stringing together mad science, deranged barons, eels and incest.

Despite its subject matter and R-rating, Gore Verbinski’s film seems intended for PG-13 (as with his last attempt at Gothic horror, The Ring). DeHaan himself, with his soft features and Damien Thorn haircut, portrays Lockhart as an even more youthful version of Robert Pattinson’s Cosmopolis yuppie (the opening stretch even involves him talking finances in the back seat of a car). He becomes infatuated with Hannah (Mia Goth), a girl whose dress and demeanor suggests preadolescence. Their relationship is kept at a distance, however, with the shots getting wider and further back the closer they are in proximity. Sexuality crops up, but noncommittally: Lockhart leers at a nurse once, and there’s an incongruous scene of an orderly masturbating to the sight of a topless nurse; even a bit of senior citizen nudity. Yet, the audience is always locked away from these moments, chaste.

Verbinski and his DP, Bojan Bazelli (who worked with the director on The Ring and The Lone Ranger), are far more interested in thresholds. Every twist or development, every clue is preceded by Lockhart (or, in one instance, Hannah) passing through some opening or barrier which signals further danger–a doorway or gate, usually, but a tunnel or even a pool on occasion. The pair take great joy in these moments, building mood with swooping cameras and conspiring with sound design to create some odd rhythms (i.e. the straining creak of Lockhart’s crutches, combined with the tile floor in a sauna). This chilly remoteness typifies the film, suggesting a clinical approach in keeping with its setting. There’s a brief insinuation we’re watching the unraveling mind of Lockhart, but this, too, is filed away and discarded (which also creates a gaping plot hole). What we’re watching is less a horror film and more a rambling series of anecdotes and tangents about dark whimsy.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

mv5bzjgyztc2yjatnje2oc00mtk3lwfhzjetyzjimte0mmnmognml2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_

For Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Paul W.S. Anderson runs audiences through a gauntlet of successive phases rather than a three-act narrative, pushed on by a ticking clock. Given 48 hours to save humanity from annihilation, Alice (Milla Jovovich) must fight her way back to Umbrella’s Hive facility–where the series and its myriad zombies, mutants, clones, deathtraps, and global corporate conspiracies began–for an airborne cure. The opening stretch is a sprint straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, Alice contending with Umbrella security and a newly-revived Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who’s fashioned himself a fundamentalist Christian prophet, riding in a moving fortress leading thousands of zombies on a genocide march. The film slows down a tad in Raccoon City, where Alice meets with a group of survivors, led once again by Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), in time for a siege. Then, there’s a mad, final dash through the Hive’s winding corridors of doom for requisite plot twists and mind-screwing, with Isaacs and Wesker (Shawn Roberts) waiting in the wings. As always, the only constant is Jovovich, determining her way through annihilation.

Though it mines plot details from all its predecessors, The Final Chapter most closely hews to series high-point Extinction. It’s not just the white line nightmares and rusted DIY contraptions, but an overriding sense of futility. We’re introduced to the aftermath of Retribution‘s teased final stand, utterly devastated, with Alice stumbling through the ruins looking for water. Presumably, all the survivors of that film have been snuffed, Alien 3-style. A faint glimmer of salvation, offered by previously homicidal A.I. the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), is met with skepticism and hostility. Even the film’s biggest stake, the fate of humanity’s remaining settlement, is left off-screen, a question mark hanging over its very existence. Five movies’ worth of fakeouts and impenetrable machinations haven’t inspired confidence; Alice and gang only go along because their only other choice is waiting around to die. Even a sub-thread which returns us to the question of Alice’s origins is summed in a single line from Jovovich: “Sometimes I feel I spent my whole life running, killing.”

Anderson never hangs on this misery, palpable as it is. It lurks around the edges of The Final Chapter, grist for Alice to pulverize enemies in jittery fight sequences–overloaded with cuts, thanks to to Neveldine-Taylor editor Doobie White. The longest we’re ever held on to a moment is an agonizing wind tunnel setpiece, Alice straining to hold onto a comrade she rescued moments ago (from the same spinning blade trap). The music swells. Jovovich grits her teeth and tightens her grip. There’s a slip. Just a little longer. Her charge loses hold, is sucked in and diced. The power dies, the fans stop too late. Alice screams, continued frustration boiling over at last. Another life she couldn’t save.

In a movie series built out of trap-laden corridors, platformer-logic architecture, and recycled candy-colored carnage, guilt is a curious recurring device. Alice in Resident Evil attempted to hold a group together through sheer force of will, and failed. It set the tone for the sequels’ war of attrition, some losses stinging more than others. It’s an obvious fascination for Anderson and Jovovich, often paired with themes of exploitation and abuse of power crushing individuals (it’s revealed Umbrella deliberately started the zombie outbreak to save the world for the rich and powerful, an endgame built around “reboot[ing] it in our image”–an unsubtle nod to the movies’ fates). Their creation, Alice, relives torment over and over as she fends off cannibals both undead and executive. She fights and endures to keep in the same place. Like all the previous entries, The Final Chapter wants us hurrying along to the next trap, the next monster fight, the next labyrinthine plot twist rather than wrestling with anything like subtext. It’s only in the volume of them do the Resident Evils approach anything resembling a thesis, which is its own kind of brilliance.

Starship Troopers

mv5bmzi5nwuzmwmtmtmyos00ogfjlwiyn2qtmdiwmdfkmjbhngzjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntayndq2nji-_v1_

Almost 20 years later, Starship Troopers has only gotten more incisive. Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier (co-writer of Verhoeven’s Robocop) construct an elaborate pisstake around Robert Heinlein’s militarist sci-fi novel, framing an otherwise standard issue war narrative about humanity against a varied collective of giant space bugs with the most fascistic embellishments. Kangaroo courts leading to televised executions; screeching, chickenhawk talking heads quick to shoot down anything resembling reason; teachers openly promoting genocide as legitimate solutions; news reports shot like Riefenstahl propaganda flicks; eugenics hints in dialogue; Doogie Howser as a scientist in an SS coat, no opportunity is wasted to twist the source material in the most mean-spirited fashion possible, director and writer laying bare their contempt of a society which valorizes killing for God and country above all else.

Perhaps the most sly touch of all is how little humanity Verhoeven allows these people to show. Chiselled and predominantly Aryan, despite a first act which takes place in Argentina, the cast–led by wooden Casper van Dien–have motivations ruled by pettiness and vapidity, rising through the ranks as much by a combination of nepotism and slaughtered predecessors as it is by any skills they possess. The only time they’re alive is when they’re killing or eyeing one another for a lay. This actually puts them a step down from the bugs: with their varied castes and a mindset ruled by collective well-being of the hive, they embody a form of self-sacrifice the faux-individualism the humans only pay lip service to. Their swarming isn’t out of malice, but an attempt to grind to a halt a force hellbent on extermination.

Would you like to know more?