Alien: Covenant

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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

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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

 

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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.

The Martian

Being presumed dead and stranded on Mars sounds pretty dire. Thankfully, Matt Damon shrugs it off and gets to work. In The Martian, Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist with the personality of a middle manager attempting to be one of the boys. He responds to crises with annoyance (and some PG-13 friendly cursing) or stiff attempts at glib one-liners which belie a sense of humor which could only be funny to the guy who wrote Cloverfield. For the most part, he doesn’t seem to mind being the only person on a planet, figuring out how to grow potatoes, occasionally sitting and enjoying a Martian sunset. Ridley Scott directs the film with the relentless momentum of a procedural, attempting an instructional quality on how to survive spacesuit decompression or rescue someone from a planet. The film quickly spreads out to a network of physicists, astronauts, engineers, contractors, and bureaucrats working towards a goal, as much motivated by what will make them look good as saving a comrade. Upsets in carefully arranged plans are rarely dwelt on, solutions fast to arrive. Triumph is almost a given, rather than hard-won through ordeal. At the very least, Scott has made the best possible Ron Howard movie.