Alien: Covenant – Slimy Aliens and Multiple Fassbenders

Alien: Covenant is a tricky film to write about. It seems like every review I read spoiled vast swathes of the film’s plot, which ticked me off to no end because the details of the film’s plot were kept mostly under wraps in the time leading up to its release, and to see reviewers casually giving away huge plot points struck me as flippant and disrespectful to people who want to go into the movie knowing as little as possible. In response to this, I am going to give away as little as possible. I will describe basic details of the film’s setup, which could be considered to have some minor spoilers, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.

Alien: Covenant is Ridley Scott’s follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus, his previous foray into the Alien franchise he started in 1979 with the original Alien film. Prometheus was a controversial movie among fans of the franchise. Some people loved it, others passionately hated it. I liked it overall, even though it was profoundly flawed in some areas. Fortunately, Scott and his screenwriters seem to have listened to people’s criticisms about Prometheus, and Covenant delivers a tighter, more contained story that answers some of the lingering questions from Prometheus while still leaving room for interpretation and further entries in the franchise.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Let me just say that this movie has a whopper of an ending, which I loved. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it, but man, it’s a doozy. It provides closure to the film while paving the way for future sequels, which Scott says are coming. God bless the man, he’s nearly 80 years old and is still making smart, intense, gorgeous-looking sci-fi movies. Scott has said he wants to start filming the next one in 2018, so expect more slimy alien horrors in the future. Oh joy!

Covenant follows the doomed crew of the spaceship Covenant, on a colonization mission to a distant, habitable planet. En route, they pick up a transmission from a closer planet, which also appears habitable. It’s risky, but they decide to investigate. Very Bad Things happen to them. That’s all I will say about the plot.

One thing that frustrated audiences about Prometheus was that it never fully committed to being an Alien movie. Was it an Alien movie or wasn’t it? Scott and his screenwriters couldn’t seem to decide. Alien: Covenant, as befitting its title, is definitely an Alien movie. The titular aliens, the terrifying xenomorphs (although they aren’t called that in this film), are very much present, and they are terrifying.

Everything about xenomorphs scares me. Not only how they look, which is scary enough, but what they do to you is just upsetting, and sets them apart from other famous horror-movie antagonists. Sure, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers will kill you, but a quick knifing or decapitation-via-machete is vastly preferable to the protracted, painful, humiliating ordeal a xenomorph will put you through.

It’s a testament to how good H.R. Giger’s original design of these aliens was when you realize how little their appearance has changed over the years. The xenomorphs in this film were created with motion-capture and CGI rather than the practical effects of the earlier films, which may annoy some hardcore fans of the franchise, but when the aliens look as good as they do in this film, the CGI doesn’t bother me. The slithery, hissing monstrosities are as frightening as ever.

Image: 20th Century Fox

And they are taking no prisoners. Covenant is a far more graphic film than Prometheus, which is saying something when you consider that Prometheus is a film in which the main character had an alien slug monster surgically removed from her abdomen. This movie is so bloody that at one point people actually slip and fall in the pools of viscera on the floor. Sir Ridley’s not messing around with this one, folks.

But what of the humans who have these graphic horrors inflicted upon them? I found them to be more likable than the buffoons from Prometheus. I didn’t hate every character in that movie, but they did do some really stupid things, and Covenant has less groan-inducing characters. There are a couple of moments where you think “DON’T DO THAT YOU IDIOT” but the same could be said of any scary movie. The scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, who, without revealing too much, plays two roles, and in some scenes acts with himself. Fassbender gives both of his characters distinctive voices and body language, so the viewer can distinguish between the two of them…most of the time.

The rest of the cast is also good. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, the main character, and she’s very likable even if her character isn’t as fierce as Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley. I admire Waterston for having the courage to take the role and make it her own while knowing that she would inevitably be compared to Ripley, one of the greatest sci-fi protagonists of all time, male or female.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Alien: Covenant is a great-looking film. I’ve already talked about how good the creatures look, but the environments are also stunning, both on the Covenant in space and on the ground on the mysterious hostile planet. Ridley Scott has been directing movies for about five decades, and he knows how to make every shot in his films feel unique and give the viewer something new to look at. The movie does have one of the same issues the Star Wars sequels had, in that the technology in the film appears much more advanced than the technology in the original films, even though the new films are prequels that take place chronologically before the originals. It’s not a huge issue, but it is noticeable in comparison to the original movies.

Alien: Covenant is not a perfect film, but I think it’s an improvement over Prometheus. Covenant suffers from a few similar issues that plagued its predecessor, but to a lesser extent. It delivers the gore and the heart-pounding intensity that fans have come to expect from the series, and it’s a worthy entry to the Alien franchise.

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Christmas Cheer in a Movie Full of Slimy Tentacle Monsters

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Prometheus is a Christmas movie! I didn’t either until I re-watched it last week. But sure enough, there is a Christmas tree in one scene so that is enough for it to qualify as an Off-the-Wall-Christmas-Movie under my extremely lax standards.

For those who haven’t seen it, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is about what happens when a group of well-meaning but painfully naïve and unobservant folks go looking for the origins of life on a distant alien planet. Bad things happen, but hey, Christmas!

The aforementioned Christmas tree shows up after the crew of the spaceship “Prometheus” has been awakened from cryosleep when they are finally nearing their destination. Their destination is the also-aforementioned distant alien planet (maybe it was a moon and not an actual planet, I forget), and they have been asleep in cryostasis for something like two and a half years because that is how long it took for them to get to the alien planet where the bad things will happen.

The ship’s captain Janek, played rather awesomely by Idris Elba, sets up a Christmas tree in what I guess was the ship’s rec room. When the character played by Charlize Theron asks him what the hell he is doing, he responds that the crew needs a holiday in order to orient themselves in time after having been asleep for so long. Makes sense to me. If I had been in cryostasis for that long I can imagine that it would be a bit difficult to anchor myself.

Of course, it’s not like I can really identify with that or anything since cryostasis or cryosleep or whatever you want to call it doesn’t currently exist the way it is portrayed in science fiction. As far as I know.

This silly little discussion reminds me of a similar scene in one of the Walking Dead comics. I’ve forgotten the exact details but there’s a scene in one of the comics where someone tells protagonist Rick that, if so-and-so’s calendar-keeping has been correct since the whole zombie apocalypse thing started, it will be Christmas soon. Rick tells her not to tell anybody, especially the kids in their group, since the last thing they need in the midst of a zombie apocalypse is for the kids to be expecting Santa to show up.

I always liked this scene. It just, I don’t know, made a certain kind of sense to me. I also liked it from a storytelling perspective, since it helps give the reader a sense of time and it orients the characters, and it helps to show how much time has passed since everything went to hell in a handbasket. So I guess Janek had the right idea.

There’s a scene later in Prometheus where Janek plays some snippet of a Christmas carol on an accordion. This man is full of so much Christmas cheer that I half-expected him to put on a Santa hat at the film’s climax. Interestingly, at the end of the film the last surviving character mentions that it is New Year’s Day, so I guess Janek’s Christmas tree made more sense than Charlize Theron’s character realized. But then, she doesn’t seem like the type of person who would really enjoy Christmas much anyway. Santa must not have brought her a pony when she was eight.

Prometheus is a deeply flawed film, I’m not going to go into more detail because this film has already been so thoroughly dissected on other parts of the interwebs that there’s not much I could add to the discussion that hasn’t been said already. But watch it and you’ll find a surprising amount of Christmas cheer (you know, maybe an iota or two) amongst the stupid character decisions, gaping plot holes, frustratingly unanswered questions, sumptuous visuals, and tentacle-monster maulings.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Another fun movie to start things off again

Hey hey, I’m back! Apologies for my prolonged absence, I was working a temporary job that required a lot of driving and walking, and was always too tired and/or lazy to write when I got home. But now that job’s over so I’m going to start writing again.

So… what to write about? I’ve seen quite a few movies since my last post about Total Recall. Let’s see… I saw Looper, Taken 2, Argo, and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (which I actually liked and will probably write about soon). There are a lot of good things to write about regarding all of those, but for now I think I will go in a different direction.

Like many people, I enjoy scaring myself silly by watching scary movies during the spooky month of October. So, last month I embarked on a quest to scare the bejeezus out of myself by watching a barrage of scary movies. Only the scariest would suffice! I would accept nothing less than full-on, pants-crapping terror.

Ha ha! I’m kidding of course. I actually wimped out quite a bit for most of the month by watching movies I considered Halloween-appropriate (e.g. Resident Evil, Underworld) that are full of zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc. but which I do not find to be particularly frightening (Resident Evil and Underworld are more action that horror anyway). But hey, they counted as Halloween movies (hooray for loopholes!), so what the heck. As the month progressed, I gradually amped up the scariness of the movies I watched, until I actually was watching movies I considered to be genuinely frightening.

Most frightening among them was John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece THE THING which I am a huge fan of but had not watched for some time, because, you know, it scares the bejeezus out of me (As a side note, I am going to refer to the movie as THE THING in all caps just because it looks so much better that way).

I first encountered THE THING one night on some random cable channel when I was flipping channels one night. I don’t remember when this was, all I remember was that I was the only one home at the time (never a good idea with scary movies). I had no idea what the movie was about at the time, but it looked more interesting than anything else that was on at the time so I started watching it.

It scared me so badly that I promptly went out soon after and bought the DVD and watched it again. It was just as scary the second time around. And it was this very same DVD I dusted off last week and popped into my Xbox to watch near the end of October. And I’ve got to say…Man, what a movie. THE THING is easily my favorite horror movie, which may not be saying a whole lot because I’m not generally a big horror fan, but re-watching THE THING reminded me of how very awesome it is, and so I resolved to write about it as soon as my temporary job was over.

So. All of that was about 500 words to say that I am going to write about THE THING both because it is awesome, and because I love to write THE THING.

THE THING is set in an isolated research station in somewhere in Antarctica. Snowy, Arctic settings make for good locations for horror movies. They increase the characters’ isolation and helplessness. If you’re stuck in the middle of Antarctica and there’s a monster on the loose, you’ve got nowhere to go and no one to rely on, and not much hope of rescue. This also eliminates the cell-phone problem that many scary movies have, since if you’re in the middle of Antarctica it’s not like you’re going to be able to call anyone. Carpenter makes the setting of THE THING as much a character as the titular THING itself, as the unforgiving iciness of the Arctic landscape mirrors the way in which the monster unrelentingly whittles down the population of U.S. Outpost Research Station 31.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

THE THING opens with a helicopter flying after a dog. The dog is running through the snow, and he looks like a friendly husky, the kind you would pat on the head and give a treat and tell him he’s a good boy while he looks at you adoringly and wags his tail. So maybe the guys on the helicopter lost their dog and just want to get him back, right? Surely their intentions are entirely benign?

No. No, they’re not. They shoot at the dog with a rifle and try to blow him up with thermite grenades. But who would shoot at a sweet-looking, friendly pooch? What possible explanation could the occupants of the helicopter have for such a heinous action? Well, the problem is that they’re Norwegian and apparently don’t speak English, as the members of the American camp find out when the dog runs into their base, Norwegians still in hot pursuit. The Norwegians continue to shoot at the dog, wounding one of the Americans and managing to inadvertently blow up their own helicopter before the gun-toting Norwegian is shot and killed by the commander of the U.S. outpost.

Turns out that the Norwegians were from a nearby Norwegian Arctic base, and when the Americans investigate, they find some, shall we say, disturbing things, including some nastily-burned corpses, which they unwisely bring back to their own base. Bad idea, fellas. Really, seriously bad idea.

As you can imagine, things go downhill from there. I’m not going to fully describe the rest of the plot because that would be tiresome, if you really want to find out exactly what happens next, you can read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia or, better yet, see the film yourself, if, you know, you have the stomach for it (There were a lot of commas in that sentence. Sorry about that). Also, be aware that the rest of this post will contain SPOILERS.

Turns out that the dog the Norwegians were chasing is actually a vicious alien monster, which we discover when it transforms into a horrific creature and attempts to assimilate the other dogs in the kennel the Americans have put him in (seriously, don’t watch this movie if you like huskies, very bad things happen to them here).

And when I say horrific, I mean HORRIFIC. The dog’s head splits open and tentacles shoot out of it, ensnaring the other dogs. There are teeth where no teeth should ever be, and by the time the Americans torch the dog-thing with a flamethrower it looks like a zombified Venus Flytrap with tentacles and a mutant dog-head sticking out of it. We’re talking seriously high-octane nightmare fuel here, people.

The creature effects in this movie are really something, made even more impressive by the fact that all of the effects were done using practical methods, since this movie was made 30 years ago. There’s no CGI in this film, the horrific monsters are things that people actually designed and created. Sure, it looks a bit dated by today’s standards, since the animatronics the filmmakers used had a limited range of motions, but it holds up remarkably well after three decades.

The Americans discover that the creature is capable of taking over other living organisms and imitating them completely, and that any one of them might already be infected.

This is such a great idea for a horror film. In most horror movies the antagonist is clearly defined: it’s the ghosts or the zombies or Freddy or Jason or whoever, but in THE THING, it could be anyone. This is another way in which the film’s setting complements the story. If you’re stuck in Antarctica with nowhere to go and a bunch of people who may or may not be horrific shape-shifting alien monstrosities, well what the hell do you do then? It’s a very convincing scenario, and one that cleverly sidesteps a lot of problems I frequently have with scary movies. (Why don’t they just call the cops? Why don’t the people in the haunted house just, you know, move? In Antarctica there’s nowhere to go, especially when it’s like 50 below or whatever outside.)

The story unfolds mainly from the perspective of R.J. MacReady, the camp’s helicopter pilot, played awesomely by Kurt Russell with what has to be one of the most epic beards in cinematic history. Not much time for haircuts in freaking Antarctica, I suppose.

This movie is so awesome that there is a scene in which, I shit you not, a guy tries to defibrillate another guy who appears to have had a heart attack, when the guy’s chest cavity opens up with rows of razor-sharp teeth and bites the first guy’s arms off!! Then the monster-guy’s head detaches itself from the rest of his body and grows spider legs and tries to escape before it is torched by a flamethrower!!

The first time I saw this on TV that fateful night, I nearly crapped my pants. I wonder now what channel this was on. A movie this gruesome would have to be heavily-edited to be broadcast on TV, right? And yet I don’t seem to recall many of the gory details being left out. Maybe it was on Starz or something.

Anyway, I don’t have a whole lot else to say about this movie, other than that it has more flamethrowers than any movie ever made and one of my all-time favorite movie endings, which perfectly captures the film’s nightmarish quality. When it’s over you feel like you just woke up from a dream, a dream that was so terrifying you’re glad that it’s over, but at the same time it was so freaking cool that you want to see it again.

Wait! I do have more to say about this movie that I just remembered. I wanted to talk about unanswered questions. This movie has quite a few of them. When is each person assimilated? How exactly does THE THING assimilate its victims? Are they aware that they’re being taken over by an alien presence? Is Kurt Russell actually a THING by the end of the movie? The film provides no definitive answers to any of these questions.

The lack of answers in a movie with a lot of questions can be extremely frustrating. Take Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” for example, which raises dozens of questions and doesn’t bother to answer any of them. THE THING is similar in this regard, but it’s better handled here than it is in “Prometheus,” since THE THING at least provides potential answers, even if none of them are definitive. What I’m trying to say is that the possible answers for the questions in THE THING all make sense. Maybe Theory A, maybe Theory B. Both are plausible. The problem with “Prometheus” was that nothing was concrete, any one crazy theory was as good as anyone else’s. THE THING doesn’t require wild theories, since the film supports multiple interpretations and all of those interpretations actually make sense. It is for this reason that I think THE THING’s unanswered questions actually add to the film’s quality instead of detracting from it. It still manages to be a complete and satisfying story without feeling cheap.

As a final note, I saw the 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s original, also called THE THING, recently, and I have to say that it was actually pretty good. People are pretty cynical when it comes to remakes/prequels/sequels etc. of classic horror movies (and rightly so since most of them are terrible) but I thought that the 2011 THING was surprisingly good, and worked quite well as a companion piece to Carpenter’s original. Interestingly, Carpenter’s film flopped on its initial release in 1982, and was mostly panned by critics and audiences alike. But then, so was “Blade Runner,” released the same year. Both are now widely-loved sci-fi classics, which just goes to show you that reviews aren’t everything.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.