Friday, May 19, 2017

'Alien: Covenant' Is An Enjoyable Correction In Xenomorph Course



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I was too young to see the first Alien when it was in theaters, which means I missed out on its initial visceral impact. So for years, Aliens was my favorite Alien movie, fueled primarily by the incredible experience of seeing it on opening night at the Coronet Theater in San Francisco. The theater was sold out, the audience was pumped, and by the end of it, I had a new role model in Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. And while I didn't take to wearing a jumpsuit, I did buy some Reeboks that were, at the time, the closest I could get to the ones she dons in the movie.

Eventually, Alien would supplant Aliens as the my favorite Alien film, and while I still love them both, I think Alien is about as near to perfect as a sci-fi horror movie can get. I'm likely not the only person who thinks this. It's probably why so many of the sequels and prequels tend to follow the same basic plot, centered on a female heroine, a motley crew, a suspicious synthetic human, and those pesky aliens. The two times they've strayed a bit from that formula, well, the less said about those, the better.

I wasn't a fan of Prometheus, mainly because giving the aliens an origin story wasn't something I had been clamoring for (was anyone?). The fact that the movie was so full of plot holes and flat-out stupid behavior by its characters, and, most importantly, didn't have Ripley, or anyone near Ripley's charisma, strength and smarts, made me worried for the future of the franchise.

Alien: Covenant has assuaged those fears.

Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus, set ten years after the events of that film and 18 years before the first Alien. The Covenant is a large space ark carrying two thousand colonists and drawers full of embryos is on its way to a new planet, along with a crew lead by terraforming scientist Daniels (Katherine Waterson) and first mate Oram (Billy Crudup). A synthetic android named Walter (Michael Fassbender), an updated version of the David model seen in Prometheus, is also on board.

An event remarkably similar to the beginning of last year's Passengers causes damage to the ship, requiring the early awakening of the crew to assess the issue and make repairs. As they're dealing with that, they receive a radio call from a previously uncharted planet that looks a lot more habitable and closer than the planet they were on their way to. So, despite protests from Daniels (who, being the heroine, knows this shit is iffy) they change course.

What follows sticks close to the formula many Alien movies have stuck to, with the crew (which includes Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, and Amy Seimitz) venturing where they shouldn't, only to meet some aliens, who, with each mutation, grow closer to the aliens we all grew up with.

This is the first Alien movie that clearly implies that it takes place in the same universe as Ridley Scott's other nearly-perfect movie, Blade Runner. Like Blade Runner, the film's beginning includes a close-up of a replicant's synthetic's eye. In Covenant, the android plays a lead role, with most of his story centered on creation, "fatherhood," and what it means to be human, something the replicants of Blade Runner were a tad preoccupied with as well.

This is an interesting idea for Covenant to explore, and conceptually, it melds the evolution of those aliens and the android's obsessions fairly well. Where it fails a bit is in execution, as it gradually turns into a mutation of its own, becoming an Alien serial killer movie; an Alien Se7en, if you will.

Like Prometheus, Covenant is a prequel, which always brings with it its own set of problems: Why does the tech in all these ships look 100 times more advanced than the tech in the original films? How come no one in the originals ever heard about these alien encounters, or at least that past ships and crews have vanished mysteriously? And most importantly, why do they keep bringing androids on board when they usually end up trying do something sketchy, if not flat out try to kill the crew? (Except for you, Bishop! We love you!)

Clearly, Scott read the room, and realized the route he originally wanted to take following Prometheus wasn't going to cut it, so Covenant is a direct bridge between it and a full on reboot of the franchise. On the one hand, that's good, because it's much more of a crowd-pleaser. But on the other, it's a little too faithful to the formula, with that ship's motley crew (who are all paired off couples, yet aside from McBride never develop any clear personalities of their own), Waterson's Dany as a Ripley stand-in (right down to her sassy short haircut), and the one-on-one climatic battle with an alien.

That said, there's enough suspense mixed in to make the predictable bits more palatable, enough gore to satisfy fans of the original, and some really nice surprises. Fassbender's roles as both David and the upgraded model, Walter, are a big part of the latter. He's always a little scary, no matter which android he's playing, but there are some scenes that cross over into weirdly sexual territory (and let's face it, Geiger's aliens have also always been weirdly sexual) that made me squirm. Fassbender's so good, I'm even willing to overlook Walter 's terrible American accent.

Alien: Covenant doesn't come close to the near perfection of the original — I doubt a sequel ever could — but it's a close enough cousin to the exciting familiarity of Aliens that, while I won't be running out to the store to buy another pair of futuristic Reeboks, I will definitely go into the next installment (and oh yes, you can bet there will be more) with a little less dread than I had going into this one.

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