Thursday, June 08, 2017

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)


Coming out of the multiplex

A: So what did you think?

N: It's confused. 

A: Confused?

N: The movie doesn't know if it wants to be horror or science fiction.

A: What do you mean?

N: It starts off as science fiction drama--big colony ship, with crew and 'synthetics'--right?

A: Right.

N: Why send a human crew at all? Why not send drones first? They check the planet out; when it gets the stamp of approval, then they send a colony ship. 

A: If they do that, they'll find the aliens first--

N: And go somewhere else. Or if they really want that planet, send a special mission to do pest control (Robert Heinlein would call it a 'bug hunt') before sending a colony ship. 

A: That's not very entertaining. 

N: Not to mention when they get there they step out into the clear air and natural forest without pressure suits

A: But the air is breathable

N: Exactly. If the air is breathable you have to assume it's a microbiological soup able and willing to bite you in the ass; being a colony ship landing on a strange planet they should have the training and equipment to recognize that. Hell I know that, and I'm just a moviegoer. 

A: I get the feeling if they tried for 100% scientific accuracy it wouldn't be as dramatic. 

N: Possible to do both good science and drama, but not as easy as you might think. Kubrick did it better than anyone I can think of. Nolan did it to some extent (though he hasn't always been such a stickler for realism). 

Then there's the creature itself, which isn't all that.

A: You don't think the creature's dangerous?

N: I wouldn't try scratching its belly, no. But throughout the franchise it's been described as a 'perfect organism,' and the ultimate predator. If it was an ultimate anything don't you think after five or so movies it would have won against humans at least once? 

A: Well--

N: Claws and teeth. Extendable fanged tongue. Give a man a powerful laser or even a decent assault rifle and where does that fanged tongue get you?

A: But they used assault rifles in some of the movies including this one, and that didn't work out too well. 

N: That's because the xenomorph had help. It always needed help, either from a representative of Weyland Industries or some crazed synthetic (I remember when we used to call them 'androids'). Long range weapons should trump claws and teeth and tongue any time; what's really needed is a brain to think of that. 

A: If the xenomorph was smart--

N: The original story this was all based on, A.E. Van Vogt's "Discord in Scarlet," had a similar alien only he could pass through walls and build weapons.

A: How did humans beat that?

N: Not going to spoil it for you. Brains, not claws matter. If anyone should come out on top of the evolutionary ladder, why not the synthetics?  They're smart enough.

A: That's a pessimistic point of view.

N: Either we're too dumb to win against our rivals or we're too dumb to realize we're tougher than we think we are. 

A: I'm not sure that's the right way to frame the question.

N: That's the science fiction part--doesn't make sense. So maybe the movie works better as horror.

A: O no here we go--

N: In Alien we saw HR Giger's design for the first time and freaked--was it biological or mechanical? Was there a difference? Actually if the sequels had spent any time on thinking how Giger's designs (the spaceship, the pilot) might have worked maybe we might have had something interesting. Instead in Prometheus it's revealed that the 'biomechanical' stuff is just a helmet under which sits a perfectly humanoid head.

A: So what's the problem this time?

N: Repetition? The first time the xenomorph burst out of someone's chest it was a horrific moment. After three sequels, a crossover movie and a prequel the idea of a creature popping out of a man's belly is tired. We need an extra 'cool' factor--like coming out of someone's back--to retain even minimal interest. 

The first Alien was a lean mean scare machine. It took its time to set up tone and atmosphere, then scared you. Aliens was a military action-comedy--it did the job that's it. Alien 3 went small (a xenomorph dog?) which ratcheted the danger downward--not good, though the director David Fincher did try for a little style. Alien Resurrection I liked for the mordant black humor and Jean-Pierre Juenet's dark-orange imagery (just wish they spent more money on the finale). 

Prometheus and Alien Covenant try tying the movies to the story of Genesis and I suppose that's one way to go--they certainly aren't putting much effort into tying the series to the theory of evolution or any credible geological or astronomical history. 

But all that pseudo-profound religious mythologizing (I've heard the word 'philosophy' used but until they pose the question 'why' with any seriousness I'm going to chalk this up to overreaction) just kills the horror. When you have your characters pause several times to watch 3D recordings of what supposedly happened thousands of years ago, you end up too busy (or bored) to be scared. 

A: So where does that leave us?

N: I don't know. Case of pulling in too many directions? Too many cooks making soup? Too many cooks in the soup? Nice try better luck next time?

A: You better hope they don't send you a box with a facehugger inside.

N: I have a recipe for that. Stewed in wine and honey (to counteract the acidity) and chicken broth, with plenty of mushrooms.

A: Yuck.  

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