Saturday, 10 June 2017

Prometheus & Alien: Covenant (Guest Review) - In Space, No One Can Hear Your Disappointment

I've been the unpopular opinion on most subject matters for so long now, I feel like it’s my civic duty to be the foil arsehole. I don't like Stephen King, I liked Dark Souls 2, and Shawshank Redemption is overrated. See what I mean?
Now, there's going to be a lot of talk about the plots for both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant in this, so consider yourself warned. If you don't like it, call 020 7033 1500 and tell them all about how “you can't even”.

The reason I'm talking about both films is because, as you'll soon see, it’s impossible to talk about one without the other. They're forever stuck together like those two guys in The Thing, or that guy everyone knows who finally got himself a girlfriend, and now she won't fuck off.

Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012) is one of the best things that could have happened to the beloved Alien franchise. There, I said it. I say 'beloved', but the reality is that people have been hating on it since Ripley woke up in 1992 and became a slaphead. So what people really mean when they say “I love Alien” is 'I love Alien, and Aliens, and all the cool kids bash 3 and Resurrection, so I'll do it too'.

Before you tar me with the fanboy brush, Prometheus isn't perfect. Far from it. The film about the world's worst scientists dying as a result of their own rash decisions certainly has its flaws, but here's why it’s still the best thing to happen: it expands the lore, and takes the franchise in a new direction.

By Alien 3 (1992) people were turning on it. By Alien: Resurrection (1997) people had had enough. The Xenomorph was now just another slasher and the cycle of 'Ripley wakes up, Ripley fights alien/s, Ripley retires for the evening' was stagnant. I still like those films (yes, 3 and Resurrection. Again, see: unpopular opinion), but I wanted more. The derelict scene in the original Alien (1979) asked so many hair-raising questions about our place in the universe, but it never went anywhere beyond that. I'm glad they finally decided to tackle it.

So, quick synopsis. In Prometheus, set many decades before Parker ever wanted to discuss the bonus situation, scientists Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) travel to a far off planetoid following a starmap they found in lots of ancient tribes' drawings. Accompanying them is the synthetic, David, played by Michael Fassbender, and a whole plethora of others characters with a life-expectancy just shorter than the film's runtime.

They aim to find out who these gangly aliens are, and if they created they human race. We already pretty much know they did, because the opening scene shows one of them on Earth being broken down on an atomic scale and reconstructed into DNA. Remember in the derelict in Alien, they find that massive fossilised corpse? It’s those guys. The Space Jockey, or Engineer as Shaw calls them.

Over the course of the film they discover that the Engineers are in fact the progenitors of the Human Race, but also, they tried to destroy us for reasons unknown. They also discover some vials of black liquid housed in vases. Now, this stuff is important. Remember the black liquid, because I will be talking about it later.

Some people die, only David and Shaw survive and they jet off in one of the Engineer ships (because David sussed it out, being a robot genius) to the Engineer's homeworld. Shaw wants answers. She's met her maker, and she's resolute in finding out why they made us if only to change their minds? It’s a fair question to a rash decision. One my parents wished they could have made, and one I was looking forward to finding the answer to.

Is Prometheus perfect? Hell no. Are the scientists all completely thick? Yes. Granted, they're more out of their depth than any other scientist in the history of mankind has ever been, but they do make some very questionable decisions that even I, who am not a scientist - despite having read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything - could call bullshit on.

Breathing in the air on an unknown planet for one: sure, it’s breathable, your scan said so, but what about bacteria? Bacteria that you won't have an immune system for, you daft prick?  Reaching out to touch an alien worm/snake? That guy deserved to have it break his arm, slither inside his suit, and give him the Linda Lovelace treatment.

But David... David is the star of the film. He's a walking, talking subtext. He's a synthetic, created by man. While they're on a journey to meet their makers, he's already met his, and you can tell from his countenance that he's thoroughly disappointed. He doesn't ever say it, so it’s easy to overlook, but the truth is in the subtleties. One of Ridley Scott's talents is showing the subtext through subtle gestures and fleeting lines of dialogue, never telling you outright, but giving you enough to reach the conclusion yourself. Here's a bit of dialogue between David and Holloway:

HOLLOWAY: What we hoped to achieve was to meet out makers, to get answers, why they even made us in the first place. 
DAVID: Why do you think your people made me? 
HOLLOWAY: We made you 'cause we could. 
DAVID: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

And there it is. David is disappointed with his creators. He was built to be smarter, stronger, and better than us in every way, but here he is on this ship, serving us and taking shit from us. Why should he?  Later on he's asked what he'll do when Weyland, his creator, dies. He supposes that he'll be free...

After that pep-talk with Holloway, David runs an experiment on him with the black liquid which causes Holloway to physically break down. Holloway dies, but it shows David what the black stuff does, so the experiment was a success. David is unconstrained by the morals that govern humans, because he is outside of them. He has no love for humanity, because he can't feel it, especially for Holloway as he spends the entire film being a dick to him, so David uses him to his own end and turns him into a human Black Snake firework. Crew expendable.

If you watch Prometheus as David's story, as a superior being helping lesser ones find their creators while hypocritically not caring one iota about their own, it makes for a very interesting film, from a character development point of view.

In case you're wondering, do I believe in this Chariots of the Gods stuff? Jesus Christ, no. But do I think it’s a good premise for a sci-fi horror film? Yes.

So that's Prometheus.

Cut to 10 years into the future in Alien: Covenant, and I guess the Earth is fucked, because we're off on a terraforming mission, yay! And I thought my school trip to an air raid shelter was claustrophobic.

The Covenant ship is carrying several thousand people in cryo, several hundred more embryos, a crew made up of couples, and one Fassbender robot, Walter, who aside from his half-American accent, is quite different from his counterpart. They're off to a far off planet to start a new life for themselves.

If you were hoping to see some witty banter between James Franco and Danny McBride, you'll be mistaken, because right off the bat, Franco is incinerated. I don't think I even saw his face, but if you ask me, this is a blessing. When he's not making a hatchet job of self-mutilation, he's making a hatchet job of being funny. In fact, McBride plays it straight in this film. He's sort of like the Parker of this one. Unless you count his moronic decision to jeopardise everyone on the ship for his very dead wife.

They receive a signal from a much closer planet with an Earth-like atmosphere and decide to check it out, because McBride listens to some white noise and claims it’s a John Denver song. I'm serious.  The planet they land on is the same one Shaw and David set course for at the end of Prometheus.  Not long after getting there they realise that the planet is deserted, and two of them become infected with black spores similar to the black liquid. They both die horribly when an albino alien (the Neomorph as they call it) bursts out of them and goes on a mad rampage. To be fair, I'd be pissed too if I was alone on a planet with these lot.

They're saved by David who takes them back to his sanctum in a stone building surrounded by thousands of blackened humanoid corpses.  Here comes the first kick in the nuts Alien: Covenant has to offer: Elizabeth Shaw is dead. David tells the Covenant crew she died in the crash, but we all know that's bullshit.

David and Walter share a private conversation where they discuss the nature of their own being.  Walter, unlike David, is created to serve, and prohibited from becoming anything higher than that, whereas David, in the opening scene of the film, sussed out that his creators aren't worthy of the title, because they are imperfect douche bags who grow old and die: Something David will never do.  David tries to convince Walter to be like him, but by the end of the scene realises that it's as futile as trying to persuade a Britain First member that there's more to life than polo shirts and carp fishing.  Walter is, and will always be, a willing slave to Human morality.

It’s around this time that the Neomorph breaks in and kills some more of the crew who aren't characterised enough to give a shit about.

Walter susses out that those blackened corpses out there and the plants that caused the black spores are a result of David carpet-bombing the planet with the black liquid the Engineer ship was carrying.  They are all dead thanks to him. Herein lies the second kick in the nuts:  Any notion of finding out why the Engineers created the Human race, then decided to destroy them, is gone. Shaw is dead, and David didn't care to find out the answer to her questions. In fact, David killed her. He experimented on her. Possibly the biggest question the franchise has asked will likely never be answered now.

Shortly after that, one of the Covenant crew gets lippy with David, so he decides to show the man what he's been up to for the last 10 years of solitude. He's been doing a bit of the ol' gene splicing.  Using the black liquid, which he explains reconstitutes DNA, he's been cross-breeding the local flora and fauna together.  He created the black plants, and he's also been diddling with the Neomorph and Shaw's ovaries, twisting them and reshaping them into 'the perfect organism'. Hmm, I wonder what that could be?

Just to make this clear, this is not the same breed of alien as seen in Alien and Aliens. It’s a guided evolution of the Neomorph, a 'Protomorph' as Ridley Scott called it, and it’s his film at the end of the day, so what he says goes. It’s not as biomechanical-looking, and it behaves more like the Neomorph: fast and chaotic, whereas the Xenomorph is more of a stalker. You just have to look at the egg: it’s not the same shape as the ones Kane found.  The ones on LV-426 have a rounded top whereas David's creation has a yonic, puckered lip at the top.  Reading that back, it sounds disgusting.

This actually goes a long way to support the 'Xenomorph is an engineered weapon' theory. Their lifecycle is so malleable, more so than any real animal, that the Engineers could have engineered them to adapt and assimilate any world they deploy them on. There's nothing to say they didn't. Anyway, the alien hatches, a few more glorified extras die, and the ones left run back to the ship.  They kill the Protomorph, but another one hatches out of a guy I don't ever remember seeing get impregnated.

In between all this, we have a very unexpected scene. Walter and David have a fight. Now, I understand the motivations for them fighting, but it’s so over-choreographed.  You know how, despite space and aliens, the films are generally grounded in reality?  The characters feel real, their motivations and fears all make sense? Well this fight is like something from a kung-fu film.  There's loads of spinning around and nonsense. Why would they fight like that?  Normal blows wouldn't do any damage, so wouldn't the aim be to dismember/deactivate each other?  Just rip each other's head off...

So now we have an alien loose on a very claustrophobic ship, but do you know what?  It’s over sooner than it's taken you to get this far into this review. In a lazy retread, they flush the alien out into space and that's it. There is a bit of a plot twist in the very last scene, but going to save that one, because you'll have probably already sussed it out about half an hour prior in the film.

All in all, Alien: Covenant is a bad film. A huge missed opportunity. It’s rushed, it’s a mishmash of Prometheus' themes and shoe-horning the alien back into the franchise, and it’s a huge insult that they take every open end of Prometheus and just flush them straight out the airlock. I saw this film on 11th May 2017 and I'm still mad about it. I don't care what date you're reading this on, I'm still mad. Even if it's a century after I'm dead, I'm still mad.

Prometheus asked some lofty questions, and Covenant was too lazy to answer them. I want to know more about the Engineers. I want to know why the Engineers tried to destroy humanity. This set of prequel films should be about the Engineers. We already have 4 films about the Xenomorph. Sure, by all means, explain where they come from, but the entire first film was about the Engineers, and to just dash all that away like Holloway's body is an insult. The Engineers could potentially have been a larger threat to humanity, because they're smarter than us, whereas the Xenomorph will only really bother you if you're in its vicinity.

But Covenant's issues stem a lot deeper than the absence of closure...

Any and all scenes with the adult Protomorph alien feel incredibly tacked-on. It was only there to fulfil a mandate and justify calling the film Alien.  They all but copied scenes from the original and they did it much quicker. There's no suspense, and because I don't care about the characters, there's no threat. David is a threat, because he's unpredictable. The alien isn't. And, oh my god, shortly after escaping this nightmare situation where all your friends die, two people decide to have sex in the shower. I'd understand if it was a nervous, post-traumatic, cathartic, and full of tears type of sex, but it isn't. It’s shot like a soft-porn. And guess what?  They die, but you could see that coming a mile off.

The only reason to watch Covenant is for David.  Like in Prometheus he was the most interesting character, in Covenant he's the only interesting character. His motivations are the same as before and now that Weyland is dead, he is free. Completely free from moral constraints. That is why he has no qualms about taking human life. In fact in one scene, he prefers the Neomorph to a human.  To paraphrase Ash: he admires its purity. In his eyes the moral question is a drawback, so he created something that does not have it. At the same time though, he talks like he is genuinely sad for what he did to Shaw, because she was the only Human ever to be nice to him, so in a way he is not entirely free from morality.

There is one a scene in Covenant which I genuinely loved. Where Walter and David talk and Walter corrects David on something.  This is one of those subtle moments that Ridley Scott does so well.  It’s a simple correction: Who wrote a famous poem. David is wrong. This hints that David is not perfect. He is fallible, and not as superior as he thinks he is. And if he can be wrong about this, what else could he be wrong about?

Aside from David though, there isn't much else there. The human characters are all interchangeable and stock. In one scene, two characters die and it’s their own fault.  They both slip on the same pool of blood, one after the other. I felt like I was watching a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Even Daniels (Katherine Waterson), who is supposed to be the main character, falls pretty flat. It’s obvious from the promotional material that they wanted a new strong female lead, but why when they already had one in Elizabeth Shaw?  They gave Miss Waterson's hair a trim that looks like a backwards toupee, shoved her into a grey tank-top, gave her a gun and a nipple-on for the posters to make her look more Ripley-like. I'm not going to say something stupid like 'Daniels is the new Ripley' just because they've both survived an alien encounter and have a vagina. That sounds silly and is such a forced comparison.

When people spread that rumour that 'oh, Katherine Waterson's character must be Ripley's mum, because its set before, she works on a spaceship, and they both met the alien', do you know how stupid that made them sound?  Such a tenuous link...  That's like saying Humphrey Bogart is my dad, just because he's older than me and we both have an interest in film noir. It’s stupid. If you believed it, you're stupid. Can't two people of the same sex do the same job, encounter a similar danger and be completely unrelated anymore?  I blame Disney for booming this 'expanded universe' shit. Now everything has to be part of everything else. Pretty soon they'll say Max Payne was in the Cantina in Star Wars back in '77, mark my fucking words.

I never thought I'd say this one, but even the score suffers.  Every Alien film has had its own unique score. They all create a different mood for each film. Alien 3 has one of the most moving scores I've heard in a film (see: Adagio), but Covenant's is just a rehash of the original's. It starts with the same music, and takes cues from it later on in the film too. It’s cheap and afraid to deviate from the path: a sentiment that sums Covenant up.

The whole film reeks of studio interference. Clearly they were trying to erase any hint of Prometheus because of the way it got slated. I respect Ridley Scott. He brings a certain level of quality that most other filmmakers just can't do. While you could argue that the original Alien is just a slasher film in space, he imbued it with a quality which put it above your run-of-the-mill killer vs victims affair. Here we got a sub-par, lazy film and you know what? We've only got ourselves to blame, and I'll tell you for why: Prometheus got, and still gets slated. People tore into it because it's different, because it’s got no Xenomorphs in it. That's why it's not called Alien.

People complain when things are different, signifying that they only want the same thing rehashed, but bitch again when they get that rehash. If that carries on, eventually they'll end up turning the Alien franchise into the Friday the 13th series, with the same plot becoming more diluted over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. And yes, that's one 'and over' for every Friday the 13th film including the remake and the cross-over.

You want the first Alien again? Well here it is. You got it, now swallow it down and tell 20th Century Fox how good it tastes. And guess what, you'll get it again too in a few years when they grind out Alien: Awakening.

What is so wrong about wanting something different?  I love the Alien franchise. I look at them all fondly. None of them are perfect, but they all have their own unique charm. It’s easily one of the most nihilistic set of films I've ever seen. Ignoring Prometheus & Covenant for a moment, look at it like this: At one point there was all this life in the universe, but by the time we go out there to find it, it’s all gone. Dead. All that remains is the fossils of that life and terrors it left behind. We're all alone in this great big universe, and nobody and nothing is coming to save us from the monsters they created. We are doomed to search in vain, only to find death.

I need that kind of nihilism to be happy.