Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant

I am not a person who wins competitions.  However, once, many years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by KQRS radio and won a prize.  KQRS was, then, thought to be part of the counterculture -- it played rock and roll album cuts and, on Sundays, featured the King Biscuit Flour Hour.  On the station, broadcast from a swampy part of St. Louis Park, you could hear Bob Dylan songs like "Positively Fourth Street" uncut.  I don't recall that the contest required anything more than that I place a phone call and supply my name -- something that I did.  A week later I was informed that I had won two tickets to the Minneapolis premiere of Ridley Scott's Alien.  I was interested in film and I had seen Scott's earlier movie, The Duelists, a picture based on a story by Joseph Conrad, very beautifully shot and acted.  Therefore, I was excited at the chance to see Scott's new film, screened at the old Skyway Theater on Hennepin Avenue.  I attended the movie with my girlfriend, Tarin H-- , and I recall that the film was one of the most frightening experiences in my life.  Indeed, I thought the movie was so fantastically disturbing and scary that it verged on irresponsibility to unleash such a gruesome and horrifically fanged creation on an unsuspecting audience.  I don't think I was unique in my response to the film -- in those days, standards for film violence were very different and all of us had been raised on TV and, therefore, the unprecedented level of gore and suspenseful horror in the film was something to which none of us were accustomed.  I recall the audience staggering out onto Hennepin Avenue in stunned silence. 

I'm now 62 and, I understand Ridley Scott is 80, and Alien: Covenant is undoubtedly the last installment of this franchise that the British director will make.  I'm sorry to report that the movie is almost good -- that is, respectable enough, but not really very interesting and, certainly, not frightening at all. Alien: Covenant is a much bigger movie than its prototype shown now so many years ago.  The first film, Alien, was, as Pauline Kael pointed out, merely a gorilla in a haunted house picture -- but it was artfully made with a sure sense as to what would appall audiences and Scott understood that a monster that is fully seen becomes nothing more than an interesting zoological specimen as a opposed to a presence that might haunt our nightmares.  The cunning of the first Alien film was that Scott never really showed his monster -- and this is key:  the thing was a incoherent collage of slime, fangs, and scales, and, indeed, a ghastly presence, not a tangible bogeyman.  The unfortunate crew members on the space ship were massacred one by one by something that couldn't really be seen or, even, intelligibly described.  Alien is a once in a lifetime event, both for director and audience.  Alien: Covenant, a very fancy film with Wagnerian pretensions (it begins and ends with Wagner's "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla") is reasonably disgusting, replete with bursting torsos and face-gobbling monsters, but it is isn't even slightly scary.  And if a horror film isn't scary, then, it will have to be something else.  The Bride of Frankenstein isn't scary but its very witty -- alas, there's nothing funny about Aliens:  Covenant.  The second film in the franchise, Aliens wasn't really scary but it had an exciting combat plot -- it was an effective war film with scenes of sacrifice, derring-do, and heroism.  Again, there is nothing like this in Scott's new film -- the special effects are big and loud but not convincing and there's no consistent "through-plot", no real object to all the mayhem.  Some of the imagery is quite beautiful and the first half hour of the picture featuring a neutrino burst that damages the space ship "Covenant" and, then, the exploration of a planet that looks something like the more spectacular fjords in Norway is very effective.  But, once the creatures start dismantling a cast that is nothing more than cannon fodder -- no one really differentiated except those anticipated to survive until the last reel -- the movie loses its way and becomes repetitious and, even, tedious.  The film fancies itself philosophical and one plot point turns on the distinction between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, but the philosophy seems strangely disconnected from the lurid murders that comprise most of the film.  It seems that a lonely robot named David has a desire to create.  Robots, apparently, are sublimely knowledgeable but they lack the imaginative instinct to create something new.  David decides that he will engage in DNA-splicing to manufacture a horde of ravenous monsters -- hence, the genealogy of the beasties harassing our protagonists.  David battles his successor robot and tries to rub out the heroes in Alien: Covenant because like Milton's Satan, a figure expressly invoked in the scenario, he will not serve -- non serviam.  The film traffics in the Wordsworthian and Miltonic sublime -- there are vast canyons and towering mountains, enormous ruined cities filled with petrified corpses like the bodies cast in ash at Pompeii.  Giant storms vex the planet and there are colossal towers, some of them shaped like human heads.  It would all be quite picturesque except that Scott leaves 80% of the film in bleak, blue-grey darkness, the same murk that afflicts most special effects - driven films -- it's all shadowy and dimly lit because, I suppose, the director is concealing the limitations of his CGI.  Most of the action scenes are not properly established or coherently imagined -- if we are going to deploy a giant toothed crane to destroy a monster, the script should first alert us to the fact that such a crane exists and can be deployed.  Instead, the big crane just appears out of the director's bag of tricks.  Furthermore, there are annoying lapses:  in an early scene, a robot inspects a set of embryos in some kind of cryogenic cabinet.  One of the embryos is rotten and so the robot throws it away.  At the end of the film, another robot puts an embryo in a tiny round canister into the same cryogenic cabinet -- one expects him to put the new replacement embryo (a monster of course) into the spot vacated by the embryo that was found decomposed an hour earlier.  But, instead, the robot puts the two new embryos that he has disgorged -- he has been incubating them in his mechanical belly (it would have been far wittier to have him pull them out of his rectum) -- in a new location in the register of fetuses.  Why?  It's a tiny detail but symptomatic of a certain carelessness that afflicts this movie.  Michael Fassbender, who is now in almost all American films, gets to play two identical twin robots -- and, therefore, also can impersonate Milton's Satan, and, as Wagner is playing, gets a chance to march down an endless corridor as god's most perfect Aryan -- Hitler, Satan, and a German matinee idol all rolled-up into one.   

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