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Another ‘Alien’ comes a-poppin’

A face only a mother could love: The new xenomorph is ready for his closeup in Alien: Covenant. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Ripley was right all along: Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character knew from the very first Alien (1979) not to let the late great John Hurt back into the Nostromo because he was probably infectious. And boy, was she on the nose. But she was overridden by a duplicitous synthetic with nefarious motives, aka Ian Holm.

 And so it goes with Ridley Scott’s Alien saga. Nobody ever learns. Crew members on drifting spaceships keep responding to distress signals, get too cocky, get too lazy, get too close to alien eggs; someone starts coughing too much and… blammo! Another reason not to let sick individuals aboard without proper healthcare. There’s not much trading of notes in Alien movies, because most crewmembers end up dead, or their files deep-sixed by the galactically corrupt Weyland Corp.

Amid this sense of déjà vu, there’s a valid question facing the release of Alien: Covenant, and it’s this: do we really need another Alien movie?

The answer is: if it’s as spirited and inventive as the last entry, 2012’s Prometheus, then yes.  

That movie, while it upset purists and critics, was a blast of fresh air in a franchise that needed a good reboot. And the ending left us with a lot of questions.

As hoped, Alien: Covenant, the sixth outing, picks up where Prometheus left off, 10 years after that film left Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Mooni Rapace) and decapitated synthetic sidekick David (Michael Fassbender) rocketing off one planet to flee aliens and heading toward another.

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Enter the USCSS Covenent, a colonization vessel operated by Weyland Corp., which responds to a distress signal in the year 2109 and, before you know it, they’ve steered off their scheduled mission to start terraforming a distant habitable planet (with a cargo of deep-frozen colonists and human embryos), and heading towards a “rogue transmission” emanating from a more close-by planet. Good plan, eh?

The crew this time includes Billy Crudup as a Bible-thumping second commander who takes over after a solar flare smacks into the ship early on, killing the captain. He’s joined by Katherine Waterston as Daniels, a short-haired, sando-wearing engineer who is as close to Sigourney Weaver as this entry gets; Danny McBride as a cowboy hat-wearing pilot named Tennessee; and about a dozen other crew members who, let’s face it, don’t really count. And there’s a new synthetic in town: Fassbender again, as Walter, an American twang replacing his crisply lethal British accent.

Just as J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens built its story on the template of Episode IV, Ripley’s new installment follows a schematic distressingly similar to his original Alien. All the beats are there: the screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper pays slavish attention to the tense buildup of the original, and the canon itself, though it ends up taking few risks in the end.

Even the availability of good character actors is a wasted opportunity, given that they end up making the same lethal mistakes as their 1979 counterparts, this time only quicker. Crudup’s religion-minded colonizer is given little chance to explore the spiritual implications of contact with an alien race, and Waterston is given little back story, other than her wanting to build the first log cabin on the new planet they’re bound for.

 But there are some good things that keep Alien: Covenant from being a mere placeholder for Scott’s announced two more sequels. (SPOILER ALERT: The cat is already out of the bag since the release of Prometheus, but this entry takes place, timeline-wise, about two decades before the events of Alien. So it’s basically part of the xenomorph origins story.) Ridley Scott is still in good form here, building up the tension and serving up the shocks and “used future” tone of the original Alien, before exploding onto the screen with some of the most horrific alien “bursting” scenes yet. And if you found Baby Groot cute in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, well, you’ll probably go gaga over the l’il baby aliens a-poppin’ in Alien: Covenant. The little critters here are quicker and scarier, with new skills to boot.

There’s also some good crew banter, and the look of a spooky, lived-in ship we haven’t seen since the originals (even the ship’s computer system is once again called “Mother”).

As a side note, Scott goes to all the trouble of presenting us with yet another “new world” (something his films have always excelled at), this time revealing another thriving, apparently benevolent ancient civilization similar to the ones that flew ships in Prometheus, laid waste by the swift deployment of alien lifeforms, set to Wagner and snatches of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” (“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.”)

In fact, the movie’s title refers not only to the ship, but to a kind of running argument since Blade Runner and Prometheus about who is fit to serve whom — aliens, synethics or humans?

What really diverts one’s attention, though, is the cat-and-mouse game between synthetics Walter and David, the former more advanced and less human, the latter more prone to creative thinking and (no kidding) giving flute lessons to his synthetic “brother” during a lull in the action. Their dynamic lifts the movie from a mere recital of familiar thrills, which have grown (let’s face it) a bit tired over the decades, as iconic as the original Alien vision was. Purists may welcome the return to familiar ground, but true sci-fi fans might ask for a few more risks.

 

 

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