Friday, October 6, 2017

Hubri5Ween 2017, Day 1: Alien: Covenant (2017)

Take a moment and imagine it's, say, 2009 or so. The exact year is not important you need to place yourself in the time between the release of Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem and 2012. Now, imagine the reaction to the news that Ridley Scott is directing a new entry in the Alien franchise. Pretty wild, right?

Of course, we don't live in that universe. No, we live in the universe where the news that Ridley Scott would be directing a new Alien movie came after he had dropped Prometheus in our laps--the film where the highest praise you will hear is generally, "Well, it looks pretty." Better still, this news came when fans were practically begging the studio to make the concept sketches Neill Blomkamp had developed for a hypothetical Alien 5 into a reality. Scott's project, however, killed that hypothetical film dead.

Imagine going from being the visionary director who effectively created the franchise to being seen as the spoilsport villain who kept us from getting a sequel we actually wanted--the one that would have been directed by the guy who unleashed Chappie on us.

Of course, I don't actually feel bad for Scott in this situation. First off, Blomkamp's Alien 5 concept genuinely sounded amazing, even if Blomkamp is--to put it charitably--a flawed director. Secondly by this point in his career Scott had crapped out a whitewashed Biblical epic and then compounded it by defending it by being lazily racist.

And, worst of all, Scott directed Alien: Covenant.

Now, part of why Prometheus is such a frustrating mess of ideas is that it was originally meant to be a prequel to Alien until somebody got cold feet and decided to just make it sort of a prequel. You could watch the film and get the impression that it had no relation to Alien at all, it was just set in the same universe. However, when it did well enough to justify a sequel, Ridley Scott decided to go forward with the "it's a prequel" idea after all.

The result means that this film gets to disappoint on two levels: it squanders the promise of the sequel that Prometheus set up in one of its few bright spots, and it gives us the backstory of Alien that nobody actually wanted.

Just to make sure we're not starting off with too much optimism, the film opens with an almost entirely unrelated prologue in which the android David (Michael Fassbender) is brought online in a white room by his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), so they can mumble philosophically at each other while David plays the piano. Pearce is not forced to wear embarrassing old age makeup this time around, at least, but given that means he looks about 50 years younger here than in Prometheus, that just fudges the timeline all the more.

He's playing Wagner, in case you were concerned this bit wasn't as pretentious as possible.
The actual plot begins in 2104 aboard the Covenant, because somehow this series has now begun to just name its films after the suspiciously symbolic names of the spaceships involved. Now, like the Prometheus before it, the Covenant is manned by a single Fassbender-model android (here named Walter and speaking in a truly peculiar accent) while its human crew of 15 is in stasis. Unlike Prometheus, however, this ship is a colony vessel filled with 2,000 colonists in stasis and 1,140 frozen embryos, as well--seven years out from its destination. This means it is a massive vessel and one person, even a synthetic one, is going to be ridiculously overburdened trying to supervise all of its functions on their own.

Sure enough, while Walter is taking care of the task of tossing out the few embryos that have somehow spoiled in the cooler (?), the computer alerts him that a neutrino burst is about to hit the vessel. Walter barely has time to be to late in ordering the computer to retract the solar sails before the blast hits and the extended sails mean it does catastrophic damage to the vessel. The human crew has to be awakened, but unfortunately the ship's captain--who will turn out to be a cameo by James Franco--is somehow incinerated alive inside his stasis pod before they can get him out. If that's not bad enough, we'll later learn 47 of the colonists were lost, as well.

Because it was, for some reason, decided that the crew should be made up entirely of married couples, this leaves Daniels (Katherine Waterston) in near-crippling grief at the death of her husband, while the burden of command falls upon Oram (Billy Crudup). When the crew holds a funeral at sea for their dead captain, over Oram's objections, Oram whines to his wife that he feels the crew disrespects his ability to command because he is a man of faith--but we'll soon see it's because he is an incompetent buffoon and this is just the first indication. Seriously, he thinks people mourned a dead friend and husband to spite him. How did this chucklehead get placed second in command?

I'll take a moment to point out that it's really not worth trying to name the rest of the crew here, since the only other character that makes any kind of impression is Tennessee (Danny McBride). Everyone else is nigh-impossible to tell apart or are so thinly sketched I'm not even sure if they have names.

Hi! We'll be your expendable meat for this evening! Don't worry about out names, you won't care about us anyway."
During the efforts of repair, taking stock of equipment, and trying to get out of the sector to avoid any further stellar flares a few things happen of note. One, Daniels bonds with Walter over her promise to her late husband to build a log cabin by a lake on the new world. Two, a bizarre transmission finds its way into Tennessee's com while he is EVA to fix the solar sail. Examining the transmission inside the ship, the characters begin to make out the staticky image and audio of a human woman singing--and Tennessee recognizes it as a John Denver song.

The transmission originated from an Earth-like planet only a few weeks away from their position. Daniels is bewildered, since they shouldn't have missed such a perfect candidate on their initial survey that led them to choosing Origae-6 as colony planet. The crew thinks maybe they ought to give up on the planet they specifically outfitted the expedition for and just settle for this one, and Oram agrees over Daniels's strong objections.

And so the Covenant ends up in orbit of the mystery world and a majority of the crew goes down in the lander. This includes Oram and Daniels, despite the fact that you'd think as second-in-command she'd want to stay aboard the main vessel--especially when she expressed concern for the fate of the colonists aboard. But no, Tennessee is left in command of the ship.

It doesn't take long for things to go tits up, of course.

First, the powerful plasma storms in the atmosphere wreak havoc with the lander's coms and give them a rough ride down. The pilot sets the lander down in a marsh and the crew disembarks, first arming themselves with guns--but noticeably not wearing any kind of protective gear beyond goofy bomber hats.

Pictured: Ideal clothing for exploring a completely unknown alien world.
I'll let this slide, however. Sure, it's rock-stupid, but this mission was funded by a huge corporation. Obviously they cut every possible corner in outfitting the expedition, including any kind of respirators.

The pilot stays behind to repair the lander's coms and make sure it's safe, while the rest track the ghost signal with Walter's help. One of the crew realizes the vegetation they're trekking through is recognizably cultivated wheat, which raises some important questions. Oram's wife stops off with another crew member to begin an ecology work-up. The others recognize what appears to be the path of a huge, crashed spaceship--while Daniels gets unnerved by how quiet the place is. Why is a huge forest absent of any sign of animals, insects, or birds?

The crewman with Oram's wife steps aside to "take a leak," which is apparently code for "smoke a rolled cigarette while stepping on an alien fungus." Naturally, the alien fungus responds by sending out a cloud of spores that burrow into his inner ear like the Ceti eels in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Gee, who could have predicted that?

The other crew members find the crashed spaceship: a very familiar horseshoe-shaped vessel. While exploring it, another crewman pokes some more of the fungus and inhales the resultant spores. Inside the ship, Daniels finds a dog tag for one "Dr. E. Shaw." Walter immediately realizes it belongs to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw of the Prometheus, which famously disappeared ten years earlier. This is further confirmed by Daniels finding a photo of Shaw with her husband and then Oram accidentally bumps a button in the ship's control room and activates a staticky hologram of what we are supposed to infer is Shaw (never mind it looks as much like an Independence Day alien as it does a human woman) singing John Denver while seated at the controls.

Naturally, both of the spore-infected men begin getting sick around the same time. Everyone begins heading back to the lander, where the pilot has prepped the med bay and alerted the Covenant. Unfortunately, the pilot already begins to panic when she sees the crewman vomiting blood and struggling to breathe. When something on the man's back bursts and splatters her with blood, the pilot seals the med bay and flees. Unfortunately, she calls her husband, Tennessee, in her panic so now he's worried for her, too.

And then a spiny fetus monster bursts out of the man's back--our first look at the film's much touted "Neomorph," which I will speak more on later. For now the baby Neomorph proves itself a nasty customer by ignoring the knife Oram's wife points at it and tearing her face off. The panicked pilot now returns with a gun and finally grants the dying woman's prior request to open the damn med bay door. Except, since this is an Idiot Picture, the pilot slips in the pool of blood and shoots the ceiling, and then manages to close the med bay door on her foot so she is limping away when the Neomorph baby inevitably smashes out of the door's window.

Shrooms: Not Even Once.
Oh, it gets dumber. For when the Neomorph chases her into the cargo bay, the pilot fires wildly at it until she manages to hit the huge yellow explosive tanks. So, as we see the Neomorph hilariously flee to safety, the whole lander is engulfed in an explosion. While Daniels is busy keeping Oram from running into the flames, the other infected crewman goes into a seizure and then vomits up another Neomoprh in a gout of blood. Walter watches the creature run off into the wheat with a truly priceless "huh, that was a thing" expression.

Naturally, a huge ion storm is keeping the Covenant from hearing the away team's distress calls now. And we get an actually nice moment where we find out that the dead crewman was married to one of the other men on the team, but isn't it amazing how even in a fucking futuristic mainstream sci-fi movie from 2017 the best we can seem to do is casually infer a homosexual couple?

Walter just manages to save Daniels from being ambushed by a much larger Neomorph as it returns, but he gets his left hand bitten off in the process. Another crewman dies when the beast knocks his jaw off with its tail and I think it mauls another one before their bullets wound it badly enough that it flees. The other Neomorph attacks, but as it attempts to maul...someone, it is driven off by a mysterious man in a hooded cape firing a flare into the air. When he yells at them, in English, to follow, they don't hesitate.

The stranger leads them to the films's best and mostly wasted visual--a ruined alien city filled with humanoid bodies frozen in their last moments before some horrific catastrophe.

Once inside a building, their savior reveals himself to be David--who has someone grown long, stringy hair so I guess androids can grow hair? David dramatically explains that the ship he and Shaw were on was carrying a deadly virus that deployed when they crashed. Not only was Shaw killed in the crash, but so was all non-botanical life on the planet. He assures the crew that they all know if they were infected, but when Oram says they need to be sure lest they endanger the 2,000 colonists--David seems to be a little too delighted by that number of vulnerable humans.

He invites them to try an make themselves at home "in this dire necropolis" before almost immediately trying to ingratiate himself to his "brother" Walter. Meanwhile, Tennessee shows the flaw in the "crew full of married couples" idea when he orders the ship's computer to bring the Covenant to within 80 kilometers of the storm, which is the very limit of "what won't rip apart our ship full of innocent people."

David cuts his hair to look like Walter's while humming ominously, which will in no way be important later, and then finds Walter examining his curious room full of insect specimens and drawings. Walter is particularly eyeing a carved flute, so David decides to teach him how to play--in a scene whose bizarre subtext is in no way helped by the line, "I'll do the fingering."

It is an important scene, however, not only for establishing that Ridley Scott way overestimated how much his audience wanted to see two androids play a flute but for establishing the personalities of the two models. Effectively, it is Bishop and Ash having a conversation. David is a clear misanthrope and Walter explains he is a far superior model than any other android before, and part of the reason is that David's model was found to be too disturbing so Walter's was made to be much less "human" and more robotic--including being programmed to lack an interest in creating art.

David then shows a view of the ruined city to to Walter while quoting "Ozymandias" at him. Then we get a flashback to David successfully flying the alien ship above the city full of bald albinos and, tears in his angry eyes, deliberately unleashing the vessel's entire payload on them. It's a gripping sequence and all, but its placement makes no sense, as we cut back to Walter and David where Walter finishes the poem for him. So he clearly wasn't telling Walter about it and it's way too early in the narrative to be outright confirming our suspicions about David being a monster.

"Hey, Ozymandias! Look on this and despair, ye mighty prick!"
David then mistakenly attributes the poem to Byron and, since nothing will be made of this until later, we are left to wonder if the filmmakers think the audience are too stupid to catch it. David then explains he buried Shaw in the garden, feeling it would be the best place for her. He confesses he felt love for her after she repaired him--but Walter is understandably sketptical.

Meanwhile, Oram apologize to Daniels for not listening to her and the only other woman in the away team decides to wander off in order to "freshen up." Naturally, she means "wander way out of earshot so I can splash some stagnant fountain water on my face and then get ambushed by the Neomorph." She somehow manages to scream despite it apparently taking her head off in one bite.

Meanwhile, when the other team members finally radio the Covenant, hearing they have casualities causes Tennessee to demand they bring the ship within 40 kilometers of the storm. The computer refuses until one of the other 3 bridge crew members remaining backs up his order. Man, I really hope the rest of the colonists were dumb assholes, too, because otherwise they got a raw deal.

Oram decides to also wander off by himself to recover the missing crewmember, which means he happens upon David trying to make friends with it next to the headless corpse of the woman. David tells Oram not to shoot, babbling on about blowing on the nostrils of a horse, but Oram ignores him and damn near empties the clip into the beast. He then points his laser sight at David and babbles about meeting the devil as a child. So, uh, none of these people can communicate in anything but bizarre non sequiturs, huh?

"Okay, I know this looks bad, but..."
At any rate, despite David being incredibly shifty, Oram follows trustingly as David leads him into a the darkness while promising to explain everything. Daniels finally connects with Tennessee and they decide they need to use the Cargo Lift to bring the team back up, even though it is not designed for space launch. Yes, despite the Covenant not being designed for atmospheric entry, and the destroyed lander being called "Lander One", the vessel does not have any other shuttle-type vehicles on board. Who the fuck designed this mission?

Daniels proves incredibly sensitive by responding to Tennessee asking to speak to his wife by telling him on a private channel that she's dead. Couldn't that have waited until the rest of the crew was safe?!

At any rate, David shows Oram his workshop full of the original virus containers from Prometheus, the various design maquettes--er, specimens showing the stages of development of the creatures spawned by the virus, and finally the room full of recognizably Xenomorph eggs. David explains he has effectively been engineering these creatures and Oram somehow trusts David when he says the eggs are safe and urges him to take a look at the open one. You'll never guess what happens next!

Daniels gets the crew together after one of them finds the headless woman, and sends two of them to find Oram who is not answering his radio. Hilariously, Oram is busy having small pebbles thrown at his unconscious body by an impatient David. Hey, remember how people found it annoying how quickly Alien vs. Predator sped the incubation period of the Xenomorphs up to less than an hour instead of how long it took in all the previous movies? Well, guess what this movie does, too!

Actually, it's even worse than that because Ridley Scott is about to make a mockery of the most iconic sequence of his career. Say what you will about the rubbery, serpentine chestburster from the original film--it was effective even in its cheesier moments. Here what emerges from Oram's chest is a tiny Xenomroph, which seems to be a combination of twitchy marionette and awkwardly rendered CGI that imitates the arm gesture David makes at it. It's absolutely ridiculous.

When Spaceballs recreated the chestburster better than you did, you really missed the mark.
Well, by this time Walter has managed to stumble on David's lab of horrors--including the gutted and deformed body of Elizabeth Shaw. That's right, this film went full slasher sequel. Also now Walter confronts his sinister flutist doppelganger and figures out that David deliberately released the pathogen. Gee, I wonder if maybe this would have been the place to show that flashback?

David reveals he does not feel humanity deserves to expand into the universe. Walter now points out that David was quoting Shelley and not Byron, which is I guess is what tipped him off to David's dishonesty? Way to do nothing about that when it still could have saved people, Walter. Naturally as the two prattle about dreams and perfect organisms, Walter tells David he can't let him leave so David decides to respond by throwing the fanfic authors an awkward Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss before stabbing him in the throat with the flute.

Hilariously, this causes Walter to fold up into a seated position as his neck wound repairs itself. Daniels finds some of David's H.R. Giger fan art of what I assume are his experiments on Shaw, while the other two crewmembers find Oram's body and a facehugger. The facehugger latches onto one of them before the other manages to cut it off of his face with way more ease than any other character in this franchise ever has. This results in the facehugger dying and its victim getting a burned face, but they don't have time to dwell on that before the Xenomorph is tackling and mauling the man who wasn't wounded.

David then attacks Daniels in a way too rapey manner before Walter comes to her rescue. Turns out David didn't take into account that there had been updates made since his model. As Daniels and the wounded survivor flee outside to wait for Tennessee to arrive, the two Fassbender-bots have a surprisingly uninteresting fight to the death. Probably because, despite the attempt to play it coy, we all know that David is going to win and then pretend to be Walter.

The first mart thing in the movie happens as Daniels sets the beacon for Tennessee and the two survivors stand back-to-back to cover all angles of attack. "Walter" then joins them, saying that David is "expired" and the three climb aboard the cargo lift. The Xenomorph follows, of course, which actually leads to a genuinely badass sequence where Daniels grabs a gun, hooks herself to lifeline, and goes outside to fight the bastard. After a lot of near misses she finally catches it in a crane claw and squashes it like a bug. Now the crew are home free and return to the Covenant.

Oh, but don't worry. Sure, the film could end now with a modicum of dignity, having disposed of an Alien in a way we hadn't seen multiple times before. But no, we still have about 20 minutes to go in this bastard!

So, instead, Tennessee and the medic patch up the wounded man--including an actually decent joke about Phantom of The Opera--while Daniels helps Walter patch himself up. Unfortunately, the computer soon calls Captain Daniels to med bay because it turns out the wounded man's Xenomorph impregnation actually did take. Tennessee and Daniels grab their guns and call upon Walter to locate the Xenomorph on the ship. Naturally it turns out to be headed for the crew quarters and...

...Jesus fucking Christ, we are in full on "lesser entry in the Friday the 13th franchise" territory here because the one remaining intact couple among the crew are having shower sex while listening to R&B so they don't hear the computer's warning to get out. You're telling me my GPS can interrupt my Bluetooth audio in the middle of a great podcast, but in 2104 the computer can't interrupt the crew's Spotify playlist to issue orders? Hell, why couldn't they turn off the shower to get their attention?

Well, naturally the Xenomorph pokes the woman in her butt with its tail and then, before she has time to warn her hubby, it puts its inner mandibles through his skull. The film at least has the taste to cut away after this so we don't have to watch a bloodied, screaming naked woman get butchered.

Oh, and did I mention that, since this was an interracial couple, the last non-white character in the film just bought it? Feels like I should point that out.

"Dear Penthouse: I am a monster created by genetic engineering to do nothing but kill, and I never thought this would happen to me..."
Coming upon the scene of carnage, Daniels and Tennesee follow the bloody footprints left by the monster and have Walter help them herd the creature into the terraforming bay by closing off bulkheads. During this sequence, we get the dumbest "Xenomorph Cam" POV shots in the history of the series, which is saying something. Apparently the Xenomorph sees just like we do, if our eyes were full of wriggling worms for some reason.

In full EVA gear, Daniels lures the Xenomorph into the cab of a truck and locks it in while Tennessee opens the bay doors. After a few false starts, the Xenomorph is finally impaled on a falling bulldozer and launched into space.

Unfortunately, only as Walter is loading Daniels into her stasis pod for the journey to Origae-6 does he fail to respond properly to her mention of the cabin on the lake and she realizes he's actually David. David then takes over the computer, requests the computer play him that Wagner piece and then regurgitates some frozen xenomorph embryos into the baby freezer. He then sends a fake transmission about all the crew except Daniels and Tennessee perishing in the solar flare incident. The End.

"Grr! Argh! ...what do you mean I'm not as scary in broad daylight?"
Whew boy. Where do I even begin?

Let's start with the film's biggest misstep: pulling a Friday the 13th: Part II and killing off the Final Girl from the previous film. Almost everyone agreed that the ending, setting up Shaw and David's quest to go visit the homeworld of the Giant Albino Bodybuilders was one of the few things Prometheus did right, so it's incredibly galling for the film to decide Shaw deserved to be simply killed off between the two movies. It's hard to say if that's the biggest slap in the face of anybody who was willing to follow the franchise loyally this far, or if  it's how the film casually reveals the true origin of the Xenomorphs.

Now, fans of the franchise long suspected that the Xenomophs were some kind of a bio-weapon gone out of control. It also seemed clear that Prometheus was trying to say that, too, since it wasn't satisfied with just revealing that the Space Jockey was really just a big buff dude in a space suit. However, revealing that the "perfect organism" was created by a bored misanthropic robot in serious need of a hobby is just plain insulting.

I mean, if that's the case, how the hell did the Nostromo end up finding the ship full of Xenomorph eggs? Are we going to have to wait for a sequel that provides a completely unsatisfactory explanation to that, too? Count me the fuck out, if so.

And, as an aside, it almost seems like Ridley Scott hates Aliens. After all, in the original Alien, Scott cut a scene that revealed the Xenomorph was turning the victims it didn't kill into more eggs--which allowed James Cameron to reveal that the creatures operated like eusocial insects, with a Queen at the head of the hive laying eggs while being protected by soldiers and workers. Yet, years later Scott not only put the egg-transformation scene back into his director's cut, but started down this path of retconning the Xenomorph life cycle back to what he originally implied it to be.

If so, it's especially rich that he seemed to take glee in killing Blomkamp's sequel project, since that was intended to be a direct sequel to Aliens that erased the continuity set by Alien 3. I realize I'm totally projecting here, but it would fit.

Anyway, we were talking about this film. So I'll start by saying something about it that's semi-complimentary: I actually think the Neomorphs were a pretty nifty idea. When it was first revealed I found it just as ridiculous as the creature revealed at the end of Prometheus, since it looked like they were somehow managing to yet again rip off the alien from Alien vs. Ninja.

However, in practice the Neomorphs are actually kind of fascinating and plainly different enough from the Xenomorphs that came before that they represent an actually interesting direction for the movie to go in.

So, naturally, Scott says "fuck that" and brings out the classic Xenomorph we all know and love so that the remainder of the film can just play like a highlight reel of our favorite moments from the franchise.

Now, let's be clear here: this would probably still not have been a good movie if it hadn't gone in that direction. There are just too many elements at play here that don't work even before the facehugger latches onto Billy Crudup. However, there was at least something here that showed promise up until then. The film just simply tosses them all out so it can be an official Alien movie, which for some reason involves tossing out any potentially original elements at once.

So it may seem unfair to harp on this film as it relates to the franchise, but as a film on its own, this is still pretty bad. As I said before, the characters make so little impression that I couldn't even be bothered to learn most of their names--despite this cast being easily smaller than the crew of the Sulaco in Aliens, where I can easily name half of the Marines that get wiped out all at once in the alien hive. I can't tell if it's the actors, the direction, or the clunky dialogue that all adds to this the most but they're all factors.

And holy shit is this film up its own ass, philosophically. If you took a drink every time a character posed some kind of philosophical question at another you might well get alcohol poisoning. Jesus, the last thing Oram does seconds before a monster bursts out of his rib cage is to ask David what he believes in! It's incredible how seriously a movie that unironically features a shower sex death scene can take itself.

The film's score is also kind of terrible. Very repetitive and utterly fails to generate suspense even in tense moments.

Lastly, the real reason we're all here: the special effects. They're...not great. Oh, it would be a stretch to call them awful, but mostly the film uses CGI and it's frankly not very impressive CGI. Plus, the CGI works against the film's intent. Sure, it's cool to see a Xenomorph use its tail like a spider-monkey as it climbs down a ladder, in a way that practical effects probably couldn't pull off. However, we don't want to be able to see the Xenomorph do that because the more we see it the less scary it is.--and this movie clearly wants us to be scared of it, so it's sabotaging itself. Scott knew that keeping the monster in the shadows made it scarier in his original film, so how did he manage to forget his own lesson?

Honestly, this film retroactively makes me almost like Prometheus because at least that movie entertained me with its wrongness. This film is just bad. Hell, I'd say it was the worst entry in the entire franchise if Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem didn't still exist.

So I guess that's one more nice thing I can say about it?

Welcome to the first day of Hubri5Ween 2017, the fifth year of this nonsense! Click the banner above to see what everyone else did for A!

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