The Hunter Or the Hunted? Pt 6 (Alien Covenant, 2017)

Alien_Covenant_posterAfter the beating Prometheus took from critics and fans, the rumor is that Ridley Scott proclaimed, “They want Aliens? I will give them f___ing Aliens.”  And so the Prometheus sequel morphed into an Alien Prequel.

Set ten years after Prometheus, we are introduced to a ship called the Covenant.  It is carrying thousands of colonists (and embryos) and is headed for a distant planet suitable for human colonization.  Piloted by a crew of married couples.  When tragedy strikes and kills the captain, the crew goes to fixing the ship.  They desire to honor the death of their captain, but Oran (now as the acting captain) is focused on the business.  As they finish the work, a transmission is intercepted.  It leads to the discovery of a habitable planet just weeks away.  Somehow this transmission and planet escaped notice.  Oram wants to visit the planet, as their original destination is seven years away.  Daniels (who was married to the deceased Captain) expresses concern that this is a bad idea.  Also on the ship is a Synthetic named Walter (played by Michael Fassbender).  While he looks like David, he is a decidedly different character.

They land on a lush, yet seemingly lifeless planet.  And things rapidly descend into horror.  Some of the crew is exposed to spores that result in proto-xenomorphs that burst from the backs of victims.  You know, instead of from the chest.  David saves the crew, only to be revealed as a lone hermit who spent the last ten years trying to create a weaponized life form.  In a flashback we discover that when Shaw and David arrived at the planet, he dropped the goo on the Engineer populace.  Now he hopes to do the same to humanity.

The film borrows from all the previous films in it’s resolution.  For example, there is an airlock fight like Alien and Aliens.  The film has a lot of ideas that never play out.  And worse, the questions of Prometheus are cast aside, as is Shaw.  The film telegraphs it’s twist ending from miles away.

The film takes several moments to cast Billy Crudup’s Oram as a disgraced man of faith.  Not disgraced in regards to his faith, but rather that his faith has had him blackballed from further advancement within the company.  The problem is, aside from a couple mentions of his faith, we never really see what that faith is in…or why it has been an impediment.

Daniel seems to be in shock the entire film, some of which is understandable, but then she suddenly becomes the “Ripley” of the film.  And they try and out-Ripley with Daniel.  She swings around the outside of a ship with a giant gun blasting away at the xenomorph.

For the large part, the effects are good, though there is one scene where a newly birthed xenomorph is clearly (and pretty embarrassingly) CGI.  Like Prometheus, the ideas seem unexplored and the story incomplete.

I did not hate the film.  Fassbender was great in his dual roles.  Walter had an entirely different tone and cadence to David.  I have always liked the design of the Alien franchise.  And the ships in Prometheus and Covenant do not feel like they cannot occupy the same space as the rest of the franchise.  In Alien we saw an industrial transport ship in Aliens a military vessel, in the third film a dilapidated prison and in Resurrection a military station.  All of these were utilitarian.  The Prometheus was a private company’s high tech research vessel and the Covenant is a luxury transport.

I really like the design of the proto-xenomorphs.  They are creepy and unnervingly vicious.  I liked the characters for the most part, and felt Danny McBride’s Tennessee one of the more stand out characters, in spite of being a fairly standard character in these types of films.  I would put Covenant above, say, the Alien Vs Predator films or Alien Resurrection.  But it does not rise to Alien or Aliens either.  The movie takes so many shortcuts, it results in characters looking a bit stupid.  “Lets not wear protective gear in a new environment, after all, we can breath the air!”  It is still a disappointing follow up with a annoying and dismal final reveal.

The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 5 (Prometheus, 2012)

Prometheus_PosterResurrection seemed to kill the franchise.  But after two Alien vs Predator films, Ridley Scott became very annoyed and wanted to right the ship.  Kind of.  The vaguely titled Prometheus would be set before Alien, but it was not a direct prequel.  Rather, it would be Alien Adjacent.  This certainly made for an intriguing idea, and trailers showed a lot of hints of the unfamiliar future with brief glimpses of familiar sites.

The final product is an imperfect attempt at an epic tale.  Borrowing heavily from Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, Prometheus opens with a gorgeous and vast shot of lakes and mountains.  We travel along this landscape until we come upon a “man”.  He is tall and muscular, with marble like skin.  A large spaceship (which is the same type of ship from the first Alien where the eggs are discovered) is leaving him behind.  He drinks a strange black drink and instantly his body starts to break down and he falls into the water, his DNA dispersing.

If you are not sure what Chariots of the Gods is, it was a book in the 70’s that claimed that all religion and technology we know today was the result of guidance from extra-terrestrials who were revered as Gods.  Prometheus takes this a step further, positing that mankind was created by these aliens.  They become known as “the Engineers” in the film.  Considering that Scott completely ignores the Alien vs Predator films, I am surprised he pretty much steals this concept from them.

The film leaps to the future, where we meet Elizabeth Shaw and her fellow archeologist (and boyfriend) Charlie.  They have been traversing the globe comparing various ancient sites, specifically the artwork of cultures from all over the world that share common themes.  They believe they have assembled the coordinates to a home world of “The Engineers”.  A crew is assembled by dying Peter Weyland to visit the planet.  They are told he will be dead by the time they arrive.

Once on the planet, the crew discovers an ancient ship with bodies of the engineers and holograms of them running from some threat.  Many poor choices are made and everything goes wrong.

The film gives us all sorts of “almosts”.  Almost a facehugger.  Almost an Alien. Almost the planet from Alien.  The film has grand attempts to explore themes of faith, diety, humanity and creation.  A lot of this focus is on Shaw and the Synthetic David.  David is one of the more interesting characters…he is also both sympathetic and disturbing.

The ending is a massive storm of confusion and destruction, in which Shaw becomes determined to discover why the Engineers have chosen the course they chose in relation to humanity.

Prometheus is gorgeous to watch, which breath taking visuals.  It is a stunning and spectacular feats with a strong cast, including Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender especially shines as synthetic David.

But the story seems only half cooked.  They have ideas at play that never meet fruition.  The unanswered questions seem allowable, as the film was clearly left open for a follow-up.  With Prometheus, we have a film that is not terrible but not quite great.  And if it was part one, it might even be a great start and set up.  But, that was not not meant to be.  Instead we are left with an incomplete story.

The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 4 (Alien Resurrection, 1997)

Alien_Resurrection_PosterIn spite of a lukewarm reception to the third film, the studio wanted to take another try at the Alien Franchise.  Although they managed to pump this one out in just three years, it is a bigger mess than the last one.

This film is set around two hundred years after the last one.  It establishes a new wrinkle in the xenomorph mythology.  Not only do they borrow from their host, they seem to share DNA.  Scientists clone Ripley and the clone has an alien queen in her chest.

A ship of space pirates arrives at the military base that has cloned Ripley with top secret cargo.  The scientists are trying to control the aliens as possible weapons.  You know how that will work out.  The aliens break free and take over the installation, leaving Ripley (along with the Space Pirates) to try and escape.

The film tries to explore the ethics and horrors of genetic experimentation.  There is a nicely played moment where they discover a lab full of less successful Ripley clones.  One is still alive, causing Ripley true horror.  The film has Ripley’s humanity in question (her blood has acidic qualities like the xenomorph) which is punctuated by a late reveal of a synthetic person.  The film also tries to add a new breed of alien, but it looks absolutely hideous.  Giving the alien beady eyes, white skin and a pot belly is not frightening, just an awful design.

The practical effects are, as they have been throughout the franchise, strong and effective.  However, the digital aliens do not stand up well twenty years later.

In spite of a strong cast (not to mention script doctor work by Joss Whedon) the story feels rather pedestrian.  Nothing quite gels into a cohesive narrative, and seems like it was built on a series of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” meetings.

The Hunter or the Hunted, Pt 3 (Alien 3, 1992)

Alien_3_PosterThe success of Aliens had the studio rushing to try and get an Alien 3 going.  There were a lot of false starts and bad ideas that led to what we got.  Good scripts got tossed aside for weird ideas.  There were questions on whether Weaver wanted to return.  While she did finally return, she pushed for this to be the end of Ripley’s journey.

Music video director David Fincher was given the job of bringing the film to life.  It should be noted, Fincher was deeply unhappy with his experience and even producers admit they treated him very badly.  Which is unfortunate.  Because the end result was a muddled and overall messy film with some good ideas and some terrible choices.

After the events of Aliens, Ripley, Newt, Hick and Bishop are in hypersleep on a small escape pod.  There is a malfunction that results in the ship crashing on a small prison planet.  Only Ripley survives.  The prison operates on a skeleton crew, primarily made up of the inmates.  Most have adopted a form of Christianity that sees themselves as so unable to resist the draw of sin, living on a planet without temptations is their only choice.  As religious leader  Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) notes, Ripley’s arrival has put temptations back in place.

An alien facehugger has escaped with Ripley and finds a host.  This film added a new twist to the series.  It suggested that the alien xenomorph actually borrows traits from it’s host.  In this case it is a dog.  This results in a xenomorph that runs around on all fours and is more canine in it’s movement.

Once the xenomorph is discovered, Ripley and the inmates struggle to defeat it.  Alien 3 is an attempt at not repeating the previous films.  So they drop Ripley on a planet with no weapons.  Unfortunately, a lot of the decisions with the script resulted in nullifying the progress of Ripley in Aliens.  Killing her defacto family put her back at square one.    The studio interference left us with a film disowned by it’s director and far more to weaken it.  The strengths are few and far between.  The religious aspect is kind of interesting and the cast is terrific.  Yet these things cannot save a slapped together script and poor CGI.

The Hunter or the Hunted? Pt 2 (Aliens, 1986)

Aliens_PosterAbout seven years after Alien, hotshot director James Cameron brought the franchise roaring back to life.  Rather than make a generic sequel, Cameron made a bold choice.  The first film was a haunted house movie, Cameron opted to make a war movie.

Ripley is awakened 50 years after the first film to find everything she knew is gone.  On top of that she is plagued by nightmares of the alien creature.  Ripley joins a mission at the request of the corporation to check on a colony that is on the same planet they found the eggs with the alien xenomorph.  It is promised to Ripley this is a search and destroy mission.

She is joined by a platoon of Space Marines.  They don’t believe her claims of an alien monster, but of course, they soon find out she is neither crazy nor a liar.  And then things get bad.  And then?  They get worse.

Aliens is one of those rare sequels that manages to rival it’s predecessor.  Ripley is angry and aimless at the film’s beginning.  When she discovers a young girl named Newt hiding in the remains of the colony she starts to see beyond merely destroying the aliens.  In the extended cut of the film, it is revealed that Ripley had a daughter on earth who grew up and died in the time Ripley floated through space.  This gives an added dimension to Ripley and her dedication to Newt throughout the film.

The marines are a hearty and confident lot.  Their banter feels natural as they trade insults and yet fight to protect each other when it all comes crashing down.  They are a compelling group.  And then there is Bishop.  A synthetic or android, Ripley does not trust him, due to the fact that the android on her ship tried to murder her.  Bishop represents the other side of that coin.  He is kind and polite.  He is also willing to risk himself.  At one point, after volunteering for a risky mission he states, “Believe me, I’d prefer not to. I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid.”  How much of this is programming that compels him, versus a certain human quality is unclear.  He notes his programming prevents him from causing harm to a person, but does that programming extend to risking himself to save a person from outside threat?

This is a near perfect action film, with thrills and twists and turns.  It manages to expand upon the mythology of the first film’s animal without being a tired retread of information.  The performances are compelling and the visual effects have withstood the test of time.  On top of that, in spite of being a sequel, you could go into Aliens never having seen Ridley Scott’s film and follow the story with few, if any, questions.

 

Cold Fear (Harbinger Down, 2015)

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This film, in part, was a response to the 2011 Thing prequel.In early interviews, (Harbinger Down Director) Alec Gillis had emphasized that it was going to be a mostly practical film.  Even the special features show an awful lot of practical work in the behind the scenes.  The studio “had a change of heart” and decided the film should favor digital over practical.

There is a place for the tool of digital.  But the avoidance of practical hurts film.  Alec Gillis, coming from an award winning practical effects background, knows this well.

Harbinger Down was a film made in part to showcase practical effects.  It is for lovers of monster movies.

It tells the tale of Sadie, a student studying climate change effects on Beluga Whales who brings her professor and fellow student on her grandfather’s crabbing boat the Harbinger.  They discover an old soviet ship in the ice and once on board, horror based mayhem ensues.

Evoking memories of John Carpenter’s the Thing (right at the beginning there is an easter egg for those of us who love the Thing) and the films of the Alien franchise, Gillis clearly set out to make a classic monster movie.  Using the familiar elements of people trapped in a remote location facing a scary unknown, Gillis charges forward.

The film has great practical effects driving the action and scares.  The monster is lifelike and gruesome.  but it is not enough to have cool effects.  If the cast cannot hold up their end, a film will fall apart.  Luckily, Gillis has a terrific cast.  The characters feels defined and are entertaining.  Especially likable is Winston James Francis as Big G.  Star Lance Henrikson is great in the role of gruff but decent Graff (captain of the ship and Sadie’s grandfather).

The film has moments of humor that allow us to get to know the characters before it all falls apart on them.  The cast makes the most of their roles, whether large or small.

Harbinger Down is a solid monster movie, one that pays tribute to the great monster movies of the early 80’s.  It deserves a watch by lovers of monster movies and practical visual effects.

Prometheus Lost

So, Ridley Scott announced the title to the sequel to Prometheus.  And I was a bit surprised they caved this early.

prometheus_ridley_scott

I was one of the few who at least generally liked Prometheus.  It had some problems, such as the whole “what I choose to believe” thing was never grounded tightly enough to make sense as a solid philosophy and the final act is pretty crazy messy to the point of confusion.  Adding to the confusion was the similarities that seem to set up Alien, but clearly at the same time could not be the same ship found in Alien…and the filmmakers emphasized that this is a different planet, different ship…this was set in the same universe as Alien, but is a separate story.

And I like that idea.  The notion that there might be a film to line up more precisely with Alien, but that it would come after a divergent story in the same universe.  Rapace and Fassbender are welcome performers for me and I am curious to see the next step in that story.  But of course, the problem is…they are not just trying to appeal to me, who would have no problem getting interested in another Prometheus film.

I suspect the lukewarm reception has resulted in bringing the Prometheus story directly under the Alien name brand with the upcoming sequel being called Alien: Paradise Lost.  I see some potential confusing, what with Neil Blomkamp’s possible Alien five.  I presume that will get a re-title.  And ever since Alien Resurrection, religious and mythical titles seem to be the go to.

But I suspect they realized continuing Prometheus 2 would not have the attention getting power of actually calling it “Alien”.  This does beg one question…will we see the regular Xenomorphs this time around?

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