Alien: Covenant (Film Review)

Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus may be a big hot mess, but it has its moments, and I personally enjoyed it on a number of levels despite the overall disappointment.

Not only does Scott’s follow up, Alien: Covenant, have the expectations of the main franchise riding on its distinctly bowed shoulders, it needs to learn its lesson from Prometheus (other than “Don’t fucking hire John Spaihts to write your screenplay”), while providing a decent – and coherent, and scary, and original – continuation of both.

No pressure, then.

I enjoyed this one, mostly. Covenant is a decent addition to the franchise, and it’s a lot neater than Prometheus, which, despite some excellent creature design and great visuals (generally a given for Ridley), featured a shitstorm of dunderhead characters wandering blindly through what was a largely incoherent narrative.

Set ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant follows the titular colony ship on its seven-year journey to distance planet Origae-6, loaded up with two thousand colonists and a thousand human embryos in stasis. After a neutrino flare damages the ship, waking up the crew and immolating James Franco’s captain Branson (in the briefest of cameos), they receive a distress call from a lush, potentially habitable planet nobody’s noticed before. Figuring that they might be able to settle here instead of their heavily vetted and scanned and predetermined Origae-6, the crew changes course. Needless to say, the shit is on a collision course with the fan.

Covenant has a great cast, although only a handful of their characters are fleshed out enough for us to care whether they live or die; the rest are simply food for the monsters. Michael Fassbender, both reprising his role as Prometheus’ sociopathic synthetic, David, as well as the Covenant’s newer model, Walter, is the standout here, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. His David is a complex and impressive villain, and far more skincrawling than the bio-horrors picking off the rest of the cast.

As Daniels, Katherine Waterston is the Ripley stand-in and gives a great performance, but her character doesn’t have an enormous amount to do beyond the first act’s character building, and later dispatching of acid-blooded threats.

Billy Crudup’s Oram is one of the more interesting characters, a man of faith forced to take on the role of captain after Branson’s death. His clashes with the rest of the crew and his uncertainties in the face of adversity make him fallible and a little sympathetic. Eventually though, like a lot of the characters in Covenant, his decisions and choices make little sense for his character and fall into the same ballpark as the doofuses who can only run in straight lines, a la Prometheus.

Beyond this, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo are all good, but their talents are somewhat wasted with underwritten characters or early deaths. The fact that the crew is made up entirely of couples makes for some interesting and fresh dynamics, if only so they’ll be more distraught every time somebody is eviscerated.

Jed Kurzel’s score is effective and thrilling, although it seems to hark back a little too often to Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic work from 1979’s original Alien. It also doesn’t have quite the same epic feel as Marc Streitenfeld and Harry Gregson-Williams’ work on Prometheus. Having said that, it works beautifully here with Kurzel’s trademark moody ambience, and really stands out in some scenes.

For all its problems, Prometheus was at least ambitious in terms of its mythology building, its monsters, and its refusal to recycle the xenomorphs. That Scott has “listened to the fans” and included the traditional xenomorphs in Covenant is actually a bit of a letdown. The xenomorphs’ creation story is interesting and creepy, but the creatures themselves just aren’t that scary anymore. They’re relegated to a few third act set pieces that feel shoehorned into the story for the sake of being able to call this an Alien film. The decision to include the xenomorphs also short-changes the far more unsettling Neomorphs – pale, lanky prototypes that could easily have carried the film if only Scott and the screenwriters had had the faith to let them.

It takes a while for the horror to kick in, and while the film’s attempt to take its time building characters is admirable, this throws off the overall structure, squashing much of its action into the second half. This probably could have been fixed if the film was a little longer, or its third act wasn’t so average, especially after the dark heights of the second act. This section, set largely in some imposing ruins and dominated by some seriously creepy Fassbender on Fassbender interactions, saves the movie. Here it delves into some dark themes and philosophical questions, like the idea of humanity undone by its own drive to evolve and advance. This is aided by screenwriter John Logan’s proclivity for quoting classic works of literature and poetry (no surprises from the man who brought us the pulp horror series, Penny Dreadful). It’s also the closest Covenant comes to being genuinely scary, with some wonderful set pieces and scenes of smaller-scale violence, plus a flashback that’s both beautiful and terrifying.

Unfortunately, all this good work dissolves into predictable mediocrity as the characters return to the ship for the final act, featuring lazy off-screen deaths and what is by now a severely flogged dead horse for the franchise: ejecting the monster into space. There’s also a “twist” that’s ruined by being painfully, stupidly obvious from the moment it’s hinted at earlier in the film. On the other hand, it makes for a great ending, and leaves me hopeful for Scott’s planned third prequel film.

Ultimately Alien: Covenant could have been a lot better, could have delivered on its promise of a dark sci-fi horror epic that terrifies as much for its existentialism as for its monsters. What we got was far from shit, and at the very least it’s one of the best looking films of the year, but Covenant can’t seem to decide which side of the Prometheus/Alien fence it wants to sit on, resulting in a clumsy hybrid that ends up playing it far too safe. There are some great moments in there, and I honestly enjoyed it much more than it seems; it just needs more polish and coherence.

Scott’s apparently planning to conclude this prequel trilogy in the next few years. Third time lucky, fingers crossed?

Assassin’s Creed (Review)

I’m a fan of the prolific Assassin’s Creed video game series (I’ve played about five-and-a-half out of the nine games so far), but I wasn’t all that excited about the announced film adaptation, not least because video game properties translated into films have an unfortunate – and seemingly unbreakable – pattern of being utter shit, bar maybe the first Silent Hill.

There’s also the problem that the Creed games’ primary narrative quirk – that whatever historical time period we’re playing in is being experienced as a genetic memory by a character in the modern world delving into their ancestors’ assassin history in order to unlock clues and find macguffins left to us by an ancient, technologically advanced race of god-like beings, while fighting off their sworn enemies, the evil Templars, and try reading that aloud without taking a breath or giggling – is both ridiculous, and works more as a franchise-perpetuating plot device than an engaging narrative catalyst. This kind of thing works in a video game because we’re so engaged in Renaissance Italy or Colonial America or Victorian London that we don’t have to dwell on what got us there, or the vapid modern interludes (more on that later).

But then they hired Aussie Justin Kurzel to direct, Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Top of the Lake, Snowtown, Macbeth) as Directory of Photography, the director’s brother Jed Kurzel as composer, and a cast that included Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael K Williams and Brendan Gleeson, and suddenly, on the strength of all this unflappable talent, here was a film I couldn’t wait to see.

Kurzel’s debut, Snowtown, based on the real-life Snowtown (aka bodies-in-the-barrels) murders in South Australia, is one of the most disturbing and beautiful films I’ve seen in the last decade. His follow-up, a grimy period piece adaptation of Macbeth that, like Snowtown, is equal parts dark, violent, and just incredible to look at, ranks as one of the better cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare to date. So it stands to reason that his take on the popular video game franchise (which borrowed Macbeth’s lead couple in Fassbender and Cotillard) would also be pretty damn good, right?

…Right?

Well, maybe not.

It’s not an infuriating, offensive, Suicide Squad-level disaster by any means, but it’s a bit of a flop considering the talent involved.

Assassin’s Creed takes an interesting tangent from the video game series by giving us both a new historical setting and a new assassin character: 15th century Spain, and Aguilar de Nerha (Michael Fassbender), respectively. As the film opens, Aguilar is initiated into the Brotherhood of Assassins and their fight against the Templars during, in this case, the Spanish Inquisition. The problem is, we learn virtually nothing about Aguilar as a person, his motivations or reasons for becoming an assassin, even the hint of a backstory. He just runs around a lot and stabs/fights the bad guys.

One of the criticisms levelled at the games is that some of them spent too much unnecessary time in the present day, particularly the earlier games, up until Assassin’s Creed III, which featured boring assassin-descended Desmond Miles going through the motions of a boring story you want to get through as fast as possible in order to return to the real fun, which is the stabby, parkour-happy ancestor. Later games dialled back on these annoying interludes, but for some reason, writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage decided to let the present day story dominate the film’s screenplay. Fassbender’s Callum Lynch, a death row inmate (but a good one because the guy he’s in jail for killing was a nasty pimp, okay!) whose execution is faked by the shady Jeremy Irons-run Abstergo Industries so they can exploit his genetic memories, is a much more fleshed out character than the rather dull Aguilar, but with only three sections dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition, there’s not exactly much for the latter to do. Besides, this really misses the point of the games, as well as the fun of them.

I can see why the writers chose the structure that they did, with a focus on the modern day character, but either the script needed a lot more work, or there was a lot of post-production cutting going on, or maybe even both. Either way, both parts of the story don’t quite work, and the film’s pacing is all over the place. Both the action and the quieter moments drag on for too long, and the editing needs a lot of work.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to Assassin’s Creed that’s either good or at least not shit. The action’s not exactly mindblowing but it’s competent enough for the most part, and the reliance on practical effects/stunts results in a handful of great set-pieces, including a record breaking leap of faith performed by an actual stunt man. From what I could make out, the costumes, props and sets are all particularly well done. Jed Kurzel’s score is one of the best parts of the film, both haunting and truly intense, and helps bandage over some of those pacing problems. The acting its mostly engaging, too, aside from poor Marion Cotillard being dumped with so much insipid expository dialogue. For some unfathomable reason, though, the filmmakers decided to wash all the colour out with some hideous monotone filter that made me think I’d developed cataracts in the cinema. It’s all dull and grainy and makes what otherwise seems to be a very good-looking film, incredibly ugly.

Every story element here works on its own to some extent – Cal’s Daddy issues and his struggle with the regressions, Aguilar’s sections, the father-daughter tension between Irons’ and Cotillard’s characters, the secondary characters in both timelines, who all seem much more interesting than the protagonist, particularly the charming Michael K Williams and Ariane Labed – but nothing’s ever really fleshed out and, worst of all, there’s no synchronicity (pun not intended) to the film as a whole, no rhythm that might make its other flaws that much more forgivable.

Some of the post-production choices made here, particularly characters who seemed like they should have had much more screen time, seem to stack up to studio interference/cutting – which appears to be the depressing trend with blockbusters lately – and others are just plain bizarre. I feel like if they’d just removed the grainy filter and given the story and characters some room to breathe, this could have been so much better. Assassin’s Creed seems like a good film hiding behind a script in need of editing and an awful colour filter; it’s not exactly a disaster, but it’s just not fun.