Alien: Covenant (2017)

2017 #69
Ridley Scott | 122 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia, New Zealand & UK / English | 15 / R

Alien: Covenant

Following in the footsteps of half the other Alien movies (and “following in the footsteps” is definitely a theme when it comes to this movie), Alien: Covenant introduces us to a group of people who are the crew of a spaceship. This particular lot are on their way to establish a colony when a mid-flight disaster awakens them to deal with the damage. At the same time they detect a distress call from a nearby planet — a planet that looks even more suited to supporting human life than the one they were headed for. Changing course, they find suspiciously human vegetation growing on the planet, but are soon beset by terrible things. Well, it’s an Alien movie — I’m sure you can guess where most of this is going.

I say it’s an Alien movie, but really it’s a Prometheus movie. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler, does it? It’s no secret that Michael Fassbender is back. Sure, he starts the film playing a new robot, but did anyone really think that meant his old character wouldn’t be rocking up too? Sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone, but, c’mon. Besides, it’s clear that — despite the initial set dressing — Ridley Scott is far more interested in the concepts that launched Prometheus than he is in creating another Alien movie. The franchise-friendly stuff powers the slow-burn opening and the final act adrenaline rushes, but in between Scott reconnects to themes leftover from the apparently-aborted Prometheus trilogy.

Fit to burst

Now, I’ve already professed to be avoiding spoilers, but suffice to say that if you put Prometheus, Aliens (as opposed to Alien), Blade Runner (yep), and Frankenstein into a blender, then poured the resulting mixture into a novelty tie-in glass from the Star Wars prequels, you’d get Alien: Covenant. Weirdly, it’s the Prometheus stuff in that blend that tastes finer than the Aliens stuff. In fairness, that’s because it’s complemented by the notes of Blade Runner and Frankenstein.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. The scenes of characters chatting hold more interest than the action sequences, which feel a little perfunctory, remixing bits of previous movies with little impact, and are too dark to really appreciate (though I should withhold judgement on that last point, because they looked gloomier in the film than they did in the trailer, so perhaps it was just my cinema?) There’d be no shame in Covenant working as just an action and/or horror movie, if well made — that’s what the films that originated this franchise are, after all — but Scott is interested in exploring something more profound. The problem is that the attempted profundity comes from characters standing around and explaining the plot and/or themes to each other. It’s further undermined by slightly sloppy construction, one that places a key flashback at entirely the wrong moment (coming much earlier than it should, thereby spoiling a later reveal), and a last-minute twist that will be easily guessable to anyone who’s ever seen another movie.

In space, no one can see you look worried...

Worst of all, however, is that this film just didn’t need to be made. As with Prometheus before it, do we want to know where the eponymous beasties come from? It ruins some of their mystique, especially as the answers feel oddly mundane. This is not something further films are going to fix, either; though at this point they may as well keep going until things join up properly to the original Alien, because hey, why not?

Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus because at least the character don’t act like total imbeciles who should know better. On the other hand, it’s worse than Prometheus because it scrubs out any ambiguity that film left about the Xenomorphs’ origins. Sometimes a mystery is better than an answer.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from tomorrow.

Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free reign to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5