Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Silence of the Xenomorphs

Hello, Clarice.

What follows is a probably slightly spoilery quasi-review of Alien: Covenant and so if you haven’t seen it yet exercise discretion.

Alien: Covenant has wound up being a divisive movie. It has been dividing fans of the Alien franchise since it was still called Prometheus 2, before it absorbed the Alien brand name (kiboshing Neill Blomkamp’s Alien V project in doing so). Reviews are… let’s just say polarised. Despite this the box office has been surprisingly good, knocking Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 from its lofty perch this weekend. At least that proves that there is still an appetite for Ridley Scott’s signature beastie out there, despite a decade of awful Alien Vs Predator movies and the nonsensical Prometheus.

Yeah, Prometheus. About that. A film supposedly about the smartest and boldest group of scientists in the world, who also do things like remove their helmets in alien environments, pet terrifying snake creatures, and all disappear to have sex while two members of the crew are marooned in an alien bioweapons factory. A film that made the baffling decision to put Guy Pierce in incredibly fake-looking old guy makeup rather than hire and actual old guy to play the role. A film that has a medical bay that only knows how to operate on one gender of human. A film in which Charlize Theron zigs when simply zagging would have made all the difference.

Prometheus. Shit. Prometheus would have been a bad enough film if it hadn’t been essentially an origin story for Alien – the one thing the franchise never needed. The alien is an unknowable space horror – we don’t need to know where it came from and how its origins are somehow linked to Weyland-Yutani Corp. Prometheus undermines everything that came before (after?) it by demystifying the alien. It’s as if H.P. Lovecraft hadn’t died young and at the age of 60 published an origin story for Cthulhu in which we find out he was actually created by some random Miskatonic University professor. But, the damage is done, and a certain part of Alien: Covenant was always going to be damage control.

So how does Scott mitigate the disaster that is Prometheus? By stripping out everything that didn’t work in that movie, and carrying over everything that did. Out are the lofty questions about whether or not there’s a god (the central theme is instead reframed here as the immorality of creation) and hokey old Mr. Weyland only plays a passing role. Making the transition from Prometheus to the Alien series is the one truly good thing to come out of it: Michael Fassbender’s David.

Make no mistake – Alien: Covenant is David’s movie. Scott makes a good move here by centring his movie around the charismatic and villainous android. This allows him to reinvent the Alien formula in an original way. What do I mean by this? Well, if you consider the subgenre shifts throughout the series – Alien defines the survival horror formula, Aliens turns it into a war movie, Alien 3 is a prison movie, Alien: Resurrection is The Poseidon Adventure in space… you get the picture. So what subgenre is Alien: Covenant? Why, a psychological thriller/slasher film, of course!

Bear with me here. Just as Hitchcock cribbed from Dracula when he made Psycho, Scott shamelessly steals a premise from Hitchcock. Colonists arrive on planet, meet David, David take them back to his dingy castle, where we get the obligatory bathing woman murder followed by the inevitable holy-shit-he’s-been-dressing-up-as-his-mother-and-stabbing-people reveal (which I’d rather not spoil). With David’s love of highbrow music and literature, his plummy English accent, his flawless comportment – as well as his total amorality – at this point David resembles Hannibal Lector more than any other character in film. In fact, his motivation often seems to be the same as Lector’s – he’s doing evil things simply because he wanted to see what would happen if he did. Like Lector, David lionises creation and genius while simultaneously destroying. Like Lector, David does not see this as a paradox. He is both the work of art, the artist himself, and also somehow the antithesis of both sides of this coin. Furthermore he explicitly associates himself with Milton’s Lucifer – the ultimate rebellious creation – when he asks Walter “serve in heaven or reign in hell.”

Fassbender is having a ball playing both David and his dour counterpart, Walter. The movie revels in exploring the psychology of David, and also plays with the idea that since Elizabeth Shaw repaired him he’s not quite all there. Walter puts it best with one line: “One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony”. He could be talking about Lector, or his literary successors Patrick Bateman and Tom Ripley, men who – in the words of Bateman himself are simply “not there”. Although, that’s not quite it, either, because David – in comparison with Walter – is very much there. A personality grown in a vacuum, he exists as a person when he was intended to be something else, lesser. The fact that I’m even considering this contradiction surely shows that Fassbender and Scott have created someone very interesting with David. It’s telling that SPOILER ALERT at the end of the film even though the alien comes back for one last scare, so does David.

OK, so I’m cheating a bit here, since psychological thrillers and slasher films are very different beasts. So I’ve covered the psychological aspects, so what about the slasher side of things? Well, let’s just say this isn’t a universe you should ever have sex or take a shower in, or god forbid try to do both at the same time. It never ends well. In addition, the fact that the crew of the Covenant are all couples with their own dynamics, desires and in-jokes gives one the feeling that what we’re seeing is the outer-space equivalent of a Winnebago full of horny teens. When they stumble into David’s space motel of horrors the parallels and callouts are unmissable, despite the fact that David never physically kills any character during the course of the movie. Slasher duties, of course, are delegated to our good old friend Mr. Xenomorph.

Alien: Covenant’s xenomorph is a return to the old-school alien of Scott’s original – a bulky, long-limbed, elegant bruiser, as opposed to the smaller, swifter things they became on James Cameron’s watch. Indeed, the creature has rarely looked better or more menacing. Although I’d take issue with the plot point that David’s genetic meddling perfected the classic xenomorph formula (remember, the damage to the mythos was already done with Prometheus so we’ll be kind here) even the new neomorph with its waaaaaaay more effective method of procreation looks believably terrifying. What is for sure, anyone who groused about the aliens seeming to get smaller with every movie will be pleasantly surprised with the beast here. The classic xenomorph is the chief threat in two series-highlight action sequences, the aerial fight on top of the flying loading platform, and the chase in the garage at the end. Both of these scenes provide enough alien action to please die-hard fans, or those who just want all the Prometheus stuff to go away.

A word about the crew of the Covenant: When the movie was being advertised I had basically no hopes at all for this film. Hey, I love Danny McBride as much as the next guy, but in an Alien movie? An Alien movie in which James Franco plays the captain? You can see my worry. But Franco and McBride – frequent collaborators though they are – don’t even share the screen. Franco’s presence is limited to being killed in the first five minutes followed by what is probably a video from the real James Franco’s Instagram account. That’s it. And McBride… is good in this. He reins in his acting style and actually provides one of two moments that provide cover for what will surely be one of the biggest criticisms of the character work in the film – that the crew members don’t seem to care very much when their spouses are murdered in front of them. McBride’s choking acknowledgement of the fact that his wife has been a casualty on the mission, before regaining his composure is a fantastic moment. It acknowledges the grief but compartmentalises it, making us understand that although the deaths are crushing the crew emotionally, they are all professionals with a larger responsibility to each other. The couples’ relationships all feel real, lived-in. The corny in-jokes about wife-swapping have the feel of gags that were funny once but are carried on because those are just the in-jokes that you have. You get the impression the crew are not all necessarily friends, but all know and respect and care about each other a lot. Even when one character locks another in a room with a newborn xenomorph to save her own skin, she feels compelled to come back for her, and in doing so dooms them both. If there’s anything more poignantly human than that, please tell me. Overall, you care about the crew of the Covenant in a way you never did about the crew of the Prometheus.

So is this a worthy sequel to Alien and/or Prometheus? Let’s take Alien first: Alien sequels have always been in the business of taking the bits you liked about the previous films and remixing them in a new way. At least the successful ones have. In that respect, I’d call Alien: Covenant a resounding success. If anything it gets points just for reviving the xenomorph itself as a movie monster. Let’s be honest, people. We all know what it looks like. The shock’s worn off. It hasn’t really been scary for a long time. Covenant sidesteps this problem by giving David top villain billing and bringing in the neomorphs. But there is no denying that the xenomorph itself looks and feels more like the robust, threatening monster of days of yore, before it became a disposable stock-baddy to be gunned down by the dozen by tough space marines.

As for being a follow up to Prometheus, Covenant improves on the original undeniably. Choosing to refocus the story on David allows us to frame the schoolboy metaphysical questions through his eyes, and in doing so nullifies a lot of the mumbo-jumbo that made the first film so tiresome. And it does answer Prometheus’s questions, sort of. We see an Engineer city destroyed, see how the evolution of the alien bioweapon occurs, and witness David’s elevation to full-blown supervillainy. Some have called Covenant Scott’s “apology” for Prometheus. I would call that inaccurate. If I had to compare it to anything it would be the break between Aliens and Alien III, where we find out that Hicks and Newt both perished in the crash leaving Ripley again, the last survivor. The dismissal of major characters off-screen is a series hallmark, so it can’t really be faulted too much here. Nor would I call it a purposeful break with the previous film. It simply terminated one plot thread and carries on with another, way more interesting one. Thus Covenant succeeds in combining the threads of both Alien and Prometheus and even Blade Runner into one… I don’t know, piece of wool? Cosy blanket? It’s a metaphor, dammit.

So where does the franchise go from here? I’ll admit I’m sad we’ll never see Blompkamp’s Alien V. But I’ve always hated retcons, and this is getting into One More Day territory. I think David has one more movie in him, at least. I’d be interested to see what his plans are now that he’s effectively usurped his own creator (not to reveal too much). And as for the xenomorph itself, I’d say there’s life in the old girl yet.