Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Film Review: ALIEN: COVENANT by Mike Sullivan

Mentioning you dislike PROMETHEUS is a lot like mentioning how much you hate the noodling, dimwitted pretention rock of Tool: the damned souls of one thousand Redditors will suddenly blink into existence and moan “you just didn’t get it” as they shake their ghostly nerd shackles in your face. But the thing is, I did get PROMETHEUS. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single person on earth who didn’t get PROMETHEUS. Who didn’t understand that PROMETHEUS was about faith and the origins of creation? The point of PROMETHEUS was clear; everything else wasn’t. Damon Lindelof’s plot-hole riddled screenplay (which, to his credit, wasn’t nearly as big of a mess as his screenplay for TOMORROWLAND) was filled with so many vague plot-points and unexamined character motivations that it played like a strangely solemn book of unfinished Mad Libs. It was beautifully photographed, meaningless but posturing and covered in a preponderance of black alien jizz. In other words, PROMETHEUS was a Matthew Barney movie for people who believe that crisis actors actually exist (not all PROMETHEUS fans are Truthers but, I guarantee, every Truther is a PROMETHEUS fan). Yet, as much as I hated PROMETHEUS, I’ll still take it over ALIEN: COVENANT. Because as affected as PROMETHEUS was, it was still its own thing. ALIEN: COVENANT simultaneously feels like a weird apology for PROMETHEUS while also sort of functioning as an EVIL DEAD 2-style remake of PROMETHEUS. It commits a sin even its predecessor didn’t commit: it’s shrug inducing and forgettable.

On the plus side, COVENANT opens with a prologue that’s probably a bit more bizarre than the one found in PROMETHEUS. Mainly because it gives us the daring return of Guy Pearce as old man Weyland, one of the more ‘who-cares’, tertiary characters found in PROMETHEUS. It should also be noted that Pearce’s elderly make-up this time around has improved. It now looks like a rubber Nixon mask instead of resembling the end result of having someone hurl small pieces of wet toilet paper at Pearce’s face from across the room. In this scene Weyland has just added the finishing touches to android David (Michael Fassbender) and literally after seconds into his creation’s birth, Weyland is passive-aggressively picking apart the way David plays Wagner on the piano. If COVENANT was just a fake old man belittling an android as if it was some kind of mannered, Merchant Ivory sci-fi spin on SHUT UP LITTLE MAN, I would have loved it, but almost immediately the pair discuss creation and creators and gods and monsters and ‘hey, man! What if Ferris Bueller was just a delusional manifestation of Cameron’s desire to be the coolest guy in Chicago?” As in PROMETHEUS, every time the film tries to get philosophical it just feels like getting stuck in a room with a really stoned friend of a friend who has a theory that “every time an angel is mentioned in the bible, it’s actually just a cyborg because the bible didn’t have a word for cyborg yet.” It’s the kind of freshman dorm ‘deep thoughts’ that made PROMETHEUS so goddamn insufferable.

From there, COVENANT flashes forward about 30 or 40 years. We’re now aboard the colonization ship the Covenant. In a development that unfortunately mirrors last year’s PASSENGERS, the Covenant receives a slight bit of damage causing the main crew to awaken from cryo-sleep several years before their arrival on some earth-like planet where everybody is totally pumped to build log cabins for some reason. As it turns out, the Covenant’s crew is comprised of bland or sorely miscast character actors. There’s Billy Crudup as an insecure second-in-command who, through awkward expository dialogue, alerts us to the fact that he is a man of faith who takes the funerals for his fellow crew members as a personal insult. Katherine Waterston plays her Ellen Ripley surrogate as if she was channeling Jane Adams, in that she’s just frayed nerves and dewy eyes. It makes you wonder if she is going to fight the aliens or is Jon Lovitz going to call her “shit” after he rips a gaudy Franklin Mint ashtray out of her hands? Danny McBride is here and he’s doing a toned down variation on his foul-mouthed Apatow-ian redneck character (at one point he calls a character sweet tits). Seeing him in this is about as distracting as it would be to see Buddy Hackett play a wise-cracking purser in the original ALIEN. Yet it’s still not nearly as distracting as the fact that James Franco briefly appears as the ill-fated captain of the Covenant and Waterston’s husband. Like McBride, it’s not clear why he’s in it. Especially considering that he’s doing that weird thing where he seems to be appearing in this because he thinks it’s ironic or funny or whatever. Fassbender is on hand as well as another android called Walter who speaks with an American accent so atrocious you think it’s going to be part of a big reveal; sort of how Ben Kingsley’s bad American accent was part of the twist in IRON MAN 3. But no, it’s just bad.

As Walter and the main crew attempt to repair the Covenant, they stumble upon a distress signal from a nearby planet. Since nobody wants to return to their cryo-chambers because -- well, the film doesn’t really explain why they don’t want to return to their cryo-chambers. Which is weird because it doesn’t look that bad. There’s no catheters you have to get hooked up to or anything. I guess everybody just wanted to stay up, drink Dr. Pepper and play Super Mario Party for the next 45 or so years. Nonetheless, Crudup proposes instead to colonize this nearby planet. Of course, this is the same planet from PROMETHEUS where David was infecting his fellow crew-members with an alien virus. And, hey, wouldn’t you know it? It turns out that David has been living here in what appears to be a genuine, motherfucking Dracula castle, growing out his robot hair (Why would Weyland program this option into David? In addition to repairs and average ordinary upkeep, why would you want the extra hassle of a giant goddamned Dolly Surprise who requires a fresh Richard Spencer haircut every two weeks?) and waiting for more humans to infect. Why? Again, I don’t know. You’re going to have to visit Ridley Scott at his H.R. Giger designed spinal-phallus stronghold and ask. Because even though he’ll happily explain to you why in interviews, he’s unwilling to put that same information in his movies.

The smartest thing Ridley Scott ever did with the Alien franchise was in handing over the directorial reigns to people like James Cameron, David Fincher and, yes, even Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Because even if most of those particular films were flawed, they still had their own distinctive identities and managed to take the franchise in slightly different directions. They weren’t simply one man going, “Ugh. What? Oh, Xenomorphs, right? That’s the thing you like, right? Whatever. I need my tumbler of black alien jizz. Needy pricks.” Apart from some moments of Cronebergian body horror that take the facehugger concept and make it far more terrifying, ALIEN: COVENANT feels like it was made by someone who made too many compromises and doesn’t care anymore. Someone who’s blindly going through the motions just to get it done. It’s less a creative act and more of a contractual obligation. ALIEN: COVENANT is lifeless and rote. Even worse, COVENANT manages to retain everything bad about PROMETHEUS. Character development is clunky, subplots are introduced and suddenly dropped and it’s still very, very stupid. Do the space helmets in the Ridleyverse constantly smell like a combination of hot dog burps and that farty smell Campbell’s soup makes when you open the can? Is this why characters are constantly compelled to take them off on weird alien landscapes? If an effete android with implacably sinister intentions asks you to follow him to his castle basement and tells you to stick your head in a vaginal Venus flytrap thing, would you do it if he asked nicely and just had a temper tantrum because you killed his pink alien buddy that slaughtered your fellow crewmates? What was up with that slapsticky sequence where two different people slipped on blood? Wouldn’t it have made more sense in the Friedberg & Seltzer parody movie version of COVENANT? If that wasn’t enough, it also retains all of PROMETHEUS’ pretention. A low point occurs when Walter and David argue over who wrote Ozymandias and it’s like watching a knock-down-drag-out-fight between the guy who has a bumper sticker that reads, “My Other Car is a Pynchon Novel” and the dude who goes to the bar alone to pretend to read Infinite Jest. It’s “smart” in that empty, showboating way that blowhards in their early twenties consider to be smart.

ALIEN: COVENANT could be summed up by the scene in which two Michael Fassbender’s make out: It looks really good but it doesn’t go where you want it to go and, most importantly, there’s a lot of build up for such a small disappointing payoff. In short, if you’re bold enough to include hot, steamy Fassbender on Fassbender action, you better follow through to its bitterly erotic end.