Alien: Covenant (2017)

Alien: Covenant (2017) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 05/28/2017 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

For my money, Alien: Covenant is entertaining enough. Michael Fassbender is by far the best thing in the film. But this Prometheus sequel by any other name is indeed a step toward explaining things that don’t really need explaining and building a world that was more interesting to just imagine.

Now, I liked Prometheus. Five years ago writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof were at the time criticized for opening up all these unanswered questions and ideas in that film. Director Ridley Scott seems to have come back with a mind to answer all of those questions, though only in part in this film. Rumors say he has two other Alien films in his hopper, awaiting future creation and release.

Visually polished, Alien: Covenant is nice-looking. But it’s got other holes in logic and issues of preordainment (is that a word?) Frankly, it’s frustrating to take more seriously and yet it refuses to just be a horror film. It really wants to think big thoughts.

I look at it this way: we’ll always have Alien. And we’ll even have Aliens. But we may never have anything that begins to have the vitality of those movies in our over-franchised movie world. No matter who makes them.

Alien Resurrection (1997)

Alien Resurrection (1997) movie poster

director Jean-Pierre Jeunet
viewed: 04/24/2013

To complete the Alien cycle, sort of, I pulled up the 1997 film, Alien Resurrection, which I hadn’t seen since its initial release.  When it first came out, I was kind of excited about it.   Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, fresh off the amazing The City of Lost Children (1995) and featuring the ever-waifish Winona Ryder, this strange mix of elements seemed to bode of something unusual and potentially cool.  On paper, at least.

The screenplay was written by Joss Whedon, though at the time that wouldn’t have meant a lot to me.  Whedon’s contributions were not enough to rescue the film, either.

Set 200 years after Alien 3 (1992), the never say dead Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is “resurrected” via DNA with an alien queen inside her.  All hell, of course, breaks loose.

Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon, also fresh off  The City of Lost Children show up, as do the tropes and ideas that comprise an “Alien” movie.  Sort of like a jazz take on material, flashing familiar elements of a song whilst reinventing and playing with the elements.  Though in this case it would be a rather poor rendition.

Winona does indeed also appear.  As the resident android, though apparently one with emotions.  She’s not bad here. Those big brown eyes are as luminous as ever.

Sadly, Alien Resurrection is probably the worst of the original four films.  It’s not unfun.  It’s kind of entertaining. If a sloppy mess of a movie.

The Alien series Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997) doesn’t end here.  It moves into Alien vs. Predator (2004) and then Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007).  And then does it not become re-resurrected in Prometheus (2012)?  And beyond?

As I started my venture into the “quadrilogy,” I actually also became intrigued by its knock-offs.  I haven’t watched any of them yet, though I’ve queued some.  Maybe more to come.  Maybe.

Alien 3 (1992)

Alien 3 (1992) movie poster

director David Fincher
viewed: 10/31/2012

I’ve been revisiting the Alien films, stringing them out since there’s been no rush.  I recall really disliking Alien 3 when it came out, I vaguely even recall reading negative reviews about it and thinking that it might still be interesting.  It was directed by this guy, David Fincher, who was known for making videos.  Unlike Alien (1979) or Aliens (1986), made by Ridley Scott and James Cameron respectively, the third film was made by a relative unknown…

Well, Scott was pretty unknown when he made Alien in 1979.  And while Cameron had The Terminator (1984) under his belt, he wasn’t yet the James Cameron that we all know today…yet.  Well, it turns out that David Fincher was also not yet the David Fincher that he would become, the David Fincher of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), The Social Network (2010), Zodiac (2007), Seven (1995) or Fight Club (1999).  But like Scott and Cameron before him, he would make an Alien film and then go on to become a big name Hollywood director.

The difference, however, is that Alien 3, unlike its predecessors, pretty much sucks.

It’s a hackneyed story, with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash landing on a prison planet, the only survivor of the wreck, impregnated as only the alien facehugger can do, with alien spawn.  The film’s palette is all dingy browns and yellow, Weaver’s head is shaved like the prisoners, and the alien is running around killing them off one by one.  Oh yeah, and Ripley not just carrying any alien spawn but a queen alien spawn.

From what I’ve read, Fincher has dissociated himself from the film, citing much studio intervention, lack of control, having inherited much of the film rather than having something to craft.  And given his movies since then, it’s not so hard to imagine that.  Oddly enough, James Cameron’s first feature is also a horror sequel that he has disclaimed for years, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1978).  Luckily for Cameron, he did have little to do with his film and it is pretty obscure.  How much Fincher had to do with Alien 3, what his limitations were, obstacles, it’s packaged in box sets with the other Alien movies and it’s got his name on it.  It’s nowhere as terrible or hilarious as Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, it’s just lame and lacking in the verve and inventiveness of the films that came before it.  It’s overlong, stiff, humorless.  It’s not really worth revisiting unless you’re a completist of one sort or another.

Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986) movie poster

director James Cameron
viewed: 09/06/2012

It was Prometheus (2012) that led me back to Alien (1979) and now Alien back to Aliens.  It’s a slippery slope to open yet another series of films to re-visit in whole.

It’s been said that while Alien was a science fiction/horror film, Aliens is more a science fiction/action film, a genre shift, but one of the most compelling sequels perhaps ever made.  Director James Cameron picked up the narrative from the 1979 original, took (not necessarily its DNA a la Prometheus but) many of the film’s great elements (the alien itself, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), android paranoia, gender politics) and developed a wholly different, extremely thrilling, and even iconic movie from those elements.  And in many ways, the genre reinvention helped to define the film on its own terms, not merely in comparison.

Set fifty-seven years after the first film, fifty-seven years that Ripley and her cat have been in hyper-sleep in the middle of nowhere, Cameron pushes the distance of the real world seven years even further.  The clever set-up has the corporation blaming Ripley for her having destroyed the Nostromo, and not having any evidence of her monster anywhere.  Beyond that, there are humans living on that dead rock that the Nostromo had so fatefully visited.  At least until the humans make “contact” with the creatures and wind up in radio silence.  The corporation sends Ripley, their company man Carter Burke (a classically sleazy Paul Reiser), and a team of space marines, each tougher than the other, to kick ass and take names.  The whole thing kind of implodes.

What has always struck me is how effectively Cameron develops his characters.  It’s his Ripley that one thinks of when one thinks of the character that Weaver plays in four films, not the lucky, survivor of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  Cameron invents the female action hero, quite intentionally, quite effectively.  It’s not that she’s sleek, deadly or muscled-up.  She has not the fighting powers of a video game character.  She’s a working class woman, apparently a mother with a lost child (didn’t know that), maternal, strong in character, tenacious, heroic.  It’s the maternal aspect that sets up the epic showdown at the end of the film.  Ripley finds the lone survivor at the hive-like station in the little child, Newt, who she takes to in lieu of her own child, and she battles the Alien queen, mother to all the drone worker/killers.  It’s not happenstance that her character has become such an icon; she’s strong, intelligent, and real.  And wonderfully created.

I’ve always admired the scene in which the marines first appear, coming out of hyper-sleep, in a deft sequence that telegraphs their personae in flash-like strokes.  The character actors are all very good, and though their characters are hardly well-rounded, they are colorful archetypes, with unique qualities that make them characters, not mere stereotypes.  I’ve always loved how the sergeant (Al Matthews) pops his cigar into his mouth immediately upon waking, before any other movement is needed.  He has a number of little moments that develop his character more than whole scenes would need to do.  Bill Paxton gets all the comedy relief as Hudson, the best catchphrases.  Jenette Goldstein is fantastic as the butch Vasquez, again a character so well-sketched in her few scenes that she stands out in one’s mind years after the film.  And Lance Hendrikson is great as Bishop, the android with a milky heart of gold.

It’s a thrilling, exciting film.  I remember in 1986 taking my girlfriend and her folks to the film (I’d seen it once already) and how they were all surprised how much they liked it.  It stands up well over the years on the whole.  Unfortunately I watched the “Special Edition” version which threw in a few deleted scenes that help explain aspects of the narrative, like Ripley’s daughter, but really lengthen but don’t illuminate the narrative in useful ways.  It’s the Blade Runner (1982) effect.  The one film that really made an argument for a “director’s cut” now entitles all directors a hindsight that often isn’t 20/20.

While it is not a “feminist” film, I would say that it does create a female hero, an iconic female character in a realm of male-dominated action cinema.  It’s not just the sort of Lara Croft, woman with big boobs and hot gams, playing the role according to the script stereotypes.  But a character, originating in Scott’s film, and reaching fuller realization here, a character who is a strong woman, and intelligent woman, maternal, compelling, resilient.  I’m sure many an article or paper has been written on this specific subject, so I won’t try to say things that others have stated already.  But I think it’s a poignant character that Weaver and Cameron developed, and is all the more interesting for the lack of cliches.

Heck of a movie.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 08/23/2012

The film that taught us that “In space no one can hear you scream.”

My personal relationship with the film, Alien, dates back to its initial release in 1979.  I was 10 years old and convinced my mom to take me and a friend to the movie.  It was my first R-rated film.  Against better judgment, doubtlessly, it was also my younger sister’s first R-rated film.  She would have been 6 at the time.  These are indeed the things of which nightmares are made and from which therapists do profit.

It had been years, years since I had seen the film.  Like apparently many people, I had wanted to review it before watching director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) when it came out earlier this year but it took Netflix this long to get around to sending it to me.  While I missed the opportunity to prep and refresh for watching Prometheus, I was still quite keen on revisiting the film, the sci-fi/horror classic, a film that actually lives up to such a moniker.

The film was always of a higher class than the bulk of the horror or science fiction films of its time, and it’s probably safe to say that it still is.  It was only Scott’s second feature film, as is often noted, but it’s masterfully designed, paced, and crafted.  The designs, largely developed from H.R. Giger remain a peak in the field.  Can you even think of designs that compare with the sexualized surreal creatures, pods, and ships even since?  The constantly-evolving creature, in darkness, never seen in full, teasing with its acid blood, its projectile fangs, its complex physique, even after a series of several films, comics, games, proliferation is still outstanding.

And Sigourney Weaver.  A working class hero.  Not yet quite the female action hero that she becomes in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) but still a far cry from the scantily-clad scream queens of the typical horror film of its day.  Much has been noted about the age of the cast, that unlike so many slasher films of the day, it’s not a load of young things getting picked off one by one during acts of horniness, but a crew of more middle aged spans, a bit more haggard or simply wearing no make-up.

Revisiting Alien was well-worth it.  It’s a great movie.  My son Felix is presently 10 and I wouldn’t watch the film with him. When I was 10, I was totally into horror movies (“monster movies”) and at that time all of the films were rated R and getting more gruesome and pessimistic, so it wasn’t such a bad thing to have taken me to.  My sister on the other hand…

Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus (2012) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 06/08/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

One of the most anticipated films of the year, as if you didn’t know, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is the famed and successful director’s return to the science fiction genre in which he made his initial splash and arguably his most important and influential films in his young career.  But it’s not only a return to the genre, it’s a return to his specific movie, Alien (1979) (the first R-rated film that me and my sister were taken to in the theater), and the progenitor of a number of sequels and ultimately a franchise.

Prometheus is sort of a prequel, set in the same universe and timeline as the original film and its offspring, but decades before the events of those Sigourney Weaver-starring films.  Scott had somewhat coyly remarked that Prometheus bears Alien‘s DNA, as the stoked masses on the internet curiously wondered at what this film would be, what story would be that brought the English director, so commercially successful since, back to a genre that he had completely left behind for 30 years.

The coyness was less coy than it seemed.  The whole of Prometheus is infused with DNA from the opening sequence in which a marble-like hairless humanoid stands on a cliff, as a massive spacecraft flies away overhead.  The humanoid drinks some digitally activated concoction from a bowl and starts to have his DNA pulled apart (as we are shown through the magic of digital special effects).  He eventually tumbles down a waterfall into the depths below, being rended asunder at the mitochondrial level.

Millennia later, the present of the film, 2089, a team of researchers, led by Noomi Rapace, discover cave paintings that suggest giant beings had left a message all over the primordial world about a location enormously far away.  This inspires an expedition, founded by a corporation, to seek out the possibility that these beings are the engineers of the human race.  And the goal of the mission is to find them and find out why.

Though the film plays significantly with “the big questions” about human origins, it doesn’t necessarily do so with great depth.  Rapace’s character, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, brings sincerity to the spiritually-infused seekers in the film, but if anything, the quest for answers only raises more questions, namely in the order of the built-in need for a sequel.  Still, in some ways, this is a gloomy, violent non-humanistic, non-spiritual The Tree of Life (2011).

While Scott cleverly asked his screenwriters Damon Lindelhof and Jon Spaihts not to tread down the same tropes and paths of his original film (or its overly trod tropes played out in its sequels), the film does have elements that echo of the series, namely an important, dubious android character (this time played by Michael Fassbender) and then a sort of reverse on the monster bursting from the sternum sequence.  I don’t want to ruin it for you but it’s the film’s most intense and gory (and titillating) sequence.

Frankly, as the film began, I was deeply engrossed.  It’s beautifully shot and while it’s been criticized as slow, I found it more than compelling.  Really, the first three quarters of the film felt like truly classic science fiction at its contemporary best.  Meaning, a genre film that actually follows traditions and tropes while feeling fresh and modern, but with that question, that curiosity of “where is this going?”  “what’s going to happen?” constantly pulling you forward.

My disappointment only came in toward the final twenty minutes or so, in which the quest for answers is boiled back into one of the oldest cliches in the book, the aging rich looking for a means of sustaining life eternally.  It’s not so much the simple cheap answer of that as the motivation of the human endeavor, the corporately-funded endeavor, but that it teases at so much depth that its reveal of its lack is rather disheartening.

Still, it’s a ridiculously thrilling ride for the most part.  Rapace and Fassbender are the standouts in the film.  And not to ruin it all for you but it’s clear that in a sequel, they’ll be the only ones coming back.

But that’s part of the bait-and-switch of the film.  Alien was a stand-alone movie, and even though I utterly recall contemplating sequels long before James Cameron came back with Aliens (1986), it wasn’t so crass as to build in (not even its DNA but rather its guaranteed template for) a sequel.  That said, I’m on board for Prometheus Two or whatever they call it.  I honestly enjoyed this film more than anything else new that I’ve seen all year, no matter how critical I’m sounding of it.

It’s still curious to me as to what really brought Ridley Scott back to not just science fiction but to Alien and Blade Runner (1982) (you know he’s working on some sort of sequel to that as well, right?)  No matter how positive one feels about Themla & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), or Black Hawk Down (2001) or any of the many commercially successful films that he’s made in the 30 years since he dabbled in genre, it’s clear from both fan base, cultural influence, and even critical studies that Alien and Blade Runner have been his most significant cinematic contributions.  Still, why?  Why now?  From what I’ve read, it took a while for the Alien franchise to die back down to make way for something like this, but to follow it up with a whatever he does with his other contribution to the genre, hot on its heels?  And will he do the promised sequel to Prometheus?

Much like the questions of the origins of humanity that are played with in the film, we’ll just have to wait and see.

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Colin Stause, Greg Strause
viewed: 04/21/08

The two top monsters of the 1980’s, the Alien (1979) and the Predator (1987), were long fantasized about battling it out.  Apparently, they first found their battleground in comic books and later in AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004).  I remember the discussions as well that eventually found their filmic conception in Freddy vs. Jason (2003), the meeting of Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its sequels against Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th (1980) and its spawn.  The dawning of a new era in this millennium, in which such filmic fantasies are realized.

And then sequelized.

I did see the “original” AVP: Alien vs. Predator back when I wasn’t updating the film diary.  It was pretty misbegotten, as I recall, set in an isolated polar outpost.  The new one takes place in middle America, smalltownville.  It’s funny, but I remember as a kid, sitting with friends, thinking about what would happen if the Alien, made it to Earth (not in real life but you know)?  Here we go.  It’s a disaster.  Everyone gets killed.  Who knew?

The original two Alien films, Alien, and Aliens (1986) were both very influential and excellent in their time.  The original Predator film wasn’t up to their snuff, but it was probably the best Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie of the 1980’s next to his iconic The Terminator (1984).  Couldn’t he come by and fight the aliens and predators?  Arnold made a lot of B-movies before he broke through in comedy, but Predator for some reason, maybe its mixture of humor and outsized masculinity, just plain kicked ass.  At least I have always thought so.  It’s been some time since I saw most of these films.

That said, AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem, the most current of these films, isn’t as terrible as it might be.  I think it’s actually an improvement on its predecessor, and it certainly leaves the doors open for more sequels.  Directed by “The Brothers Strause” as it says on the film, two guys whose background seems to be special effects, there are characteristics that have promise (though largely squandered) and some nice cinematography.  But let’s face it, when you have aliens popping out of chests every five minutes, it loses some of its effect.  The original “alien popping out of the chest” scene in Alien was totally shocking and has become a short-hand, cultural reference.  What was once originary and jaw-dropping, is now commonplace.

The real evolutionary thing in this film is the “Predalien” as its called, the alien that pops out of a Predator’s stomach as the end of the prior film.  It was probably the most fun for the designers.  Oddly, I was reminded of an Alien mixed with Whoopi Goldberg.  Still, it’s the big bad-ass of the film, impregnating at a faster rate by pumping babies into people’s throats for multiple births in the stomach explosions.  Which actually adds to the film’s other most creepy point: the maternity ward turned into an “alien” maternity ward.  There is something creepy and interesting about it.

I certainly don’t recommend this film to anyone who bears no interest in this franchise.  But it’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen.  It’s worst points are the squandered backstories of the humans (who cares anyways, right?  They’re just there for impregnation and decapitation).  They even have a Sigourney Weaver wannabe gal in there, tough ass broad in a wife-beater-style t-shirt.

I doubt we’ve seen the last of these fellows.