Almost 40 years after the release of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), we’re still interested in the world the first film presented, in the thrills offered, in the monster that caused them and in a set of speculations the original film addressed (what is it to be human, are homo sapiens the only ones who can be so, what is the origin of life, what if impregnation were tantamount to contamination?).
Alien:Covenant is the sequel to Prometheus (Ridley Scott 2012), both prequels to the four other Alien films that began with Ridley Scott’s original in 1979. Prometheus expanded some of the themes of the first four films by focusing on the questions raised by the Titan of Greek mythology who defies the Gods and gifts humans with fire, for which he is then subjected to eternal punishment. The film dealt with the consequences of Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) seeking an affirmation of her faith and android David (Michael Fessbender) defying his creators. These remain the central themes of Alien: Covenant but are developed in ways that will echo throughout the series. The Captain of this mission, Oram (Billy Crudup) is also a man of faith. David now has a ‘brother,’ Walter, also played by Fassbender, a more developed version of his model, with kinks like a tendency to human emotion and feeling removed, the Alien has morphed into several shapes and we get to see how it takes the form of the one in the first film..
I found Alien: Covenant a spectacularly handsome film, all that amber and steel and it looks deep and textured in Imax. Narratively, I didn’t really care whether anyone died, which made all the alien piercings less exciting than they could have been. The twist at the end was expected but rather thrilling.
It’s not as scary as some of the earlier films – one would have needed to care more for the characters’ fate in order to achieve that — though it was scary enough for me. I think the film remains rich structurally (the change in tone and use of space from the beginning in the ship to the world of the previous film, all those imposing masks, David’s office, spectacular set design – through to the confined spaces amidst new horror towards the end of the film. Shifts in tone are conveyed as shifts in space in a very striking and dramatic way. Indeed Jake Benson has remarked that ‘Visually and tonally it starts so much like Prometheus but segues nicely into the tone of Alien. It really is a nice transition between the universes’.
Alien Covenant is a serious film; and it’s a visually beautiful film. The characterisation, or lack thereof, is a problem, as was the casting: the film is an entirely charisma-free zone except for Fassbender, making the most of his dual role in spite of the constrictions placed by both roles being non-humans. The action is conceptually rendered as exciting but fails to be so because the person in danger tends to be one you don’t much care about. I enjoyed it and I think most people will if they go in with reduced expectations. It’s quite possible that the success of Alien:Covenant lies more in what it adds to the franchise than what it achieves on its own.
PS friends and critics have been overly dismissive of the film. What are we comparing it to? It’s true it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the franchise at its diverse best (each of the first three was as if from a different genre). However, I have seen all other twelve films playing currently at Cineworld except for the Hindi ones. Alien: Covenant is by far the most intelligent and most ambitious, the thematically richer and best-looking film of the bunch, and that alone deserves some consideration I think.
Dead Man Down doesn’t quite work: not-so-deep in its not-so-rotten core is a romance that’s not rendered romantically; and the action isn’t good enough to stand out on its own (as in the District 13 films say). Visually, the film is serviceable but doesn’t dazzle; and there’s something off and perhaps off-putting, at least to American audiences, in having all these Europeans in what is essentially a New York movie. Yet, what actors they are!
Colin Farrell is getting more handsome as he ages, and he’s got gravitas now; when he was younger, his charm was that he evoked a sense of life as a whiz on whiz; that everything was fun with the right drugs. Now he conveys the feeling of a man who’s lived, who’s had troubles, who thinks, and a lot of that thinking is about what’s made him unhappy. Of course, that’s the role; but he seems to inhabit that brooding presence; he kind of evokes a melancholy menace just with his stillness.
Noomi Rapace is harder to watch. She’s got an unusual and unsettling presence (you can understand why she was cast in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She’s got a face with wide, flat, rounded cheekbones that can come across as plain; and in some scenes here she seems kind of stumpy in her too-high heels; but suddenly she can also unfurl a stream of fury, or evoke a kind of ease with skill, or make herself seem an original and startling beauty.
It’s a role and a story that seem to have confused some critics but that make perfect sense to me: a girl who’s been damaged unconsciously sees her life ruined whilst the cause of it gets off scot free and wants revenge. She meets a man, also, hell-bent on revenge. They’re opposites, she claims to be talkative though we never see her in quite that way; he claims to be reticent; though we never quite see him that way with her. They’re clearly made for each other. The film offers excellent reasons why she’s one way in the beginning and quite different at the end (Farrell changes with her, though less mercurially, as befits the plot).
Terence Howard is in it, slimmer and more handsome than previously though never quiet as threatening as he should be. F. Murray Abraham also appears (and it feels odd that he’s the only one in the whole film, including Howard, who really seems to belong in NYC). Poor Dominic Cooper is given the role that redeems the hero. The person who makes the greatest impression in the shortest time is Isabelle Huppert: like very few actors on film, Vanessa Redgrave is one of the few examples that come to mind, she can conjure a role into existence out of mere line readings and minimal gestures. and delight the audience with a non-existent part; it’s a lovely kind of witchcraft.
Dead Mand Down is not for purists; those who like action will be pleased without being thrilled; those who like noir will have seen darker examples; it’s a romance that’s not a comedy and that lingers longer on loneliness than is comfortable. But people who like an interesting and intriguing combination of all of the above, with superb actors who seem to be growing in skill right in front of your eyes, will find a lot to look at and like.