Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Life" and "Alien: Covenant" With Spoilers

I wasn't going to write up anything on "Life," which I found a decent, if by-the-numbers space thriller, but then I saw "Alien: Covenant."  The two movies have so much in common, I had to talk about them together.  So, here we are.  Spoilers for both movies ahead.

I liked "Life" more than I was expecting to.  It is absolutely patterned off of "Alien" and other thrillers set in space, but with surprisingly high production values, a strong cast, and some bloody good kills.  I couldn't tell you the names of Jake Gyllenhaal's and Rebecca Ferguson's lead characters, but at least they were compelling enough to keep my attention in the moment.  The monster, a quickly evolving alien organism dubbed Calvin, was plenty memorable too.  Even the predictable twist ending was pretty effectively executed.  Sure, it had the reckless scientists and other plot holes that everyone complains about, but I thought the movie worked pretty well as a slick genre picture.  

What I didn't expect was for "Life" to do "Alien" better than this year's actual "Alien" movie,"Alien: Covenant."  Now, "Covenant" had higher ambitions and some different elements in the mix to complicate things, but the basic formula was the same, and many of the finer details too.  The cast is picked off one by one by an alien menace.  A headliner was the first to be killed off.  The ending appears to nihilistically spell the doom of every remaining good guy and a significant chunk of humankind.  The complications boil down to "Covenant" being a direct sequel to "Prometheus," and therefore another prequel to the original "Alien" that further charts the evolution of the famous Xenomorphs.  

And I have to wonder, what was Ridley Scott's thinking here?  He's clearly more interested in delving into the franchise mythology than making another variant on the haunted house plot that all the "Alien" films inevitably seem to end up being.  "Covenant" fares no better than "Prometheus" at delivering thrills, not even having a standout suspense sequence like the nightmarish medical pod C-section.  All the human characters are uniformly bland, despite being played by a bevy of dependable actors including Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny Huston.  It all feels like an excuse to bring back the android character David, played by Michael Fassbender, and to pair him up with another android, Walter (also Michael Fassbender), for some darkly philosophical musings on humanity and playing God.

And to its credit, all of that material with the androids works fine.  Fassbender is excellent in both roles, and David continues to be the most fascinating aspect of these later "Alien" films.  The trouble is that he makes a pretty poor villain for the half-hearted creature feature that's happening around him, and the demands of that creature feature end up undercutting much of David's story.  "Prometheus," which I was moderately positive on, raised all these interesting questions about the origins of humanity and the alien race of "Engineers."  "Covenant" provides some answers, but they're very disappointing, compromised ones.  I'd have been much more receptive to a "Prometheus 2" that delved into events that "Alien: Covenant" is in too much of a hurry to gloss over.  

I think "Covenant" is worth a watch for those "Alien" franchise fans who are more interested in the mythology aspects, and maybe Fassbender fans.  The film is well made, and Ridley Scott hasn't lost a step where the actual filmmaking is concerned.  However, those who enjoyed the earlier "Alien" movies for being satisfying genre films may find themselves better served by the simplicity of the chills and thrills in "Life."  "Covenant" is too concerned with advancing  its serialized elements to be much fun on a visceral level.  

What really interests me, however, is the fate of the "Alien franchise" going forward.  "Covenant" leaves the door open for more of the prequel storyline in the future, but recycling the same formula again seems untenable.  Are we finally going to see a larger scale xenomorph invasion or attack in the next installment?  Is a next installment even a possibility after the disappointing performance of "Covenant."  I'd be more forgiving of "Covenant" if it was setting up something larger - but I have no guarantees of any payoff.    


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