‘Alien: Covenant’ Mixes the Old and the New for a Pulse-Pounding Ride

Alien Covenant poster

With the “Alien” franchise, it always helps to keep your expectations in check. The first one, released back in 1979 was one of the scariest science-fiction movies ever made, “Aliens” was one of the most intense, “Alien 3” was one of the most infinitely depressing, and “Alien Resurrection” was the slimiest by far. When Ridley Scott, who directed “Alien,” returned to the franchise with “Prometheus,” he presented us with a film containing, as he said, “strands of ‘Alien’ DNA in it,” but it was also designed to have its own mythology and ideas while existing in the same cinematic universe. Each time, the filmmakers brought their own unique vision to this franchise and succeeded in creating something daring, and at times maddening, which no other franchise would have dared pulled off. As for the “Alien vs Predator” movies, the less said, the better.

Now Scott returns again to the franchise with another prequel, “Alien: Covenant,” which looks to be a return to basics after the mixed reaction “Prometheus” received. Sure enough, composer Jed Kurzel’s score starts off with a taste of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from “Alien” which has the audience feeling like they are entering familiar territory. But Kurzel’s music also has the music Marc Streitenfeld created for “Prometheus,” and it made me realize Scott was not about to leave the themes he explored previously in the dust.

“Alien: Covenant” picks up ten years after “Prometheus” as we come across the spaceship Covenant making its way to a remote planet where colonists intend to start a new life. These plans go awry when a neutrino blast hits the ship, killing some of the passengers and leaving the survivors in a state of devastation they cannot be expected to quickly recover from. Suddenly they intercept a human radio transmission from a nearby planet not on their charts and despite some objections, which of course are ignored, they change course to investigate. From there, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen.

Scott, as usual, works visual wonders along with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski which put us right into the action instead of just viewing it from a distance. Seeing these humans arrive on a planet we know many of them will not leave, not in one piece anyway, jacks up the tension in no time at all, and he still knows how to make those xenomorphs look more vicious than the average sci-fi creatures.

At the same time, he continues the themes of “Prometheus” with the assistance of one of its best actors, Michael Fassbender (god he has an awesome last name!). Fassbender returns as David, the synthetic android who is revealed to be alive and in one piece on this new planet, and he also plays Walter, another synthetic android assigned to look after the crew of the Covenant. Seeing David and Walter share scenes with one another prove to be some of this movie’s most fascinating for me as Fassbender makes you forget special effects were involved in him having a conversation with himself.

The balance between the themes of “Prometheus” and the typically visceral action of the average “Alien” movie is a tricky one, and Scott manages to pull it off for the most part. Still, it will be interesting to see how audiences react to this one as they may like certain parts of “Alien: Covenant” more than others.

I do wish Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper had given more attention to the characters here as many of them appear to be too one-dimensional for this movie’s own good. This franchise thrives on our getting to know these characters as individuals we can relate to, but many of them appear to exist solely for the xenomorphs to rip apart limb from limb. Some characters fare better than others, but the rest of the pack deserved more attention than they got.

Katherine Waterston, unforgettable in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” has a big challenge here as she is essentially playing the Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley role as terraforming expert Daniels Branson. What I really admired about Waterston’s work here is how she never invites easy comparison to Weaver, and I never bothered spending time comparing the two actresses as the movie unfolded before me. Waterston fully embraces her character’s complex emotions as she is forced to deal with an unexpected tragedy which would easily wreck another, and she turns Daniels into formidable warrior long before the movie’s furious climax.

Another actor I got a kick out of seeing here was Danny McBride who plays the chief pilot of the Covenant, Tennessee. McBride is best known for his no-holds-barred comedic performances in “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “The Foot Fist Way,” and the HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” and several critics have said they felt he was miscast here. I completely disagree as he brings the kind of the down-to-earth character the “Alien” movies can’t exist without as well as a subtlety which makes his emotions feel genuine and never faked. Once again, I truly believe that if you can do comedy, you can do drama.

I also have to give Billy Crudup a lot of credit for taking a character like the self-serious man of faith, Christopher Oram, who lacks the confidence a leader should have and making him into someone more human than any other actor could have. I say this because this kind of character usually comes across as totally annoying and infinitely idiotic, but Crudup succeeds in making Christopher down to earth and more empathetic than you might expect. And those scenes he has with Fassbender in the latter half? Priceless.

Does “Alien: Covenant” reach the exhilarating heights of the first two “Alien” movies? No, but I wasn’t surprised it didn’t. We have long since gotten used to these vicious creatures to where they aren’t as terrifying as when we first met them. Still, I found “Alien: Covenant” to be a pulse-pounding ride with strong performances, a sleek design and the kind of stunning look you can always expect from the average Ridley Scott film. It pays homage not just to its predecessors, but also to “Blade Runner” as well, and it has an infinitely unnerving conclusion which reminds us all that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Just try to go into it with an open mind. There is a bit of the old here which I know fans will enjoy, but there is also a lot of thought put into the story which you don’t often get with the usual summer blockbuster.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Prometheus’ is Great and I Don’t Care What You Say

Prometheus movie poster

How sweet it is to have Ridley Scott return to sci-fi genre 30 years after giving us “Blade Runner.” His “Prometheus” is a stunning movie to watch and once again reminds us of what a stylistic perfectionist he is. While it is said to be a prequel to “Alien,” it is really separate from the 1979 classic as it deals with a different set of themes and ideas. While the original “Alien” dealt with corporate greed in trying to use the creature as a weapon, “Prometheus” is far more fascinated with the origins of humanity.

Noomi Rapace, Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo,” stars as Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist who, along with her boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), discovers a star map in several unconnected ancient cultures on Earth. They come to interpret the map as an invitation from those who created humanity to discover the origins of life on a distant planet. A few years later they are on board the spaceship Prometheus which takes them and several engineers to that location.

When they land on the planet LV-223, not LV-426 from the first two “Alien” movies, they discover a species which appears to be extinct along with a monolithic statue of a humanoid head. In the structure they explore, they also find a large number of metal cylinders which soon start leaking black fluid. Soon after, everything goes wrong and the characters discover how their need to learn about humanity’s creators was a very big mistake.

The smartest thing Scott did with this particular prequel was to not make it the kind which ties up all the loose ends to the original movie that comes after it. This has been a big problem with prequels like “The Thing” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” as they get so concerned about getting the details right to where any suspense or drama gets completely drained, making for a far less effective movie going experience. “Prometheus,” however, takes place several decades before “Alien,” so the filmmakers don’t have to worry about this too much.

“Prometheus” uses the element of mystery to great effect as several characters appear to have ulterior motives they work to hide from others. Charlize Theron is especially effective as Weyland Corporation employee Meredith Vickers. Hiding discreetly in the shadows and coming off with a tough as nails attitude, she clearly has her own agenda as you would expect any member of this or any other, corporation to have.

The movie’s most fascinating character, as well as its most enigmatic, is David, an android designed to be indistinguishable from humans played by Michael Fassbender. We first see him looking over the ship while the rest of the crew is in hypersleep, and he models his behavior on Peter O’Toole’s performance from “Lawrence of Arabia.”

David is like Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in that he is more human than the humans he works with. But the words of the Borg Queen from “Star Trek: First Contact” of how Data is “an imperfect being created by an imperfect being” kept echoing in my head as we see David gaining an ego to where he is fully aware of how superior he is to humans. With this ego comes a wealth of insecurities like envy and jealousy which wipe away the façade his infinitely polite behavior hides.

Idris Elba co-stars as the captain of Prometheus, Janek, who serves as the movie’s most realistic character. Sci-fi movies need a down to earth character like this because in the midst of all the technical mumbo jumbo, someone has to come out and say, “What the hell is going on?” Elba, so good on the BBC series “Luther,” is a strong addition to this cast even though I found his American accent a little weird at times. Couldn’t he have made Janek British like him? Anyway, he gives what may be seen as this movie’s most underrated performance.

But while much of the acting praise may go to Fassbender, I have to single out Rapace who gives a very strong performance as Elizabeth Shaw. Just watch her in the scene where another character yells right in her face that he wants to go back to the ship. Rapace doesn’t budge or blink at this raw anger, and she is as riveting in this movie as she is in that one scene.

Rapace also has the movie’s most unnerving scene as, upon finding that she has a “foreign organism” inside her body, gets into a robotic surgery device to have it removed. It’s a brilliantly icky scene which shakes up the audience in the same way watching Anthony Hopkins cut off a piece of Ray Liotta’s brain in “Hannibal” did. Rapace sells the scene completely and has you pinned in your seat as she goes through the kind of surgical procedure we’d rather be sedated through. On top of this, she does a practically flawless British accent which is more than I can say for many actors in American movies.

Among the other excellent performances comes from Sean Harris who plays the unhinged geologist Fitfield who never lets his mohawk hairdo upstage him, Guy Pearce who is almost unrecognizable under pounds of makeup as the CEO with a god complex Peter Weyland, Logan Marshall-Green as archeologist Charlie Holloway who goes to extremes in his work for better and for worse, and Rafe Spall as the all too friendly botanist Milburn.

“Prometheus” asks a lot of profound questions about who created us and why those same beings chose to abandon planet Earth. It deliberately doesn’t answer all of those questions, but while many consider this one of the movie’s biggest problems, I think it’s one of its many strengths. To answer all those questions would have weakened this movie tremendously and, as I said earlier, the element of mystery plays a strong part in its overall success.

There’s no real satisfying way to answer all the questions “Prometheus” presents as we have enough trouble answering them on our own. I think the movie’s main focus is on the struggle of faith as Rapace’s character thrives on it, and she spends the story seeing it severely tested. The lack of answers ends up reinforcing the faith she has in those who created human beings, and this keeps her faith from being killed off completely.

Scott gives us a visually sumptuous motion picture with extraordinary visuals and special effects which feel wonderfully unique to everything else out there. With cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, frequent music composer Marc Streitenfeld, editor Pietro Scalia, and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, Scott gives this movie the look and feel the only he can pull off, and it all makes his eagerly awaited return to the sci-fi genre he so brilliantly transcended with “Alien” and “Blade Runner” all the more welcome.

While “Alien” was a masterful combination of the sci-fi and horror genres, “Prometheus” is more sci-fi than horror. “Prometheus” has its thrilling moments, but Scott is not out to scare the shit out of us the way he did back in 1979. He is more cerebral with this film, and it makes you eager to see a sequel to it sooner rather than later. I don’t care what anybody says, “Prometheus” was very much worth the wait and, despite whatever flaws it may have, it had me enthralled from beginning to end.

Actually, one thing you could say about the movie is how it may give ammunition to creationists who claim human life came about through the efforts of a supernatural being. Then again, the very last scene of “Prometheus,” before the end credits roll, features a somewhat familiar-looking creature making an appearance you can’t quite see coming. With that, you can safely say the filmmakers do firmly believe in the theory of evolution.

* * * * out of * * * *

Veronica Cartwright Looks Back at the Chestburster Scene from ‘Alien’

Veronica Cartwright in Alien

While Veronica Cartwright was at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” filmmaker Brian McQuery couldn’t help but ask her a question about another famous movie she starred in, “Alien.” Specifically, he wanted to know more about the “chestburster” scene which is one of the film’s most horrifying moments. The story behind this scene has been told over and over again throughout the years, but Cartwright was still willing to talk and clear up a few things about it.

Legend has it neither Cartwright nor the other actors in “Alien” had any idea of what exactly was going to erupt from John Hurt’s chest. Cartwright, however, said the actors had read the script and knew something was supposed to come out of there. Also, she and Sigourney Weaver had a scene where they were supposed to know what it looked like, but they had no clue what they were going to be talking about. As a result, they visited the studio where the infant alien was being built.

“A few weeks earlier we had gone down and seen the little mockup of that little penis guy with the tail, but it wasn’t working at that point,” Cartwright said of the alien. “It was sort of a gray thing and the artists were saying ‘oh his teeth will be like this and he breathes…’ It was just like a little puppet thing that came out.”

Then came the day when the chestburster scene was shot, and Cartwright described it as though she had just filmed it yesterday.

“We’re all upstairs in the dressing room and they take John (Hurt) down, and for four hours we never saw John. John was having his false chest made,” Cartwright said. “When we were told that we could come down to the set, the entire set was dressed in plastic, everybody’s wearing raincoats, and there were big buckets of this awful stuff that smelled like formaldehyde. It stank and you gagged when you first went in there.”

“So, here’s John packed in this thing, and they had four cameras so that they would get everybody’s reaction,” Cartwright continued. “What happens is that they cut the t-shirt so that the puppeteer could push the thing through, so we all start leaning forward because you’re just fascinated to see what’s going to happen. One of the effects guys told me, ‘oh you’ll be getting a little blood on you,’ and I said, ‘oh okay.’ Not thinking, I leaned right into it. I had a jet pointed at my face, and it just shot me square in the face. It was unbelievable, and then I backed up and (in the dailies, it’s the most hysterical thing) my knees hit the back of a set piece and I flipped upside down to where you can see my cowboy boots sticking up above. I did not expect to get shot with a full blast of blood.

Veronica gets sprayed in Alien

Cartwright pointed out that the scene was done in just one take, and McQuery replied how her reaction looked “really real!” The audience at the New Beverly laughed loudly in agreement with him.

“Years later I worked with that same guy and he said, ‘sorry about that!’ How rude,” Cartwright said.

Looking back, Cartwright described “Alien” as being a very “sweaty” movie because the cast would come on the set in the morning and get covered in glycerin from a pumper. She described this as being “so gross,” but that in the end it was an experience.

While she was primarily at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” the audience was glad McQuery asked Cartwright about the making of Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 film. Just when you think you have heard the definitive story about a classic movie scene, one of its participants comes around to inform you of one or two details you might have missed.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox