‘The Predator’ is This Franchise’s Best Installment Since the Original

The Predator movie poster version 3

Having Shane Black co-write and direct “The Predator” brings this franchise around full circle. Black appeared in John McTiernan’s “Predator” as Rich Hawkins, a member of the elite military rescue team led by Butch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he was the first of the group to get mercilessly slaughtered by the “ugly motherfucker.” Since then, Black has become a master screenwriter with “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” as well as a gifted director with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys” and “Iron Man 3” on his resume. At the same time, the “Predator” franchise quickly became an unwieldy one as “Predator 2,” while it had its moments, suffered from too many clichés and stereotypical characters who were just asking to be killed. “Predators” was fun, but it didn’t quite jumpstart this series in the way its filmmakers intended it to. The less said about the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, the better.

With Black’s gift of turning various movie genres inside out through terrific dialogue and unforgettable characters, it feels like only he could helm this “Predator” installment. If this creature is going to continue to have a cinematic life, it needs a filmmaker willing to liven things up and twist things around in an effort to make this franchise vital again. Thanks to Black and co-writer Fred Dekker, “The Predator” is easily the best and most consistently entertaining installment since the 1987 original. While it may not have the same lethal menace of McTiernan’s sci-fi action classic, it certainly feels like a Shane Black movie, and that is more than enough.

“The Predator” begins as most “Predator” movies do, with something or someone falling from the sky onto a planet at alarming speed. As a spaceship makes its way to an inevitable crash landing on Earth, Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is aiming to take out drug dealers who have hostages. The spaceship crashing foils this mission, but Quinn comes into contact with the alien’s hardware and a device which makes him nearly invisible. Knowing certain members of the military, particularly agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), will do anything to keep this alien encounter under wraps, Quinn mails the hardware to his home where it is discovered by his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) who, thanks to the form of autism he has, is able to activate it to where several predators are alerted, and from there it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

What struck me most about “The Predator” is how well-conceived its human characters are. While they may come across as your typical military movie characters, Black and Dekker invest them with pathos and a great deal of black humor. This is especially evident in the scene where Quinn is being interrogated by a military psychiatrist as it shows how he is quick to tell others they need to cut through the bullshit. Characters like Quinn know they are in over their heads to where they do not want others to lie outright to them. It has become far too easy to cast doubt on an individual than it is to believe one, and the military shows no mercy in doing the same to Quinn as they are quicker to put a bullet in his head instead of telling him, “Thank you for your service.”

Quinn gets thrown on a boss with a bunch of former soldiers who are on their way to the nearest loony bin as they are, at first glance, certifiably crazy. These fellow soldiers are played by Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera. I really enjoyed how each actor made their character wonderfully unique in politically incorrect ways. Black and Dekker are not about to give us watered-down characters which would be easier for certain audience members to digest, and each actor clearly relishes the material they have been given. Their performances make these characters stand out in a way they would not in other sci-fi action movies, and that’s saying a lot.

Also starring in “The Predator” is the gorgeous Olivia Munn as Casey Brackett, a disgruntled scientist who is enlisted by the military to study the alien and its technology up close. Of course, once Casey learns more than the military would like, she becomes a target for assassination because, once again, people in power are eager for those they consider beneath them to remain silent, at times permanently so. But Munn makes Casey into anything other than an easy victim as she effectively intimidates these former military officers into making her a part of their team to take down this particular illegal alien. She is a blast to watch throughout, and I hope to see her again in a future sequel.

Holbrook left a strong impression on audiences in “Logan” as he made that movie’s antagonist more than the average bad guy, and he is perfectly cast here as an antihero who is not too different from Snake Plissken. In the real world, Quinn is not a guy you would be quick to hang out with on a regular basis, but Holbrook wastes no time in making you see he is the dude we need to save the day.

Tremblay, so good in “Room,” makes Rory into a unique movie child which I found very refreshing. Moreover, I admired how Tremblay was able to communicate so much while saying so little much of the time. But when he does get to speak, he is gifted with the uber clever dialogue of Shane Black. I also love how Rory is one of my favorite kind of kids in movies as he can see right through their parents’ bullshit to where he is very eager for them to cut the crap and tell him the truth. Furthermore, kudos to the filmmakers for making Rory’s form of autism something other than a disability. Certain things are only disabilities if you treat them as such.

I also got a big kick watching Sterling K. Brown as a military agent who is eager to exploit the predator’s technology before anyone else can. Unlike the character he plays on “This is Us,” here he portrays a man who is never quick to shed a tear, and this makes his performance all the more invigorating to take in.

“The Predator” does have its flaws as the narrative gets increasingly messy towards the movie’s furious conclusion, and certain action scenes are filmed frenetically in a Michael Bay-ish way to where it’s hard to make out all that is going on. Apparently, the last half of the movie had to be reshot as test audiences found it to be too dark. At least the filmmakers had the support of a major studio to do these reshoots. The same couldn’t be said for those working on the failed Stephen King adaptation “Cell” as that movie’s last half was far too dark for anyone to get a clear idea of what was ensuing.

It is important to note “The Predator” takes place after the events of “Predator” and “Predator 2,” but before those of “Predators.” Taking this into account, it is clear 20th Century Fox wants this installment to be the beginning of a trilogy as Hollywood is infinitely interested in franchises than they are in films not designed to have a follow up. Only time will tell if “The Predator” will get a sequel, but what I can tell you is I had a lot of fun watching it, and for my money it is the best “Predator” movie since the original. Even as I kept hoping Schwarzenegger’s character of Dutch would make an appearance (he does not), few things could keep me from enjoying this sequel to excellent effect. I had a blast watching it, and I hope you do too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is Not the Droid You Are Looking For

Solo movie poster

Here we are again in a galaxy far, far away, and it is the third time we have ventured there in three years. We also head back to an even longer time ago when one of our favorite “Star Wars” characters, in this case Han Solo, was young, full of vigor and demographically desirable. But while the “Star Wars” movies have always been filled with tremendous imagination and unforgettable characters, I have to be honest and say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved to be an underwhelming space adventure. While I am as big a Han Solo fan as the next person, seeing his early years portrayed here felt strangely ordinary to where this didn’t feel like a “Star Wars” movie, but instead an average science fiction movie yearning to be.

This movie begins with a routine chase sequence in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape a criminal gang, and from there I started to have a bad feeling about this. Usually these movies have me totally hooked in right from the start, but I did not feel the same kind of excitement I usually feel with the average Lucasfilm adventure. When Qi’ra and Han are suddenly separated at a transport station, Han tells her he will come back for her. Will he? Well, she is played by Emilia Clarke. Will Qi’ra and Han live happily ever after? Did Greedo really shoot first?

“Solo” reminded me of the problems I have with most prequels as they seem more concerned with connecting the dots between their story and the ones we have seen a thousand times. Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Thing” prequel, the filmmakers are saddled with a cinematic history they are forced to adhere to, and it results in a lack of surprise and suspense as we know how things will turn out. And, like “Hannibal Rising,” it tells us more than we need to know about an iconic character to where I walked out feeling how certain things are best left to the imagination instead of being made into a movie.

Alden Ehrenreich has been an actor on the rise ever since his scene-stealing role in “Hail, Caesar,” and he certainly has a strong screen presence as Han Solo. At the same time, he ends up giving a one-note performance as the intergalactic smuggler which lacks the charisma Harrison Ford brought to the role. While he tries to play it cool throughout, Ehrenreich never quite comes to life here, and what results is a disappointing case of miscasting.

We do get introduced to some new characters, and among which is Tobias Beckett who is played by Woody Harrelson. As always, I am reminded of how Harrelson can play just about any character he takes on, and he provides us with the mentor Han Solo was always destined to have. Tobias, like Han, is a smuggler, but he also represents the darker road Han could find himself on if he is not careful.

Other actors are not as lucky. Thandie Newton shows up as Val Beckett, Tobias’ wife and partner in crime, but she is gone way too soon. Jon Favreau voices the alien character Rio Durant, but Rio merely functions as an easily disposable member of Tobias’ crew who we know will not last long. Paul Bettany makes Dryden Vos into a wonderfully ruthless crime lord, but his presence in “Solo” feels a bit uneven as if he is there to fill in the missing blanks. It should be noted how Bettany took over this role after the original actor cast, Michael K. Williams, was unable to return for reshoots. Things had to be changed to accommodate Bettany, and it shows.

Production problems kept plaguing “Solo” before its release, the biggest of which was the firing of the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom still received an executive producer credit. It was one of several instances which showed how protective Lucasfilm was of this franchise. The word behind the scenes was that Lord and Miller were looking to mix things up and did not want to give audiences the same old thing, but Kathleen Kennedy was not about to let anyone change things up. While I commend Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan for taking extra special care of this franchise, I came out of “Solo” thinking they should shake things up in the future if they want it to maintain the relevance it still has.

Replacing Lord and Miller is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and this had me excited as this is the same man who directed “Apollo 13.” That film was based on a real-life event everyone knew the outcome of, and yet he turned it into a riveting piece of entertainment. I figured he would bring this same energy to “Solo,” but even he is saddled with the characters’ history which he cannot easily maneuver around. Apparently, Howard reshot 70% of this movie, and I came out of it wondering how much of the finished product was his. As a result, the whole movie feels inescapably uneven.

For what it is worth, “Solo” does improve when Donald Glover, a man of many talents, arrives on the scene as Lando Calrissian. Glover brings the kind of charisma to this role I expected Ehrenreich to bring a wealth of to Han, and it makes me want to see Lando get a film of his own. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Glover makes this character the epitome of cool to where he does not need a can of Colt 45 to prove it, and he brings an infectious joy to a movie which needed it sooner.

We also get to meet another unforgettable droid here, L3-37. As voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is a sardonic delight as she shows more attitude and resilience than any other droid I have seen in any previous installment. It is also a kick to see L3-37 discuss the possibilities of sexual compatibility between her and Han with Qi’ra. After all these years, the “Star Wars” movies are proving to be more progressive than ever before! As for Lando, I think it is safe to say this is the droid he was looking for.

While certain moments like the first time Han meets Chewbacca (played here by Joonas Suotamo) and the initial appearance of the Millennium Falcon end up feeling uninspired and anticlimactic, the scene where Han makes the infamous Kessel Run in less than twenty parsecs is thrilling to watch, and it reminded of why I love the “Star Wars” movies so much. Yes, we know how things will turn out, but Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats as he subverts our expectations and plays with our emotions with glee.

Sure, “Solo” does have its moments, but they only served to remind of everything about it which does not work. The screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan features dialogue which feels lifeless even when spoken by talented actors. Granted, there is none of the god-awful dialogue Hayden Christensen was forced to utter in “Attack of the Clones,” but it still feels derivative of lesser sci-fi movies which cannot even compare to “Star Wars” in general. I was also surprised at how uninspired the film score by “Jason Bourne” composer John Powell ends up sounding, and it only comes to life when he utilizes the immortal themes of John Williams.

“Rogue One” was also a prequel, but it had a cast of characters you really cared about, and its story of sacrifice pushed all the right buttons as we came to deeply admire the heroic actions they took. Even though we know the secret plans of the Death Star would end up in the hands of the Rebels, getting there was more than half the fun. “Solo,” however, is nowhere as effective, and what results is a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. This marks the first time I have ever given a negative review for a “Star Wars” movie, and yes, I have seen “The Phantom Menace.”

Lucasfilm would be better off looking to the future instead of going back to the past. Enough backstory has been established for these iconic characters to where we don’t need any additional information. We will certainly be looking forward when “Episode IX” is released in December of 2019, but it appears other “Star Wars” origin movies are in the works such as one on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seriously, I am with Ralph Garman when he said, wouldn’t a movie about Obi-Wan watching Luke Skywalker growing up from a distance be a little too creepy?

* * out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity 3’ Avoids the Curse of the Prequel

Paranormal Activity 3 movie poster

In a lot of ways, “Paranormal Activity 3” shouldn’t work. It’s the third movie in an astonishingly popular series which eventually replaced “Saw” as the official franchise for the month of October each year. The third in a trilogy is also when the series starts running out of creative juices and becomes bound by an increasingly worn out formula. Maybe it’s time to move on to the next big thing in horror, right? Not quite.

Despite the inescapable feeling of déjà vu, “Paranormal Activity 3” still has the power to scare and unnerve viewers, and I knew exactly what I was doing when I watched it at night. This one comes from the makers of “Catfish,” and they follow the familiar found footage setup to where nothing may be new, but they still generate a number of jump-out-of-your-seat moments which will freak out even the most jaded of moviegoers.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity 2” was a prequel and a sequel, this third movie is a flat-out prequel which takes place 18 years before the events of the original. Sisters Katie and Kristi, played by Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden in the previous films, are seen here as children who live with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and stepdad Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Things get weird, however, when Kristi gets an invisible friend named Toby, and strange occurrences develop in their home with increasing volatility.

Since this prequel takes place in 1988, the filmmakers get to work technology now seen as prehistoric as this was a time of video cameras and VHS tapes. Part of it serves as a needless reminder of how Betamax got its ass kicked years ago. While the technology is limited compared to what the characters had at their disposal in the previous films, this forces everyone here to get creative with what they have.

Once again, the man of the house (and it’s always the man) sets up a barrage of video cameras in various rooms to figure out what craziness is going on in order to put a stop to it. The only disadvantage is VHS tapes only allow for 6 hours of recording at the most. But somehow the spirits do make their appearance before the tape runs out which is rather convenient for everyone involved.

The one new thing in “Paranormal Activity 3” is how Dennis comes up with the idea of attaching one video camera to the base of a fan. As the camera veers from side to side, we have another reason to be tense about what we’re watching. Will there be something on the other side about to jump out at us? This quickly becomes a clever device which distinguishes this film from its predecessors.

“Paranormal Activity 3” does, however, get off to a shaky start. There were a bunch of cheap scares which, whether they worked or not, had me worrying this prequel would be overrun with them. While they provided the audience with a several good jolts, it made me wonder if the series was beginning to descend into self-parody. Once this happens, the series might as well end. Fortunately, things straighten out as the happenings inside the house become increasingly unrelenting in their viciousness.

There are many moments which had my hair standing on end. We see furniture moving around by itself, a character running into something not visible, and someone’s hair getting grabbed. “Paranormal Activity 3” may seem like business as usual, but this business is still producing terrifying moments just as things are beginning to look old. Like the previous entries, I’m not entirely sure how the filmmakers pulled off certain special effects (the one at the very end is very painful to witness), and I don’t want to know for fear of breaking the illusion.

I recently watched “The Thing” which was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film. It reminded me of the problems with prequels in general as you know from the start who is going to live and die, and the suspense gets diluted as a result. The advantage “Paranormal Activity 3” has is, while we know the little girls will survive and live on in future installments, we aren’t sure what the fate of the adults will be. Katie and Kristi only reveal so much about what happened to them as children in the second film, so we are left to guess if any adults hanging around these kids will ever live to see tomorrow. Had the girls revealed the exact chronology of events, this prequel would have been screwed from the get go.

Many critics have voiced that they have had their fill of the “Paranormal Activity” films it, but the formula behind them still works very well and has me pinned to my seat. That invisible spirit can still scare the crap out of me, and it made me look forward to “Paranormal Activity 4.” Granted, Paramount Pictures and Oren Peli can only keep this franchise going for so long, but they have made it this far without losing any of the power which made the original so damn scary. Here’s hoping the filmmakers don’t trip over themselves in the future. We all know what happened to “Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.”

By the way, you’ll never look at a Bloody Mary (the drink I mean) the same way after this prequel is over. Watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean.

* * * out of * * * *

‘X-Men: First Class’ Represents What a Prequel Should Be Like

X Men First Class poster

X-Men: First Class” is a huge improvement over the previous entry, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and it’s also the best film in the series since “X-Men 2.” It’s breezy fun, the special effects are terrific, and the emphasis on character this time around makes for a more involving prequel. With Wolverine shoved to the side, this fifth movie and the second prequel in the long running franchise, many other characters get their chance to shine.

The primary focus of “First Class” is on Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as we see the significant events which shaped and brought them together. But while Charles’ upbringing was a privileged one, Erik’s was unbearably tragic as he and his parents were imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. Erik’s ability to control magnetism becomes evident early on, and this talent soon gets exploited by scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who commits an atrocious act in front of him. From there on, the driving force in Erik’s life is one of bloody revenge.

Prequels are tricky because we are naturally inclined to be against other actors taking over roles previously portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Then there’s that cynical feeling of studios taking this route just to save money. It was deemed after “X-Men: The Last Stand” that a fourth movie with the same cast would have been far too expensive to make. Of course, with a reported budget of $160 million, “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. Moreover, does anyone remember “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd?” Did you think audiences were going to be fooled by a Jim Carrey-less prequel? Anyone remember “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?” Heck, does anyone remember the first “Flintstones” movie? I remember seeing it, but the plot details escaped me once I walked out of the theater.

But what’s great about “X-Men: First Class” is the cast doesn’t need to worry about living up to the actors who inhabited the same roles before them. They get to approach these classic characters in a different light, and this frees them up from any restrictions which could have been imposed on them. Characters like Mystique and Dr. Hank McCoy are given more depth and complexity than ever before, and many surprises are in store for the audience as the script invests a lot of emotion in these characters including those bad mutants we rooted against in the past.

James McAvoy is excellent as the young Charles Xavier, and he looks like he had lots of fun making this prequel. Whereas Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was wise and mature, McAvoy’s is just getting started in his career and comes across as quite the ladies’ man. I also admired that while Charles is incredibly intelligent, we find his ego getting the best of him. So sure of all the things he is knowledgeable of, McAvoy does great work in making Xavier well-intentioned but not as open to mutants being themselves in the real world.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters in the “X-Men” universe. While he’s been the series’ chief villain and a megalomaniac, Magneto is simultaneously an anti-hero and has even been seen as a hero in the comic books. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him considering the horrors he was exposed to in his youth, and it makes his future actions understandable, if not excusable. No wonder actors have so much fun in this role; you never know for sure the direction Magneto will end up taking. All you can say is, whatever he ends up doing, it will be to his benefit more than anyone else’s.

With movies like “Fish Tank” and “Inglourious Basterds” under his belt, Michael Fassbender is the perfect choice to play the young Erik Lehnsherr before and after he becomes Magneto. Fassbender has given performances deep with complexity and feeling; looking like the good guy at one point and then later turning into one seriously twisted individual. As Erik, he is great at showing the different layers to this character who is forever caught in a horrific moment he can’t get out of.

But one character who really gets expanded in “X-Men: First Class” is Raven whose shape-shifting abilities earn her the nickname of Mystique. Rebecca Romijn played Raven in the first three movies as a villain, and her character never got much in the way of psychological depth. Jennifer Lawrence, however, gets more to work with as we come to meet Raven at the time her allegiance to her “brother” Xavier begins to wane.

In Lawrence’s hands, she makes Raven/Mystique a strong female role model, one who is determined to be open about who she is and not be ashamed of it. While hiding herself in human form, as she is encouraged to do so by Charles Xavier, Raven’s frustration at appearing in public as someone other than herself is beginning to take its toll. Lawrence is riding high on some incredibly strong performances, and she continues to show how far her acting chops can stretch.

With Bryan Singer returning to this franchise as a producer, I’m sure he had a good hand in getting this particular entry focused more on character development. Each character is shown to be suffering through conflicted emotions as to what path the mutant race should follow, making them no different from the humans who deal with many of the same issues. Mutants are seen as the next stage in human evolution, but the haunting question of whether this will be to humanity’s best interests or detriment always hangs in the air.

But the person who deserves the most credit for “First Class” is its director, Matthew Vaughn. Coming off of the gleefully rebellious “Kick Ass,” one of 2010’s best movies, he manages to bring a lot of inventive energy to a franchise in desperate need of it. Vaughn also makes the special effects benefit the actors instead of just overwhelming them. What made the first few “X-Men” movies so special was the amount of emotion they generated, and the same thing is definitely the case here. It’s our connection with these characters which makes the action set pieces all the more exciting.

If there are any problems with “X-Men: First Class,” they come in the last half as the filmmakers become overly concerned about bringing the characters in line to where they are at in the first “X-Men” film. This was also a big problem with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” even though that prequel was much more convoluted. It would have been nicer to see the friendship between Charles and Erik get expanded instead of just ending this one with them taking opposite sides. Then again, perhaps it still could be expanded on in future installments.

Kevin Bacon, always a terrific actor, is perfectly detestable as the movie’s most irredeemable villain. At the same time, I wished the writers had expanded on his character more. Compared to the others, Sebastian Shaw threatens to be a little too one-dimensional in his actions. If Sebastian had more complexity to him, it would have made the transition of power between him and Erik all the more believable and compelling.

Other strong performances come from Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert and Nicholas Hout as the highly intelligent yet shy Dr. Hank McCoy. On the other hand, while January Jones is amazingly beautiful as Emma Frost/White Queen, her one-note delivery of dialogue is one of this film’s major detriments.

“X-Men: First Class” is a prequel done in the same spirit of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” and it’s proof you don’t need Wolverine present to make a good “X-Men” movie. This is a reboot which works to everyone’s advantage, and I am eager to see what comes next.

By the way, don’t bother staying through the end credits. There’s no post-credits sequence, so take care of that urine ache ASAP.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Thing’ Prequel Should Have Been a Sequel

The Thing 2011 poster

It says a lot about John Carpenter’s “The Thing” that it could generate a prequel almost 20 years after its release. A critical and commercial failure back in 1982, it has since been justly reappraised as a true horror classic and remains Carpenter’s masterpiece. It proved even more terrifying than “Halloween,” and it also holds a special place on my list of my top ten favorite movies of all time. These days, it is even more frightening as the scenario it presents feels all too possible.

Now we have Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s “The Thing,” a prequel to Carpenter’s movie which explores the events leading up to it. Remember the Norwegian camp Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart visited which had been completely burned down? Now we get to see how it got laid waste by both the thing and the humans. But therein lies the problem; knowing the events precede those of the 1982 movie and who survives, much of the potential suspense and tension gets drowned out almost immediately.

Frankly, I would much rather see a sequel to Carpenter’s “The Thing” instead of this. His film was very effective because we never had a clear idea of who to trust. But in Heijningen’s film, we know the characters on display will eventually bite the dust, and it becomes a question of when these characters turn into the thing. After a while, it becomes more shocking when a character dies but doesn’t turn into a gooey alien. What spoils it even more is we know of at least one character who will survive what happens very early on, and all we can do is wait impatiently for him to get on the helicopter with his rifle and take shots at the wolf.

Heijningen is respectful of Carpenter’s movie and pays homage to it throughout, but I kept wondering if this was a remake instead of a prequel. Various scenes are clear imitations of the 1982 movie’s most classic moments, and I wish he had worked harder at distinguishing the prequel from it instead of just presenting us with something way too similar. He does wring some suspense and strong tension at different points, and his unique take on the blood test scene is very clever, but he is unable to sustain the tension which made Carpenter’s movie so utterly terrifying.

The special effects are very good, but they pale in comparison to the genius of Rob Bottin. Audiences are always quick to tell when CGI effects are overused. As for the performances, they are generally good even though the characters could have come out of any monster movie.

The best performance comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as paleontologist Kate Lloyd. Such a terrific presence in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” she holds our attention throughout and is one of the best reasons to see this prequel. While Lloyd is predictably inspired by Ellen Ripley from “Aliens,” Winstead makes the character her own and more than just another tough chick which movies like these typically rely on.

“The Thing” prequel is not terrible, but it will be of interest more to those who haven’t seen the 1982 film which itself was a remake and made back in a time when remakes were rare and actually worth watching. This particular version of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” feels like a lost opportunity, and it gets caught in the prequel trap of busily matching everything up to the film it leads into. It really sucks when you can see a movie’s ending long in advance. I did however admire the ambiguous ending shown before the end credits as it leaves you wondering if the alien really infected one of the last characters standing. Not knowing is always more unnerving than knowing, and at least the director got this right.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *