Saturday 27 May 2017

Like a Rollercoaster, Not in a Good Way

Alien: Covenant (2017)

I had actually been quite looking forward to seeing this movie, although the best things I had heard about it were that it's "better than Prometheus" (a low bar) and that its relationship to Alien was akin to the relation of The Force Awakens to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, in that it was a remix. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

It was one of the most miserable experiences I've had in a cinema for a while.

Spoilers and swears follow.

Colonists on the way to a habitable planet get woken up by some damage to the ship due to a solar flare or something and pick up a transmission which leads them, curious, to check out a habitable planet they didn't know about.

And of course on the planet is the extraterrestrial spaceship from Prometheus, and its lone survivor, the android David (Michael Fassbender) gone very wrong, along with the murderous viral bioweapons from Prometheus. Cue infections, creatures erupting from human bodies in showers of gore, androids going wrong, facehuggers, and of course the Xenomorph, now retconned with an origin story, and characters getting picked off in an entirely predictable order. And a climactic scene that mashes together both of the first two Alien films.

And there's the thing. By reprising the plot beats and characters (Ripley surrogate, salt-of-the-earth-crew, psychopath android, good android) of Alien and Aliens, Alien: Covenant has no tension. All that remains is a succession of fetishised body horror set pieces.

But these set pieces, although given the attention of a fetish, are strangely sexless, which is quite an achievement given the thing's basically a vagina dentata on top of some extreme bondage gear. You get a couple slaughtered while getting affectionate in the shower, and it's weird how prurient it is; a woman's detached head floating in a pool of water is focussed on. Over, and over. Just that torn-off head, floating glassy-eyed and open-mouthed in the water.

There's no suspense. You just wait for the gore, and there's the gore and then there's more gore and look, if you read this blog you should be well aware by now I'm not afraid of a gory film, but this was mechanical, empty, an efficient Alien movie rather than a film in its own right, and again, readers of this blog will be well aware that I rarely use "efficient" as a compliment. In fact, I'd argue that Alien: Covenant has no substantial redeeming features to speak of.

Prometheus was flat out bad from start to finish, an internally contradictory trainwreck of a film, but there was at least the sense that maybe Ridley Scott was in some way trying to make some sort of new thing. Alien: Covenant is, on the other hand, playing it very safe. Again, we have a Ripley, this time Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and to be fair she's the most likeable thing in a tremendously unlikeable, cynical film. The cynicism is weird and inconsistent, though; for example, Billy Crudup as the dead-man's-shoes Captain keeps saying he's a man of capital F Faith, but we never get to find out what faith he actually is (presumably some variety of Christianity, judging by the – terrible – dialogue he's given). You never see it. It's told, not shown. It seems to me that you're somehow supposed to think that his faith is worthless in the way that faith always fucking is in science fiction, except that after hammering in that this is going to be a plot element with all the subtlety of a vagina dentata in bondage gear, when he inevitably gets a monster busting out of his chest, there's nothing to speak of to offer a payoff. It fizzles.

There's no light in this film. Not only is all the hope extinguished, but the film doesn't even try to pretend otherwise. It just kills the hope (even explicitly wiping out the one point of light that the ending of Prometheus had, which act itself is a plot beat from Alien 3) and all that's left for it is to force you to stare at mutilated flesh and promise more.

The whole film is an exercise in misery. It's weird, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was just as terrible but somehow I at least derived some perverse enjoyment from parts of it. Alien: Covenant was an ordeal, like being on a rollercoaster when you hate rollercoasters and praying for the fucking thing to just stop and it goes on and on and leaves you feeling sick and irritable for having been subjected to it.

The only respite was a moment where for whatever reason, Ridley Scott decided to have a brief and horribly self-indulgent Blade Runner callback, and that's as annoying as you'd imagine, but had the effect of pulling me right out of the film, and at that point I really needed that.

While, yes, I found the film predictable, ugly and stupid and grim and for most of the second half I was glancing at my watch every couple of minutes in the hope that it would just end soon, of all the negative emotions it instilled in me, the ones notably missing were unease and fear. It wasn't scary.

And part of that was down to how predictable it was. But part of it is because it wasn't just devoid of the Alien franchise's best bits, it managed to make Alien and Aliens less scary.

In Alien you have a bunch of working class folks and they land on LV246,  and find this inexplicable alien ship, with a dead pilot who looks like he's grown from the cockpit, and he's got a big hole in him, and then there's all these eggs and then the thing on John Hurt's face and then there's this monster busting out of his chest and killing everyone. But also there's Ian Holm playing the android who represents the company and he's deliberately putting them in the way of this thing, and so you've got these two remorseless, soulless things that they're stuck between, a legitimately alien biology, which resembles a sort of bug, and an equally inhuman capitalist system, and both sides treat the crew as flat commodities, resources.

And they're equally inexplicable, inscrutable, and violent, the animal and the company alike, and these are ordinary people trapped between them and dying for reasons they can't understand.

But between Prometheus and Covenant we end up having explicit explanations for the crashed starship and the alien animal alike: the builders of the ship were just big pasty guys who were into chemical weapons and science, and the xenomorph isn't an animal at all, it's a biological weapon bred by an android who turned into a psychopath because he was disappointed about not meeting God, and the company just wants his research back. And none of these explanations are as good as any of the ones we didn't have.

And in the light of Prometheus and Covenant, Alien becomes nothing more than some people getting mashed up by the metaplot, and we can't identify with them in the same way, because we know what's killing them in a way we didn't before.

Covenant achieves the unenviable feat of not just being worse than its predecessors, but of dragging the quality of the original down with it.

I despised Alien: Covenant. It was a truly miserable experience.