Friday, May 19, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Alien: CovenantRidley Scott’s original 1979 Alien was a space Gothic, a sort of Ten Little Indians with a parasitic alien replacing the mystery killer and a dank industrial spaceship replacing the creepy old mansion. There was nothing very new about the plot, but the film’s combination of gory, lowbrow shocks with Scott’s impeccably-crafted direction and the top-notch production values was a major leap forward in making the horror genre critically respectable.

Those of us who saw it in a theater back then aren’t likely to forget the experience. A junior in high school, I saw it with a group of friends, and during the celebrated scene when the baby alien popped out of poor John Hurt’s chest, the young woman next to me repeatedly pounded my right leg with her fist, leaving me with a bruise. Then the little alien let out a little squawk and scampered off, and we all howled with laughter, hysterical but also delighted.

We’d all seen gorier, grosser scenes in other horror movies before. But I don’t think we’d ever seen a scene like this made with the full force of state-of-the-art special effects and high-end designs by H. R. Giger and an award-worthy cast with the likes of Hurt and Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton and so on. It felt like a game-changer.

Then came James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens, more adventure picture than horror movie, and two more sequels, and then two films pitting the Aliens against the extraterrestrial trophy hunters from the Predator movies. In short, the svelte, fanged title characters have proven as durable a movie monster as the Wolf Man or The Mummy.

Then, in 2012, came a prequel to Alien, called Prometheus and directed by Ridley Scott. And this week we get this sequel to Prometheus, likewise directed by Scott. About the most that I can say for it is that it increases my admiration of the original.

The setting is a huge spaceship called the Covenant, headed, like the ship in last year’s Passengers, to a distant colony planet with a cargo of suspended colonists and fetuses. The small crew is woken from their decades-long snooze to deal with a flight emergency, after which they notice a much closer, much more promisingly Earthlike planet, so they make a detour to investigate.

The place initially looks like Paradise, but before long it seems more like Hell: the landing party runs afoul of, well, aliens, who look like pretty close relatives of those from the earlier movies. One supporting player after another is bloodily dispatched. They try to take refuge in the ruins of a city, where Michael Fassbender, as a leftover from Prometheus, tells them to make themselves at home, to the extent they can, “in this dire necropolis.” Love that old-fashioned hospitality.

All this may sound more intriguing than it is. The scare scenes are very gruesome, but they rely heavily on CGI effects, and while they’re unpleasant, they lack the shuddery, visceral punch of the original film’s shocks.

But even this is less problematic than the pace. Alien: Covenant is tediously, ponderously slow, burdened with unnecessary backstory and pretentious rambling dialogue.

The supporting players are mostly generic alien-fodder, but several of the leads manage to come across well despite the leaden tone. Elizabeth Waterston is touching as the bereaved but brave heroine. So is Billy Crudup as the feckless fellow who finds himself unhappily in charge, and Danny McBride lightens the mood a bit as a daring pilot.

Fassbender has a dual role, as David and Walter, earlier and later models of the same lifelike robot, so he spends much of his time playing scenes opposite himself. No actor could ask for a more rapturously infatuated scene partner, but the interminable murmured Miltonic musings that he’s been given are enough to make us long for the gore to start up again.

Also opening here in the Valley this week…

…is Lydia Tenaglia’s foodie documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, about the California Cuisine master. Check out my review of it on Phoenix Magazine online.

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