Review: Alien Covenant

Had to leave the house but soon discovered that sitting down was the only viable option. So shuffled into the multiplex like the guy in a movie about some horrible outbreak of an apocalyptic zombie infection. Trying to check back over the past few weeks to see if I’d been exposed to any weasels.

Alien movies are much better if you feel sick. Aliens movies less so. Aliens movies are about fighting monsters but Alien movies are about infection and parasitism. That the creature becomes a big physical entity that can be shot at is almost reassuring – even though it is unstoppable.

Covenant and its predecessor Prometheus are both variations on the theme of the original Alien. The same elements have to appear (some of which are shared with Aliens films), the horseshoe ship and the undiscovered planet and the body horror. The tone is serious and visuals are striking.

Covenant’s cast is sufficiently good and the dialogue strong enough that while the characterisation is not deep there is at least a sense of these people having some depth of character – it’s just that we don’t get to see it before they variously die horribly. Looking back at the original film, I suppose the same could have been said of it – even Ripley. I think we back project Ripley’s character from Aliens onto the crew member of the Nostromo. This is OK I think. Maybe it would be less obvious if everybody on these doomed ships was somewhat reserved, middle-class British people.

The exception with Alien was Ian Holm’s Ash*. Ridley Scott used a more complex emotional range for Ash initially as a trick – to hide his actual motives and to make the revelation that he was an android more shocking. Ridley Scott double-downs with that approach and gives us two robots – both Michael Fassbender-bots – David*, the disturbing android from Prometheus and Walter, a newer version of the same model who is serving on the Covenant.  David, in particular, gets what no other character has had in any of the other previous Alien movies – a character with deep motivations that have wider ramifications for the story.

Without revealing too much of the plot (the bones of which you already know – spaceship crew finds a planet, away team goes down, oh look a freaky ship lets look inside arrrggghhhhhhh, ugghhhh, blerrrgggg, ouch, gasp, waaahhhhh squelch etc), the David story becomes clearer. Ridley Scott has gone back to sci-fi roots and is remaking Frankenstein – which we should have guessed from the title of the last movie ‘Prometheus’. This time he brings in more of the film elements of Frankenstein including the spooky castle. The dark and stormy night, of course, has always been there and was in Aliens as well.

Is it a good film? If you want character driven stories then no, not really. Character is irrelevant is what Scott seems to be saying – and he has a point. These people are going to get killed regardless. The decisions they make aren’t stupid (aside from the required lax quarantine procedures without which Alien can’t proceed) but they can’t factor in ‘alien killing machine with baroque reproductive cycles’. So only Walter and David get one of any depth – which makes you wonder about Blade Runner.

The horror doesn’t quite work either because we already know that everybody will be chopped up eaten and eviscerated. Some of the cliches work well as an homage but others (the two crew members having a sexy shower unaware that there is an alien on board) just seem tacky.

As a science-fiction film? I quite liked it. Yes, a lot doesn’t make much sense and is science argle-bargle but it has a sense of mystery and discovery. The Earth-like world is shot in a way to make that very quality seem disturbing – which is impressive. The alien city is also suitably Alien and familiar in a way that develops the weird intelligent-design premise of the new sequels.

No surprises. Some revelations. Two Fassbender’s kiss.

*[Which Holm does play as a middle-class British person come to think about it.]

**[Um and of the two Fassbender-bots, Walter-the-Wobot*** and David, Fassbender plays David as a middle-class British person. I think maybe Scott sees stereotypical Britishness as a. robotic and b. having inherent character and agency. Everybody else will get eaten by monsters.]

***[I mean, seriously. Scott must have read 70s/80s 2000ADs and he calls a robot ‘Walter’?]

Review: Denial (Movie 2016)

An interesting dramatisation of the libel trial in which Holocaust denier David Irving sued American academic Deborah Lipstadt for libel.

In 1993 Deborah Lipstadt published the book Denying the Holocaust, an approachable but detailed discussion of Holocaust denial as a phenomenon and the major players in Holocaust denial circles. David Irving, a self-taught military historian with some scholarly reputation but also a Hitler apologist, objected to Lipstadt’s description of him as a Holocaust denier. As Lipstadt’s book had been published in the UK, Irving was able to sue Lipstadt and Penguin Books in a British court.

The film charts the course of this legal conflict with the ever capable Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and the ever watchable Timothy Spall as David Irving.

There are several good performances including Tom Wilkinson as Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton and Andrew Scott (Moriarty from Sherlock) as Lipstadt’s celebrity solicitor Andrew Julius.

Yet…although parts are both moving and informative, the film often lacks tension and real drama – in part because the reality is like that sometimes. An attempt to create some real tension over whether Lipstadt will testify personally (spoiler: she doesn’t) creates a weird arc which makes the whole film feel like its underlying message is ‘listen to your lawyer & barrister who are really smart men and will be proved right in the end’. Well, I suppose that is true if you are trapped in a complex libel case in a British court but doesn’t make for a good drama. So there is no High Noon showdown between Lipstadt and Irving.

Likewise, the long case – often caught in minutiae of whether Irving was simply mistaken on an issue or whether he was deliberately lying about history – does not play out along the lines of film courtroom dramas. Again, because court cases don’t actually work the way they do in film.

A good film but not a great film. A worthy attempt to dramatise an interesting and important issue but maybe not a story that suits the medium very well.

Link round up

Review: Doctor Who – Extremis

A cracking episode in which Doctor Who crashes a Dan Brown novel, has flashbacks to Missy being executed and then gets pretty damn dark. Did it all make sense? No, not really but really it had everything, including the Pope crashing Bill’s date.

The re-mixing old ideas continued apace in this episode. The virtual reality from Silence in The Library, a library like, um, Silence in the Library, religious orders, creepy monks, some sort of Pandorica like thing. The big difference was that most of the loose ends were neatly tidied up by the end. The plot holes were substantial but mainly irrelevant. We don’t know who the bad guys are but there is more of them next episode.

It does look like the three-parter, in this case, is three sequential stories with their own beginnings, middles and ends. This may prevent the usual problems with multi-part Who episodes.