Category: Reviews

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and gives us two robots – both Michael Fassbender-bots – David*, the disturbing android from Prometheus and Walter, a newer version of the same model who is serving on the Covenant.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.

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.

Review: Doctor Who – Oxygen

A big shift up from last week: a scary episode with some overt political commentary. The main recycled idea this week is dead people in shambling space-suits from Silence in the Library. This time no spooky aliens but rather autonomous space suits clunking away after their occupants have been killed. So all the aesthetics of space-zombies but without any actual space-zombies.

The main premise of the story is privatised air – I think some old 2000AD Future Shocks may have done that idea before. Like many SF short fiction ideas, it’s enough to build a story around but the wider mechanics of it probably don’t stand up to too much examination. Oxygen is possibly not the most expensive resource for a space economy but the episode shows how neatly it can be commoditised and then, under the guise of a simple economic exchange, used as means of authoritarian control.

What the episode did surprisingly well was the atmosphere (sorry) of real threat and predicament. Bill is placed repeatedly in danger that feels plausible and the Doctor suffers a substantial injury that is unresolved by the end of the episode. Will it all be fine in the end? Well obviously it will, but this episode felt threatening in a way that is inherently difficult for Doctor Who to do when the titular character is a living Deus Ex Machina.

The not-actually-space-zombies themselves became rapidly less creepy with familiarity. The clunk-clunk of the magnetic boots and their ruthless efforts meant that they quickly went from freaky to just another variant on Cybermen. I assume this was intentional.

Teaser for the next episode (apparently a 3 parter) involves the Pope, libraries and the return of Missy.

Hugo 2017: Best Dramatic Presentation Lonnnng form

Other ballot posts here

The contenders:

  • Arrival, screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on a short story by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve (21 Laps Entertainment/FilmNation Entertainment/Lava Bear Films)
  • Deadpool, screenplay by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, directed by Tim Miller (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Marvel Entertainment/Kinberg Genre/The Donners’ Company/TSG Entertainment)
  • Ghostbusters, screenplay by Katie Dippold & Paul Feig, directed by Paul Feig (Columbia Pictures/LStar Capital/Village Roadshow Pictures/Pascal Pictures/Feigco Entertainment/Ghostcorps/The Montecito Picture Company)
  • Hidden Figures, screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, directed by Theodore Melfi (Fox 2000 Pictures/Chernin Entertainment/Levantine Films/TSG Entertainment)
  • Rogue One, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards (Lucasfilm/Allison Shearmur Productions/Black Hangar Studios/Stereo D/Walt Disney Pictures)
  • Stranger Things, Season One, created by the Duffer Brothers (21 Laps Entertainment/Monkey Massacre)

For me, this category splits into neat groups of two:

5&6 – just above No award: Deadpool and Ghostbusters.

Deadpool was fun and a great attempt at making a film that matches the character’s quirks and humour. However, it was nothing really remarkable – a funnier, bloodier, more sex-positive take on the superhero genre amid a large number of superhero films.

Ghostbuster was, for a remake of a well-loved film, fresh and competent and funny. Kate Mckinnon’s Holtzmann added some extra zing. But…well it was a remake and it didn’t really do anything startlingly new story wise. Fun but not special.

I’d put them both above No Award but only just – not because they were bad films but because I think we can demand better of SF filmmaking. Yes, I’m cool with remakes and more comic book characters getting on screen but for awards, I want to see more challenging stuff.

3&4 – good but not great: Rogue One and Stranger Things.

Rogue One took a war film sensibility and applied it to Star Wars and came up with a thrilling space adventure. A moving, if inevitable, ending added depth beyond the main Star Wars family-themed plot.

Stranger Things also delved deep into the late 20th -century nostalgia mines and found gold, precious metals and a portal to the vale of shadows. A great cast and some creepy scares all combined for some great television.

Both really enjoyable and great examples of how working within established genre constraints can still lead to clever, fresh-feeling dramas. But can the bar be set higher? Yes, it can.

1&2 – I just can’t pick between: Arrival and Hidden Figures.

Arrival was a solid SF film with a clever mix of concepts. The structure was cleverly executed to bring home the theme of beings who don’t perceive time was we do. Despite the time messing, the film avoided feeling intentionally confused. Really good stuff. More films like this, please.

Hidden Figures, on the other hand, fictionalised real events around space travel. Part sitcom, part triumph-over-adversity, part nerds sciencing the shit of things, what was there not to love about this film? OK, Kevin Costner’s white saviour bit maybe was less lovable.

I really can’t pick between these two. Original, well acted and focused on very plausible scientific characters using their minds to engage with things beyond the mundane world.

Review: Doctor Who – Knock, Knock

The downside of the back-to-basics plan for this season becomes apparent with this episode. Pearl Mackie puts in a strong performance and guest star David Suchet was suitably creepy but the story feels lazy. A spooky haunted house and a cast of characters disappearing one by one. More than enough to give younger viewers nightmares but it still felt like there was nothing for anybody else.

While last weeks Thin Ice didn’t take the series to any new places, it still managed to add some depth to the characters and talk about the oft-revisited 19th-century London in a new way.

The show is searching for the special balance.

Review: Stranger Things Hugo 2017

Both Donnie Darko and Super 8 tried (successfully I think) to tap into a poorly defined but recognisable aesthetic: small town/suburban/exurban America, the 70s/80s, a normal family life contrasted with something weird, threatening and unworldly. The obvious influence is Speilberg, particularly Close Encounters and ET but also films he was associated with such as Poltergeist, Gremlins and The Goonies. Beyond Speilberg, adaptations of Stephen King such as The Dead Zone and It, also form part of a quasi-canon along with horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Stranger Things is a neat distillation of that brew with some additional 1990s flavourings of Twin Peaks and the X-Files. It doesn’t make any pretence at hiding its influences, which in itself is Spielbergian.

In a small 1980s town, a group of four nerdy boys spend their days playing Dungeons & Dragons, annoying their science teacher and playing with shortwave radio. Their world is upended when one of them suddenly disappears one night – taken by something. But if their friend is dead, how come his mum can still sense his presence? And what’s with the weird fenced off secret government installation? And who is the apparently mute girl with a shaved head and wearing a hospital gown and who is she running from?

Surprisingly, the show sets up the pieces of the mystery very quickly, perhaps more quickly than viewers would expect. It isn’t a slow burn with mounting paranoia, multiple possible explanations or many tricks to make the viewer spend much time speculating whether a character is actually delusional. Instead, the show wears its SF on its sleeve. It is not much of a spoiler to say; yes it is a creepy psychic experiment into parallel dimensions gone wrong.

Frankly, this is a smart move. In part, it lets the genre-savvy kids meet the psychic girl Eleven/Elle early and allows her to show off her powers. The show also assumes that the audience is aware of the influences above and knows that any drawn out speculation of what is behind everything won’t work for a show you can binge watch on Netflix.

The real trick is that the tension is maintained throughout. Winona Ryder as the already somewhat flakey mum of the missing boy is particularly compelling. Desperate to be believed and knowing how absurd she must sound, she manages to convey grief, despair and the torture of not being believed, while also maintaining a fortitude that makes you want to applaud.

No, nothing original here – except capturing in a bottle a sub-sub-genre and demonstrating it brilliantly.

Also, Eleven (Millie Bobby-Brown) should be the next Doctor Who.