Alien: Covenant (Scott; 2016)

In 1979, Star Wars had recently made science fiction a very cool genre and studio after studio was looking to capitalize on that by giving the public bad clone after bad clone of the film that had inspired so many to flock to the theaters for swashbuckling space opera.  Ridley Scott took a different tack.  Instead of flashy pulp action heroes jetting through space in fighters and fighting off bad guys with blasters and laser swords, he gave us a horror movie which just happened to take place light years away from Earth starring blue collar grunts hauling ore and machinery on their space semi tractor-trailer.  Needless to say, with Alien he hit a nerve where movies such as The Black Hole, Starcrash, and Laserblast failed, and now 38 years later Ridley Scott once again returns for his third installment in the franchise he started – Alien: Covenant (the second installment directed by Scott would be 2012’s Prometheus).

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after the events which occurred in Prometheus.  After a brief prelude, the real action of the film opens on a colony ship making a seven year long journey to its final destination.  All of the colonists and ship’s crew are asleep in cryostasis for the duration of the journey and the only the ship’s android Walter (played by Michael Fassbinder) and the ship’s computer “Mother” (voiced by Lorelei King) are active.  During a routine recharging stop, a freak accident damages the ship forcing the crew to be awakened prematurely to deal with the situation.  While repairing their vessel, a message is received from a nearby planet which should be uninhabited and uninhabitable, but upon further investigation the crew finds that this planet is in fact a sort of paradise world that their deep space scans somehow missed and this may be a perfect place to start their new colony rather than going back into cryogenic sleep and continuing their journey.

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If this all sounds familiar, be prepared to feel that a lot throughout the course of the film.  The major problem with Alien: Covenant is that far too much of the film feels less like an original plot, and more like a “Best of Alien” special in which we get to see all the best scenes from Alien movies of the past shown again except with different actors.  They even go out of their way to make Daniels, our main female protagonist played by Katherine Waterston, look a hell of a lot like Ripley.  No spoilers, but throughout the course of the film you can practically make a checklist of Alien tropes as they appear over and over.

Another of Alien: Covenant‘s flaws which is hard to overlook is the premise that the ship’s crew is made up almost entirely of couples.  Now, couples being sought out as the focal point of starting a new colony makes a lot of sense, and is a smart idea, but extending that to the crew who does emergency maintenance on the ship if it is in trouble is problematic.  While it makes sense that a crew member would have a spouse or loved one making the journey with them, to be a coworker making decisions upon which the fate of the entire ship rests is a less logical choice, and this very dynamic is what leads directly to the majority of the bad decisions which drive the crises which make up the plot of the movie.  Heck, couples usually aren’t allowed to work together in a modern office or retail environment, who the heck would look to hire couples specifically for a dangerous job in which many lives depend on the quality of their decisions?

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While these two flaws are large enough that Alien: Covenant becomes a movie impossible to recommend to everyone, the rest of the film is very well done.  The special effects are really impressive, the aliens themselves have never looked better, and the art direction and scenery is at worst effective and often is a straight out wonder to behold.  This is, to date, the best looking film in the Alien series in every way except for cinematography.  Though, while Alien and Aliens are both a little better in the cinematography department, this one lags only a small distance behind making for an entire visual package which is a wonder to behold.

The acting on display here is also fantastic with even minor characters whose only jobs are to be gruesomely killed managing to project a personality using little more than facial expressions and body language.  The main cast really outdo themselves, though, with Billy Crudup embodying the ship’s captain thrust into a situation he couldn’t have predicted and is not prepared to deal with, the aforementioned Katherine Waterston chanelling Sigourney Weaver as the incredibly strong “with it” protagonist, and Michael Fassbender gives us a true tour de force playing two roles, both androids, who have to be similar enough that we recognize them as similar model mechanical creations, but different enough that we can tell the two roles apart at a glance.  I won’t go so far as to say Michael Fassbender outdoes himself here, but he does prove yet again what an incredibly talented and dedicated actor he is.

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How would I rate this film compared to the myriad other Alien films?  I haven’t seen the Alien vs Predator movies, and they aren’t considered canon regardless, so I will leave them out of the equation, but Alien: Covenant is nowhere near the masterpiece which both the original Alien and the perhaps greatest sequel of all time Aliens are but it is a good deal better than both Alien 3 and Prometheus and light years ahead of Alien: Resurrection.

Final verdict:  Aside from Michael Fassbender’s performance(s) there is nothing in Alien: Covenant that hasn’t been seen before in the Alien Franchise, and it has a plot which relies too much on people making bad decisions.  However, it also as some eye popping settings and special effects and impressive performances from every single actor who appears on screen.  Alien: Covenant is not a film I recommend unequivocally, but if you’ve somehow never seen an Alien film before in your life, this could be an excellent introduction to the series.  If you’ve seen every entry so far, then your mileage may very.  It could be a fun action packed bit of nostalgia or it could merely be a shameless retread.  I personally found it to be the former, but your mood upon entering that theater could greatly influence how you feel about what you’ve seen upon exiting even more so than with most films.

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X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer; 2016)

Take Bryan Singer, the director who brought us X-Men, X2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, the three films largely regarded as the best three films in the X-Men movie franchise to date, add a cast which includes several Oscar and Golden Globe winning actors and so many nominations amongst them you would be silly to even bother trying to wave sticks, and finally mix in some veteran special effects studios that have worked on some visually groundbreaking action films, including some of Marvel’s best films, and apparently you get an incredibly amateurish, ridiculous bit of cinematic garbage.   This is one of those recipes in which  too many good ingredients make a product which ends up being really foul .

There are a few pleasant things to say about X-Men: Apocalypse.  Kodi Smit-McPhee’s turn as Kurt Wagner a.k.a. Nightcrawler is wonderful.  The character is written well, and Smit-McPhee runs with that good characterization and nails Nightcrawler’s naive charm and good heart which makes him such a fan favorite.  Michael Fassbender also turns in yet another good performance as Magneto, though I don’t feel the writing for the character was that great in this case, but more on that later.  This is the first time that Xavier’s School for Gifted Students really seems like a school and not just an opulent building with kids in it that gets blown up, and seeing it in that light, the light that it should have been all along, really shows what opportunities have been missed in all of the earlier films.  Finally, Evan Peters is wonderful once again as Quicksilver, and even though I felt his showcase scene here is really just a rip off of his scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past in an attempt to get some cheap goodwill, I can’t deny that Peters really is a lot of fun to watch.

That’s about it for the good.

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Start with the good then go to the bad?  That sounds familiar.

As for the rest, we have a poorly written movie with half-assed performances and even more half-assed special effects work.  Kinberg, the main writer for the screenplay, gives us a script that doesn’t understand its source material,  clumsily rams characters’ motivations into the script unless motivations are just glossed over completely, has completely unmemorable dialogue, characters that don’t seem to serve any purpose to the story at all, and uneven pacing.  Singer doesn’t obviously help any of this with his directing or story work, either, or at least if he did, I have to wonder how this script could have been green lit at all.

The special effects work in the film, particularly the really effects intensive scenes toward the climax of X-Men: Apocalypse, are so sloppily done that they are nearly unforgivable.  Perhaps the visual artists were trying for a unique style, but what ended up happening was visual effects that are distracting with just how unrealistic and obviously added in they were.  Some bits like Angel’s wings and Nightcrawler’s “bamfs” were well done, but anything done on a larger scale looks like something that would have called attention to itself even 10 years ago, let alone in a modern film.

The acting in this film, other than the handful of performances mentioned above, is either phoned in or amateurish.  Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, in particular, stands out as she glassy eyed monotones her way through all her scenes refusing to put on the blue makeup and body suit which is the trademark of her character.  It doesn’t help that the writers are doing everything they can to make Mystique, a semi-regular villain in the comics, into a main character despite the fact that doing so makes no sense whatsoever even when you just take the movie universe into account.  James McAvoy isn’t given enough to do here, and when he does get a chance to show off, he blows the opportunities.  Oscar Isaac is miscast as the titular villain, and while there is nothing particularly wrong with his performance, it simply is a character that doesn’t suit him in the first place.  Finally, the rest of the actors, particularly Olivia Munn as Psyloche, give their all, but with really bad direction and end up just looking terribly hammy especially with the wooden performances of the veterans.

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Pictured:  the unfortunate highlight of Olivia Munn’s performance.

The X-Men franchise is one of widely varying qualities.  The best of those films to date had been directed by Singer, but his streak has unfortunately come to an end.  Right now I’m not sure whether I’m rooting for the next film to right the franchise’s course, or if I want more failures so Fox will give Marvel back their characters to do not just properly, but perfectly.

Rating:  3.0 out of 10