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Brian J. W. Lee is a writer. When he's not writing, he's plotting to plunge the world in a deep chasm of terror, darkness and screams. Sorry, did I get carried away?

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Brian Reviews #3: Alien: Covenant

Disclaimer: I'm going to spoil everything I can, and you can't stop me! Muah hahaha!

It was Vesak day when I finally decided to go to the movies. The last time I'd done that was when Life came out for a week or two. That was at least a couple months ago, I think. Why have I been depriving myself? Well, I guess that's how it is when you're a working adult with two jobs (three, if you count writing).

So, when I go to the movies, I wouldn't do so lightly. And as a man aspiring to master horror, it would definitely be to watch horror movies. Previously, it was Life. More recently, just three days ago, it's Alien: Covenant. Here's the trailer in case you missed the movie:

Couldn't get blogger to list the official trailer for some reason, so here's the second best thing.

Rating: 3.0 / 5.0

So the plot of the movie is simple: Crew is on a colonisation mission, they pick up a signal, changes course to a planet on the wayside, discovers odd things on said planet, encounters alien stuff, then actually encounters the titular Alien and things go bad. Sounds familiar? You bet it is.

Yep, the plot is very similar to the very first Alien movie back in 1979, in which... Crew is on a cargo mission, they pick up a signal, changes course to a planet on the wayside, discovers odd things on said planet, encounters alien stuff, then actually encounters the titular Alien and things go bad. Oh my!

But here's the surprise: I'm not bothered by this. The Alien franchise has been switching up its general plot structure every other movie, that I think it's time we go back to the original formula again, the formula that made Alien as big as it (still) is now.

In Aliens (1986), our intrepid space marines doesn't so much as 'stumble' upon the Aliens unprepared, quite the opposite. They go to LV-426 as prepared as they can be, in full knowledge that they are going to encounter something.

In Alien 3 (1992), Ripley is marooned on a prison planet with the Alien with only prisoners and guards for company.

In Alien Resurrection (1997), Ripley IS an Alien. LOL (Sorry, can't help it). But the rest of the plot has humanity trying to weaponise the Aliens and it all goes south. It bears elements of the previous two incarnations in that most of the characters are prepared for trouble when they come in, and Ripley is trapped in a location with Aliens.

Prometheus (2012) is like Aliens (1986) without the space marines nor the aliens.

I believe the plot is sound, and I was very much interested in it from the start to the end. I love how they bridged the gap between Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, and I love how there's this evolution subplot that concludes what is started in Prometheus, how the bioweapon evolves from little more than deadlier snakes to Neomorphs and finally, the Xenomorph.

What I dislike is the execution. First of all, there's this obsession with guns that recent filmmakers seem to have. Aliens (1986) have tonnes of it, which is fine, since it's a military horror sci-fi. It all started with Alien Resurrection, I guess, but Prometheus is where it gets out of hand. Apparently, people are expecting to shoot a lot of things when they explore an apparently lifeless universe. In Prometheus, we have a science mission while Alien: Covenant is a colonisation mission. Yet, people are bringing lots of guns into space!

I mean, sure, you might want something in case of the odd dangerous wildlife, but assault rifles? Seriously? This takes away most of the horror, I feel.

Your characters won't be as helpless. Me being a writer, I have the benefit of being experienced in this matter. At the very least, I have the decency to completely deprive my characters of ammo until the halfway point, leaving them with only rifle butts and bayonets, and even when they've been furnished with ammunition, they don't get a full magazine of rifle rounds and maybe two clips for their pistols - try going up against supernatural creatures that simply can't die with those, hah!

But besides that, there's this whole subplot with the androids. David wants to create, and destroy while Walter wants to protect to protect the crew. I think they've taken David a little too far - he's essentially a one-man civilisation machine! Apparently, he has no trouble doing everything every genius artist, engineer and scientist could achieve despite being one of the earliest model of androids in the Alien universe. The whole Skynet-will-destroy-us-all idea feels like it's been shoved in for no reason.

And then there's the idea of the Alien's origin. I don't quite like how it's done. First, there's the fact that it's merely been glossed over. It's basically just been explained that it was David who bred them in the first place. Second, there's what it meant. It means that we're back to the whole Frankenstein kind of plot, just slightly less direct this time. Man creates Androids and a particular Android creates Aliens. We've committed a hubris and we pay for it. Too much has been explained and as it turns out, humanity brought it on themselves.

I kind of liked the whole 'alien' aspect better, you know, like how the Alien is named? You crack open the door too wide on the monster, and soon enough, you'll notice the zipper running down its back. I prefer it when the origin of the Alien isn't explained too much.

But the whole zipper thing leads me to another point about the movie. The special effects. The Alien feels a bit wrong. There is a lot of shots where the Alien is in full view, lots of action action showing it off. And it is far too obvious that it's CGI. The Alien works better indoors and around tight corners - if you don't show too much of the creature, you won't see the zipper running down its back (it's a saying by Stephen King, by the way). That's how the first Alien movie became so convincing and thus scary.

Then there's something else that I feel is missing, and it began with Prometheus. The whole retro feel is gone. I like the whole 80s kind of feel, and I find that that's what helped define the Alien franchise. It's connected to the whole debacle about the guns. When everything is so shiny and convenient and ergonomic, you don't feel afraid, because it subtly hints that everything would be so convenient and ergonomic for the characters. There's no element of danger in the environment.

When everything is clunky and blasting off steam, you do get a sense of vulnerability, because it conveys a sense that things could just stop working at any moment, much to the advantage of the Alien. It's sad that it took a videogame to do this right after the original Alien (1979) movie. Yeah, I'm talking about Alien: Isolation. Check it out if you haven't.

There's still a lot of details that don't quite sit well with me. The plants from Earth aren't very well explained - how did they get there? No one knows. How on Earth do you bio-engineer Xenomorphs into being with little more than classical antiquity equipment? God knows! Why are there still Engineers running around in robes after millions of years, shouldn't they have ascended or evolved or something? I don't think even God knows. Apparently, they have no orbital defense systems nor control over their own airspace despite having a space station floating as if with anti-gravity just hundreds of metres from the centre of their city.

That said, there's still some redeeming factor to this movie, well, other than how I'm fine with the overall plot structure.

I absolutely love the ending, even if I could spot the twist from a click away. Good guys don't get to win all the time, and I'd say that the way the good guys lose this time is shocking to good effect and awesomeness - second to Life's ending. From here, I love to speculate how we can get to Alien (1979) with just one more movie. (My idea? Those colonists are material for the eggs somehow found on LV-426.)

I think the characters are pretty well done, even if I can't remember most of their names. They are human enough, and I can empathise with their situation and losses, their decisions and mistakes. That said, I still think that more could have been done - not all of them are memorable enough the way the crew of the Nostromo are.

All in all, I think this movie is watchable, and even enjoyable, but it's not going to be a classic or a hit. It's something I might rewatch once or twice, but never over and over throughout the next few decades.

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