Alien

Alien Vs. Predator

Maybe it’s just the power of lowered (and I mean lowered) expectations, but to my surprise I didn’t hate this much-maligned crossover, and, from a certain perspective, found it a more enjoyable experience than the recent Alien: Covenant. Or perhaps I was simply able to disassociate it from the Alien franchise altogether, and watch it on its own terms as a trashy B-movie. Which yes is filled with cardboard-thin characters, laughable plot and much stupidity, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun watching it.

The story is as basic as it comes and there’s absolutely no point trying to make it fit into the continuity of the Alien franchise, unless you want your brains to curdle. In the year 2004, Weyland Corporation, headed by Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen of the Aliens‘ Bishop fame, whose casting here makes no sense, but nothing else does either), finds a mysterious ancient pyramid resting deep under Antarctica. He assembles a crack team of scientists, drillers and explorers, led by Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan). Her badassery is established in the most cliche way possible: she climbs a dangerous ice wall and simultaneously discusses the job offer on the phone. What the clueless humans don’t know is that the pyramid complex is a hunting ground designed by the Predators, where they could hunt specially bred xenomorphs to prove their manhood… Predatorhood… whatever, while the ancient humans worshipped Predators as gods and served as breeding vessels. Very soon, Weyland’s team ends up being caught in the middle of epic smackdowns between the two warring species. But you know Alexa’s companions are going to be toast anyway, because no one can hope to survive after showing a happy snap of their kids in a horror film.

All of this is extremely silly, and my internal running commentary for the first half of the movie ran something like, Huh? What? Why are they doing this? But once the Team Stupid gets inside the pyramid and things go from bad to worse, the movie is an entertaining action/horror romp to watch. I’ve watched enough movies which are bad in a drab and humourless way, to appreciate the fun bad movies; I really can’t hate a film that has something as hilarious as a shot of a facehugger jumping in bullet time.

The production design looks pretty damn good and the pyramid interiors are suitably lavish and creepy. The effects for the Aliens and Predators hold up well, and the movie gets props for bringing back the Alien Queen. The R-rated human bloodshed is noticeably missing, but the movie at least doesn’t hold back where the monster-on-monster damage is concerned. A completely unexpected bonus was Sanaa Lathan as the chief protagonist; there’s really nothing much to her character as written, but she makes her appealing and easy to root for. Alexa is no Ripley maybe but she’s also not the forgettable what’s-her-name from Alien: Covenant.

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.