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[Spoilers for Alien: Covenant throughout]

When 1979’s initial entry in the Alien franchise hit theaters, there was no doubt what the title of the film referred to: the horrifically beautiful Xenomorph is the centerpiece of the film, its presence and visage hinted at in the film’s original poster:

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Save for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, the human characters in the first few Alien films are your standard-issue horror movie fodder. They exist mostly so the Xenomorph(s) have something to sink their freakishly long teeth into.

When the series returned from its 15-year slumber (not many franchises survive releasing a turd like Alien: Resurrection unscathed) with 2012’s Prometheus, the focus of the series shifted. The humans stepped out from the greenish glow of the Xenomorphs and began to take center stage.

Prometheus begins with a question of creation, and the instinct to seek out your own creator is a running theme through the new entries in the franchise. Much of the first prequel deals with universe-building, and also with how complicit humanity is in the creation of the vile beasts that Ripley will eventually wage war against.

The line of prequels and shift in focus continues with Alien: Covenant, which opened in theaters just this weekend. The film is a perfect blend of what made the original movies so terrifying, and the prequel so intriguing.

Three main characters in Covenant lose a spouse in the first half of the movie, and those tragedies have an immediate impact on how they make decisions. Early on, two characters have it out over which planet to attempt to colonize. The character who just lost her husband argues that they should stick with the planet they originally set out for, where she had planned to build a lakeside cabin with her partner. The captain, who has not yet undergone a traumatic loss, insists they try a newfound planet nearby that is broadcasting a mysterious, garbled signal.

The captain will eventually lose his spouse as well, and instantaneously transforms into the emotional, irrational, blubbering mess that he previously looked down upon.

A major criticism of Prometheus (particularly from casual viewers) stemmed from how characters made irrational choices, such as taking their helmets off while exploring an uncharted, unknown planet. Covenant plays out as a response to those slights, with logical thinking and actions leading characters directly to their death.

The captain chooses a planet based on some pretty rational thinking, but it’s of course crawling with Xenomorphs. Another character does well to think on her feet, quarantining two infected humans, grabbing a gun, and attempting to kill the alien… only to slip on a pool of blood, and with a more few errant shots, she blows up the entire transport ship. The point here is that, people make the right choices all the time and still suffer unfortunate consequences.

It should be no surprise that the movie-going public thirsts for perfect human beings when they go to the cinema. Sitting back in a recliner, eating popcorn, the audience craves exactly what they are not. They don’t seek a reminder of their own imperfections, they want to watch Sylvester Stallone blow up people with alarming precision. For a generation weened on action films featuring one-man armies, it’s entirely logical that John Wick is praised for its realism, while Prometheus is panned for its fallacies.

The film kicks this theme into high gear when it reintroduces David (played by Michael Fassbender), the synthetic caretaker that turned out to be quite villainous by the end of Prometheus.

David is a creature devoid of emotion, one who supposedly makes all his decisions based on logic and reason. He is created by emotional creatures, however, bastardizing the audience’s dream of seeing a character who always makes the “smart” decision.

It’s revealed in the film that David’s model has been shelved since we last saw him, replaced by Walter (also played by Fassbender, who adopts a somewhat ludicrous midwest accent when portraying the newer robot). Humans were unsettled by David, and how we was constantly striving to be more human by creating symphonies, watching movies and attempting to form bonds with his corporeal charges.

Just like your average movie-goer treats the characters projected on the screen in front of them, the inhabits of the Alien universe did not want to see a reflection of their own humanity in David. To them, it’s strange that David would want so badly to emulate them. He’s living the dream of being a perfect, coldly logical being, and he wants to be more like us, vulnerable, soft creatures who live life according to the whims of their feelings?

Eventually, the audience realizes that David is a corrupt amalgamation of creation and creator. Knowing full-well how he was created and by whom, inspires David to attempt to take on that role himself. Just like children learn by seeing their parents do things, David watches humanity play God and decides to give the role a shot himself.

Conversing with his newer robotic counterpart, David quotes from the poem Ozymandias:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

But, rather subtly, he flubs the author of the poem: he attributes it to Lord Byron, when in fact it was penned by Percy Shelley. The film calls no attention to David’s mistake, but it’s the first sign that something is wrong. David is not perfect, as humans always assume of robots. If he can make such a simple error, is he really as logical and “sane” as he appears?

Through the course of the second half of the film, David supersedes the Xenomorph as the true villain of the series by turning into something more akin to Dr. Frankenstein than Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the early Alien movies, your typical denouement featured the titular alien somehow finding a way to stick around for any potential sequels.

Covenant seems to be following the typical formula: as the remaining crew pile back onto their ship, a Xenomorph clings on underneath. After they dispatch that pesky stowaway, another alien explodes out of a crew-member in the med bay. The film’s heroine summarily sends that invader packing out of an airlock, and suddenly the audience has to ask themselves, what threat is left? It can’t just be ‘they lived happily ever after’, right?

Right. All that remains is David. David and Walter have a knock-down, drag-out fight right before the colonizers flee the planet, but the film cuts away before it reveals which android comes out on top.

The robot that emerges from the fight certainly looks and acts like Walter: he’s missing his right hand, he has the odd lilt in his voice, and he helps the colonizers get ready for their long journey to the other planet. But, at the last minute, if you hadn’t already picked up on it, the robot’s true identity is revealed.

David’s arc will hopefully conclude in another sequel, one that finally bridges the remaining gap between the prequels and the original series. The quote I used for the title of this blog comes from a discussion in Alien between Ripley and Ash, the ship’s robot.

Ripley has come to the realization that Ash’s primary duty aboard the ship is to ensure the safety of the Xenomorph, with no regard for the well-being of the humans on-board. Ash admits he has admiration for the beast:

I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.


Alien: Covenant is not only excellent because of its themes and the fresh ideas that are injected into a long-running series, it’s also just a wonderfully exciting Sci-Fi/Horror film. There are some truly gross moments featuring the Aliens bursting out of various different parts of the human body, and some kills that will have even the most horror-weathered viewer gripping his or her armrest.

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vlcsnap-2017-03-03-16h11m53s374Angel Heart (Dir. Alan Parker, 1987)

Watching this film got me thinking about cinematic twists and how they can make or break a movie-going experience. I haven’t blogged in this space in quite some time, so while thinking of how to intro this review with some talk about twists and spoilers, I dug into my drafts folder to copy and paste some formatting stuff over.
Through this, I discovered an abandoned review of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects that featured an intro pretty much identical to the one I was about to write. I’ll give way to my past self here for a moment (yes, I’m about to quote my own unpublished work):

Twists are a controversial topic in modern day film making and oftentimes audiences can get so caught up in trying to guess a twist before it happens that they ruin the film for themselves. M. Night Shyamalan is probably to thank (or blame) for audience’s hyper awareness of plot twists today, but in reality it is not a new phenomenon. One of the earlier notable twists in a movie occurred in Les Diaboliques (1955), a French Hitchcockian thriller that was so concerned about its audiences’ potential reaction to having the rug pulled out from under them that it contained a request in the credits:

“Don’t be devils! Don’t spoil your friends interest in seeing the film. Don’t tell them what you’ve seen. Thank you for their own sake.”

Knowing a twist or sensing one coming can greatly alter your perception of a film. Prior to watching Angel Heart, I googled it quickly, curious to see what year it was released. Stupidly reading the synopsis that Google gave me, I realized how things would likely shake out before I could even hit the play button on my remote. The engineers at Google must not be big into French cinema.

The true test of any big reveal is: can it stand up to repeated viewing or someone knowing about it ahead of time? Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense always rubbed me the wrong way in this regard. With the knowledge that Bruce Willis is dead the whole time, the events of the film seem unbelievably silly.

But with Angel Heart, which stars Mickey Rourke as your prototypical New York private dick, knowing the final destination of the plot did not ruin the journey for me one bit. Rourke’s character is conscripted by a shadowy, strange man named Louis Cyphre (say that name out loud a few times fast and you’re well on your way to figuring out what’s going on here) to track down a singer that disappeared post-WWII.

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Rourke’s attempts to find the missing man follow your typical, boilerplate detective story. There’s plenty of alluring dames, intriguing questions and dead bodies lining his path as he attempts to solve the mystery at the heart of the film.

The juicy parts here focus in on the detective, not the case he’s trying to solve. Rourke’s character – named Harry Angel, one of many ridiculous nom de plumes we’ll encounter – is a complete blank slate to the viewer.

There is one brief scene where he interacts with a female friend on the street, but otherwise, Angel appears to have no family or associates of any kind. There’s no secretary out in the hallway of his private office, no wife waiting for him at home. In fact, we never even see where Angel lives.

Hence the shots like the one above, Angel viewed from outside, usually through frosted or stained glass. Not only are we, as the viewer, separated from him physically, but our perception of him is commonly filtered through something, masking him.

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We’re also given a plethora of shots of Angel looking at himself in the mirror. The viewer is first made to question, who exactly is this guy? Then, we slowly start to ask, does he even know the answer to that question?

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There are additional recurring motifs that foreshadow Angel’s true identity. Throughout the film, there are an abundance of fans lurking in the background of shots. Despite exterior shots having the appearance of winter (mushy snow on the ground, deserted beaches) every room Angel lurks into has a fan idly rotating somewhere in the corner.

What at first seems an innocuous coincidence slowly comes into focus. In dreams and at stressful moments, Angel hazily recalls a scene in Times Square involving troops fresh home from the war. A solider with his back turned to the camera is about to kiss a woman, then before we can see his face, there’s a slam-cut to the exterior wall of an apartment building, with just one of the multitude of windows featuring… a fan.

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Sometimes the fans are shown in the background, as above, and other times just the shadows created by the blades are displayed. The fans allow some light through to the floor, but the blades obfuscate the rest.

If we are to read into the light as truth and view the darkness as what we have yet to figure out, the prevalence of the fans begins to make sense. Angel has many of the facts at his disposal, but he’s obsessed with what he can’t figure out, and sees shadows everywhere he goes.

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The solution to the mystery clearly lies in Angel’s vision of Times Square and the apartment building. Is the mystery man he’s looking for the soldier embracing the woman? What terrible thing happened in the ominous stone building with the fan?

With Les Diaboliques and my intro in mind, I won’t give away the ending here. I will just suggest that any viewer of this film go in with the mindset of enjoying the visual depth and not getting too caught up in playing a guessing game.

There are fun nods to other films, and some downright pretty landscape shots of New York and Louisiana. Robert De Niro plays Cyphre, and is good in the limited screen time he gets. Recommended for fans of noir, private detective stories and De Niro eating hardboiled eggs.

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Forget it, Angel. It’s only a movie.

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The Zero Theorem (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2013)

I have always had quite the love-hate relationship with Terry Gilliam’s output as a director. On the surface-level it appears I should love most of his films, as he is a visual genius who almost exclusively works in my favorite genre, Science Fiction. He also came into the world of film gradually while working with Monty Python on a whole bevy of visual products and designs. I’m always excited to see his name attached to new projects and scripts, but ultimately I am usually underwhelmed by his films. His much-acclaimed Brazil serves as a tidy example of how I view his career: beautifully striking in terms of both set design and cinematography, but void of any real substance inhabited in the characters or plot. Gilliam freely admits that Brazil is a work inspired by and derived from 1984, but he will also tell you in that same breath that he has never actually read 1984! I went into my screening of The Zero Theorem with high hopes despite that anecdote, as, unlike with most of his previous films, this movie has an independent screenwriter. Gilliam’s forward-thinking visuals combined with writing from someone who (hopefully!) is attentive to plot development and characterization? A combination worth slightly raising my low expectations for!

 

vlcsnap-2014-09-06-19h51m08s13There were other factors drawing me to watch this particular film, and probably the most influential was Christoph Waltz’s involvement. I was first introduced to his great talents in Quentin Tarantino’s last two films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained which both netted him Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. Despite loving and watching both of those films numerous times, I have yet to really been exposed to him in any other roles, so I was very excited to see what could do with a top billing. Here, he is an eccentric hermit named Qohen (Q – no U! – o – h – e – n, he repeatedly insists throughout the movie), believed by his boss (Matt Damon) to be the only one capable of proving the titular theorem. Waltz puts in a very admirable performance as the loner weirdo and since his character is in every single scene that is quite the relief. With roles like this it is sometimes very easy to get caught up in the tics and unique traits of the character but Waltz never goes too far with Qohen, displaying a wide range of emotions and tones. Gilliam has always seemed to draw out interesting performances from his big-name actors, whether it be Al Pacino as the janitor in Brazil or Bruce Willis as the unhinged time traveler of 12 Monkeys. Damon as Qohen’s mystical boss is an entertaining few minutes, but unfortunately the emphasis there is on few, as Damon’s screen time is limited. 

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As evidenced by the screenshot above, this is a very good looking movie with comedic futuristic flares. True to the rest of Gilliam’s oeuvre, it comes across as pretty empty and a little bit daft. Waltz’s character spends the entire film waiting for a phone call (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?) that he believes will give his otherwise tepid life meaning. For the first 1/3rd of the film there is heavy-handed commentary on the plight of the modern office drone in the form of Qohen using what looks like a Tetris-like 3D video game for his job. He complains constantly that he’d be more productive at home and is finally allowed to make the switch when he is assigned to prove The Zero Theorem. It’s at this point that the Qohen-as-a-cubicle-slave montage ends and the romantic comedy portion of the movies begins. “Montage” would not be appropriate here as this romantic subplot seemingly dominates the movie’s run-time and never really progresses the plot in any meaningful way. There are some funny moments (see the screenshot below) but it’s staggering how generic this side story is, especially when contrasted by the futuristic trimmings surrounding it.

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  To Gilliam’s credit, this cinematic universe is populated by some entertaining supporting characters, but they are so disposable and forgettable that the comedic relief role is swapped out halfway through the film and it’s barely noticeable. The only character with any depth at all is Qohen and any other characters are there simply to say or do something that will move the plot toward’s it’s forgettable ending. There are funny moments, great shots and enjoyable moments, but Gilliam disappoints on the whole for me yet again. Most of the philosophical meandering that takes place here seems culled straight from that kid in the back of your Philosophy 101 course who won’t stop raising his hand. Entire subplots are left (purposely?) unresolved, rendering the eye-rolling ending even lamer. I should probably just stop paying close attention to the Gilliam films I watch, and just take in the visuals. Or just not watch his films to begin with. If you are a hardcore Gilliam completionist, you will enjoy this film, If you are anyone else, stay far away. 

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