Movie Review – Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant (2017)
Written by John Logan, D.W. Harper
Directed by Ridley Scott


Ten years after the events of Prometheus, a colony ship named The Covenant is traveling from Earth to a new planet carrying over 2000 colonists in cryosleep. An ion storm forces the crew to wake and deal with ship repairs. In the fracas, a crew member dies, and the rest are less than excited about going back under. Just their luck they intercept a faint transmission from a planet that never seemed to come up in any company surveys. The captain makes the decision to investigate, and thus the crew of the Covenant crosses paths with the aftermath of the last film and the beginnings of a new franchise….I guess.

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Retro Review – Legend (1985, dir. Ridley Scott)


I can remember being in my grandmother’s living at her home in Clarksville, Tennessee. I was about seven or eight. My Uncle Thomas has control of the television and it was on the mysterious and forbidden HBO. The film playing captivated me with the dreamlike world being presented on screen and when the moment came that the towering demonic villain of the piece stepped on screen I was absolutely floored. Later, I would learn this was the film Legend.

Legend is about as classical of a fairy tale you could get. There’s a beautiful princess, Lily (Mia Sara) who plays in the forest with a child of nature named Jack (Tom Cruise). A foolish encounter with a pair of unicorns plunges the world into the beginnings of eternal shadow. It’s up to Jack and band of dwarves and fae to defeat the fiendish Darkness (Tim Curry) before evil overtakes the world for all time.

After watching The Force Awakens I realized more than anything that film is able to perfectly recreate how it *feels* to watch Star Wars for the first time when you were a kid. I don’t know how to explain it but it’s a very primal, emotional thing that Abrams is able to tap into. In Legend, Ridley Scott accomplishes the same sense of nostalgic wonder on the topic of reading a fairy tale. Every single archetype looks and plays so perfectly. Tom Cruise pulls of the generic hero who has received the Call. Mia Sara’s Lily is ethereal in her beauty but also brings a strength to her character not typically seen in fairy tales. It’s by no means a feminist portrayal, but her confrontational scenes with Darkness show she is a character able to overcome her initial fears. The supporting cast of goblins, dwarves, faeries, and demons are everything you remember from laying in bed and leafing through a hardback anthology of fairy tales.

Even now, some twenty-plus years later, the film still brings out that sense of slipping into a dream. This is accomplished thanks to two key crew members: Assheton Gordon, the production designer, and Rob Bottin, makeup designer. Gordon was a British film veteran having worked on some of the great British New Wave films of the 1960s (The Knack…and How to Get It, Wonderwall, The Magic Christian) and was part of the crew of Michelangelo Antonioni’s countercultural crime thriller Blow-Up. I don’t believe Gordon had done production design on a film of this scale before, but he produced a brilliant world. Filmed entirely on the famous 007 soundstage at Pinewood Studios, the entire enchanted forest and hellish citadel of Darkness were perfectly realized. It is obvious that our characters are moving through an artifice of nature, but I think that helps add to the dreamlike qualities of the picture. It reminded me of Canadian director Guy Maddin’s work which intentionally lets its audience in on the layered reality of watching a film. The plan had been to shoot on location and if that had gone through I think the story would have suffered.

Rob Bottin handled makeup design and the variety of magical beings, both angelic and sinister, look wonderful. The obvious crowning achievement of the film is Tim Curry as Darkness. This is the definitive Devil. Massive black horns, piercing cat’s eyes, brilliant white fangs in a malevolent grin, goats hooves that tower him above the rest of the cast. Just from an engineering point of view this is a massive task. Bottin made his way up on some classic 1970s cheesy films (King Kong, Rock and Roll High School), but really broke out through his work with John Carpenter (The Fog, The Thing) and particularly The Howling. The most important part about his transformative work with Darkness, and the testament to Tim Curry’s prowess as an actor, is that neither the makeup or the actor ever overwhelm each other. It’s such a perfect synthesis of both crafts.

Legend did not do well upon its release. The plot is paper thin and character development is almost nil. But I would argue neither was something the film set out to do. Legend is a film about dreaming and about imagination. I suspect it still works to lure in the attention of children even today, evoking in them those ancient curiosities that have kept fairy tales alive in our culture for centuries.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One

Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.

Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

In the first entry into the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley is not necessarily identified as the main character until the last 45-30 mins of the film. Instead, the film cleverly fakes out the audience by focusing on Tom Skerritt’s captain of the mining ship the Nostromo as the hero. If you haven’t seen Alien, you are missing one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. In the wake of Star Wars, but still firmly entrenched in classic psychological sci-fi cinema, Alien takes its time to introduce its title baddie.
Character development isn’t a core component of this first film. Director Scott appears to take a more aloof, documentary style on the material, using lots of handheld camera work and realistic conversations between characters. Ellen Ripley is a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose specialty is as a pilot. She’s also second in command to Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Because of her rank in the military like structure of the corporation, we don’t see her take command until some bad things befall poor Dallas. Once she does assume command, she faces dissension from the ship’s science officer (Holm) and the contracted mining crew who is already disgruntled about their small percentage from the mission they are returning from. It’s very interesting that at such an early time in the history of the blockbuster movie, there was already a female action hero whose gender never played a role in her interactions with fellow crew members.
There is also a subtext that is commonly read into Alien that makes it fitting that a female character would take center stage. The entire process in which a person is implanted with a xenomorph (the name of the Alien species) embryo is akin to rape. A spider-like creature bursts from an egg, affixing itself to a host species’ face, then inserts a tube down into the stomach of the host where the egg is planted. The emergence of the xeno is also a dark commentary on childbirth. The larval creature bursts from the host’s chest, screaming and crying in a twisted variation on the birth-cries of an infant, and skitters away leaving the host for dead. While I’m sure the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and Ridley Scott don’t believe childbirth is evil, they are making an interesting comment on what a violent and brutal process it is. If you were to step back and observe, it is quite odd that mothers are expected to immediately love and bond with something that has literally torn them apart.
By the end of the film, Ripley has managed to escape the ship and fights of the xenomorph once more, defeating it and placing herself in cryosleep, expecting to wake up in a few weeks back at the space port.

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton
Well, Ripley’s escape ship drifted much longer than she planned, in fact she was out in the emptiness of space for 57 years. She’s found by scavengers and delivered to Weyland-Utani where she learns that her daughter (in a deleted scene from the director’s cut), who was 9 when Ripley left for the mining mission, has died at the age of 66 two years ago. This devastates Ripley, and it is apparent that she is also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the massacre that took place on board the Nostromo. Ripley attempts to assimilate back into life on Earth, but is called back into duty when the planetoid the xenos where originally found on has been colonized and the colonists appear to have been wiped out.
Where in the first film, Ripley is goes into action only when she is pushed, this Ripley appears to have developed a much tougher skin as a result of her experiences. Her job on Earth is working a loader mechsuit (see the big robo suits from Avatar) and moving cargo around for shipment. Once she amongst the space marine platoon headed to kill the alien hordes, she is intent on proving herself just as tough as them, but with a clear head and much more intelligence than many of the grunts around her. When the unit lands and everything falls apart fairly quickly, with xenos mauling the troops, it is Ripley, not the unit commander that takes action and pulls the still living soldiers out. For the rest of the film, Ripley is the one calling the shots. She orchestrates a way of remotely calling a rescue ship from the marine vessel in the planetoid’s orbit and successfully defeats the xenos pretty much single handedly.
This film expands on Ripley’s maternal nature but introducing Newt, the child of colonists who has been severely traumatized by seeing her family devoured and used as living incubators. Ripley takes up the care of Newt without missing a beat, she knows how to speak to the child and comfort her so that she believes she is safe with Ripley no matter what. Ripley has a foil in the form of the Alien Queen, the one responsible for the those creepy, mucousy eggs that cause so much trouble. The finale of the film is two mothers fighting to death to protect their children. Something that is so visceral and ultimately feels like more organic action that most male-centric action films. There is an instinctual protective nature in mothers of all species, so much of the over the top action that occurs feels honest.
Aliens ends the same as the first: Ripley going in cryosleep, hoping that the next time she wakes this nightmare will be a memory. Too bad she has two more films to go.