Alien: Covenant

For F*** Magazine

ALIEN: COVENANT 

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Amy Seimetz, Callie Hernandez, James Franco
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Running time: 2h 3min
Release Date: 10th May 2017
Rating: M18

Five years after the divisive Prometheus, Ridley Scott takes audiences back to the realm of sci-fi horror he helped create with 1979’s Alien. It is the year 2104, 10 years after the events of Prometheus, and the colony ship Covenant is bound for the planet Origae-6. After a neutrino blast wakes the crew early, and a mysterious transmission is intercepted, Captain Christopher Oram (Crudup) decides to make a detour. Against the protests of terraforming specialist Daniels (Waterston), the Covenant sends a lander down to the planet where the transmission originated from. The android Walter (Fassbender) joins Oram, Daniels and other crew members on the expedition, as pilot Tennessee (McBride) awaits their safe return to the Covenant. On this uncharted planet, the crew encounters vicious, hitherto unknown life forms, resulting in multiple casualties. They also meet David (also Fassbender), an android who was the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission. Daniels, Oram and Walter quickly realise that the planet is home to something far more terrifying than the monsters that are pursuing them.

Prometheus left many unanswered questions in its wake. Since there are at least two more films planned after Covenant before the chronology links up to the original Alien, many of those questions remain unanswered. Alien: Covenant is executed with technical polish, boasting marvellous production values and convincing design elements. However, it is also a frustrating work. There are bits of the film that are reminiscent of Alien, and others that evoke the high-octane Aliens, but for most of its duration, Covenant is stuck in limbo between those two.

John Logan and Dante Harper penned the script, from a draft by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. It’s largely a serious-minded film and wants to be philosophical, just not as upfront with the ‘big questions’ as Prometheus was. Then, in its final act, Covenant becomes an action film, leaving audiences with the sense that the film took one-and-a-half hours to get into gear. The first time something genuinely exciting occurs, it’s 40 minutes into the movie.

There are parts of Covenant that are scary, and there are parts that are thrilling, but they remain parts instead of coalescing into a whole. The basic plot structure is a familiar one: the crew of a ship receives a distress call of some kind, go to investigate the source of the signal, then all hell breaks loose. Because of the plans to continue the franchise, Covenant ends up feeling very much like a middle instalment, which introduces some interesting ideas but is reluctant to push the overall narrative arc forward very far. Fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing the classic, sinuous Xenomorph (or at least something very close to it) on the big screen again. However, because it and the other creatures in the film are achieved mostly using computer-generated effects, we lose the tactility that helped make the old-school Xenomorphs in the earlier films so scary. The goblin-like Neomorph is sometimes creepy, but also sometimes too cartoony.

With any sci-fi movie named after a ship, audiences must fall in love with – or at least be interested in – the crew. Several of them are married couples, meaning there’s potential for heart-rending emotional moments. Alas, the characters who staff the Covenant are mostly bland and under-developed. There are also too many for them to be distinct. They do make dumb decisions, but not to the extent of the Prometheus crew.

Waterston does a fine job, and ably handles the pressure of living up to Sigourney Weaver. While Daniels is mostly a Ripley knockoff, Waterston lends the film a tremulous humanity. She gets to partake in big action set-pieces, including a fun one involving an excavator-like crane arm. However, she’s not fearless or unrealistically tough.

Crudup is also serviceable as the First Mate who gets promoted to the position of Captain, a stubborn man of faith who struggles with leading the crew. Since religious themes and imagery played a key role in Prometheus, which was about man’s search for his creator, it’s disappointing that this aspect of Oram remains largely superficial. While one might assume McBride is on hand to provide comic relief, and he does, he also displays solid acting chops, and stays a safe distance from being the annoying quippy sidekick this reviewer feared the character would become.

Fassbender is the best thing about Covenant. He shines in his dual roles: Walter, ostensibly the ‘good’ android, sounds American, whereas the amoral and possibly evil David speaks with a clipped English accent. David’s murky motivations get further explored, and he’s meant to remind viewers of the Nazis: David has an affinity for Wagner, is interested with eugenics, and may yearn for the complete eradication of a certain species. The tension between creation and creator that is at the core of the character gets further play. Walter is programmed with less autonomy, and is therefore less likely to go off the rails. David and Walter’s interactions are as riveting, if not more so, than the scenes involving the alien monsters. The visual effects work required to make Fassbender act opposite a second, identical Fassbender is seamless.

Fans who were hoping that Alien: Covenant would return the series to its roots will likely have mixed feelings about the film. It seems that Scott felt the pressure to deliver a Xenomorph that was closer to the original H.R. Giger designs than the prototypical beasts seen in Prometheus. It’s a sporadically fascinating, but ultimately unsatisfying entry in the series; and there’s just enough to recommend here for the faithful.

Summary: This Alien instalment will make you scream, but as much out of frustration as in terror, its grandeur undercut by an unremarkable stable of characters and an uninspired plot.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

For F*** Magazine

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM 

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG (Some Disturbing Scenes)

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-posterHow exciting can a film based on a textbook be? If the textbook’s about all manner of magical creatures, pretty exciting. It is 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne), future author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, arrives in New York. When several animals escape from his briefcase, Newt runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), headed by President Seraphina Picquery (Ejogo). MACUSA’s director of security Percival Graves (Farrell) is tasked with capturing Newt. Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Waterston), a former MACUSA agent, aids Newt in tracking the creatures down. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), a non-magic user or No-Maj, is inadvertently drawn into the fray, and falls for Tina’s telepathic sister Queenie (Sudol).

In the meantime, anti-wizard sentiment in the U.S. is mounting, with the New Salem Preservation Society (NSPS) gaining ground. The hate group is led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton), whose adopted son Credence (Miller) bears the brunt of her abuse. Mary Lou petitions newspaper magnate Henry Shaw Sr. (Voight) for his support of the NSPS. Henry’s son Henry Shaw Jr. (Josh Cowdery), a U.S. senator, is attacked at a rally by an Obscurus, a sinister parasitic entity. As the wizarding is under threat from all sides, Newt and his newfound allies must restore order to a city flung into mayhem.

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This spin-off of the Harry Potter franchise is intended to expand the film series into a cinematic universe known as the Wizarding World. While we’ve all grown wary of cash-grab franchise extensions, there’s no rule that says they must be devoid of artistic merit. Director David Yates and screenwriter J.K. Rowling are no strangers to the Potterverse – he directed the last four instalments in the series and, well, she created the whole thing. It is a savvy move to make Fantastic Beasts a period piece, giving it a markedly different setting from the Potter films with which we’re familiar. Instead of being a direct prequel, it’s mostly removed from the narrative of the boy wizard and his family history, meaning this serves as an ideal jumping-on point for neophytes and younger viewers who didn’t grow up with the Potter books or films.

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The world-building on display in Fantastic Beasts is meticulous, benefitting from Rowling’s detail-oriented tendencies. Newt experiences some culture shock, and there are little touches which demonstrate how the Brits and Americans do things different. For example, non-magic users are called ‘Muggles’ in the U.K., but are referred to as “No-Majs” across the pond. The 20s New York setting, just before the onset of the Great Depression, is well-realised and immersive. There’s a scene set in a wizard speakeasy and an action set-piece set in the Central Park zoo. We watched the film in IMAX 3D, and the stereoscopic effects are satisfyingly plentiful. James Newton Howard’s score envelops the viewer, and there’s some playful jazz weaved in.

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The titular beasts are plenty of fun, and spectacle isn’t in short supply here. The Niffler, part-badger, part-pangolin and all kleptomaniac, is an adorable mischief-maker. The rhinoceros-esque Erumpent sets the stage for an inspired moment of physical comedy, and Newt has his own Baby Groot in the form of a shy plant-like creature called the Bowtruckle. Newt’s struggles in wrangling the creatures are entertaining, and many of his interactions with the animals are endearing. The visual effects, supervised by Tim Burke and Christian Manz, are extensive and generally impressive. However, this reviewer would like to have seen more practical animatronic creatures mixed in with the computer-generated ones. While Yates does a fine job, we couldn’t help imagining what a director like Guillermo del Toro would’ve created.

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Rowling alludes to the classic film Citizen Kane with Voight’s newspaper owner character and his senator son. Unfortunately, this subplot is under-developed and doesn’t sit cohesively enough with the main plot of Newt’s adventures. The NSPS, with its cult-like nature and cruel matron, is clearly Rowling’s reaction to the religious groups who called for boycotts of the Potter books and films because of their supposedly Satanic content. Newt mentions how he finds the MACUSA’s laws against marrying or even befriending No-Majs to be retrograde. While we appreciate the social commentary and the attempts to give this whimsical fantasy some real-world grounding, it’s not particularly subtle.

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Redmayne is a wonderful fit for this franchise. He seems most at home in period films, and it’s easy to buy him as a tweedy, earnest academic. Redmayne also proves adept at acting against things that aren’t there. As a markedly different type of female lead than Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, Waterston turns in an appealing, low-key performance. Sudol gets to ham it up a little as the coquettish flapper. Fogler has been a low-rent Jack Black or Seth Rogen for much of his career, but this reviewer enjoyed him as the comic relief sidekick/audience-identification character.

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While the Harry Potter franchise boasts an abundance of colourful supporting characters, those in Fantastic Beasts don’t quite measure up. Farrell’s Graves is the Inspector Javert-type, not unlike his character in Minority Report. There’s a bit of a spin put on things, but perhaps it should’ve been played with more panache. Miller’s Credence is meant to be at once sympathetic and creepy, which he does fine. Ejogo’s Picquery is the equivalent of a police chief on a procedural show, and Voight is woefully underused.

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Fantastic Beasts has enough to offer fans who span the spectrum from “this is kinda interesting” to “legally changed my name to ‘Severus Snape’”. While its story isn’t spectacularly riveting and its social commentary is on the nose, it features likeable lead characters and entertaining spectacle. At 133 minutes though, it is about 15 minutes too long and lapses into multiple endings. It has been announced that there will be five films in the series, but thankfully, this Fantastic Beasts doesn’t do an obnoxious amount of sequel-baiting. Keep an eye out for a certain A-lister as a certain key player in Potter lore.

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Summary: This new chapter in the Wizarding World caters to devotees and newcomers alike, even if the setting is more interesting than the story itself.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong