Archive for August 2017

Alien: Covenant

August 14, 2017

aliencovenantClosing in on eighty years old, Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to be able to leave his legacy alone. October will bring a sequel to his Blade Runner, which he’s executive-producing but not directing, and he has now directed two prequels to the Alien saga, which he started in 1979. The first of them, 2012’s Prometheus, was a ponderous though gorgeous slog through questions of life’s origins — did he who made the xenomorph make thee? Now we have Alien: Covenant, a direct follow-up to Prometheus that bows to commercial demands and actually calls itself an Alien film. Which it is, more or less. Prometheus was dull but at least attempted something larger; Covenant (named after the spacecraft in the film) is a regression to the original Alien’s set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down schematic.

Michael Fassbender, at least, is back, this time in two roles: as David, the android from Prometheus, and Walter, a later, upgraded version of David. Walter serves on the crew of the Covenant, which seeks to colonize a remote planet. Two Fassbenders is even better news than one, and the actor plays the duty-bound Walter and the somewhat more emotional David with a variety of gradations. The rest of the crew are either non-entities or played with one or two notes, with the exception of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, whose close-cropped hair and general aura of torment (Daniels is widowed early in the film) reminded me of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Daniels is clearly being groomed as the new Ripley (the hero of the original four films, played by Sigourney Weaver), and as long as Waterston plays her, I’ll need to come back for more. She’s about the only dab of humanity in this aggressively designed, biomechanical movie, which like Prometheus has the best technical bona fides money can buy (returning editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) but labors under a convoluted plot overlaying the slasher-flick structure. The aliens, it seems, were deliberately created and have been maintained on some ghastly planet where they killed all the Engineers (the weird-looking folks who apparently created life). These critters keep being called “the perfect organisms,” but all they do is shriek and hiss and drool acid and reproduce. They were never the interesting aspect of the Alien series; that was Ripley.

Will Daniels be allowed to take on the metaphorical, #YesAllWomen struggles of Ripley, with the soulful Waterston stepping into Weaver’s boots? I hope so, because Alien: Covenant doesn’t otherwise point to a promising future for the franchise. The movie is sleek and morbid, with the usual ugly undercurrent of gnashing teeth, shredded flesh, misting blood. More than once, I heard myself sighing at the predictability not only of the film’s and-then-there-were-none structure but of the supposed twists. I called the big twist a mile off, and anyone who’s seen a movie before will, too; the reveal is delayed a bit, so that the real twist is that, oh yeah, there is a twist after all. It still does away with a character with no explanation and lazily expects us to accept and overlook that.

Alien: Covenant isn’t all bad. Some of the images have a dour beauty; the various alien landscapes glow like a sunrise in Hell. I was happy to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, minimalist theme for the first Alien, an echoing strain that has always sounded to me almost prophetic, prefiguring the newly remorseless sci-fi/horror blockbusters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It turns up in Covenant now and again, reminding us of the Ridley Scott who scared the crap out of us in 1979 without having to yoke the movie to some half-assed creation myth involving bodybuilders with Easter Island heads making life out of black liquid. I suspect that Scott, looking his eighth decade in the face, wanted to make his what’s-it-all-about saga with Prometheus but couldn’t get the budget unless it could be marketed as Ridley Scott’s return to the series that made his name. Alien: Covenant shows, rather dispiritingly, that Scott is not resentful about regressing; on the contrary, he has gotten comfortable in this old pair of slippers. And despite the blood and teeth, that’s what the movie feels like.

The Dark Tower

August 7, 2017

darktowerThe Dark Tower is a mediocre, overshort movie, but it has done what nothing else has done — it has made me want to read the books that inspired it. Stephen King’s eight-volume series is about the ultimate hero against the ultimate villain in a struggle over the titular Tower, which holds all worlds together. It’s all very archetypal, informed as much by Sergio Leone as by Tolkien. The movie is an abbreviated riff on several of the books; we’re informed that it’s not an adaptation of King’s work so much as a sequel — another “turn of the wheel,” since the entire saga was conceived as a narrative ouroboros (or became one, anyway). “The man in black fled across the desert,” begins the first book, “and the gunslinger followed” — and apparently the two men will go on fleeing and following until the end of time.

The gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), who in this iteration seeks revenge on the man in black, or Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), for killing Roland’s father. Walter goes by different names; he has turned up in various guises in King’s fiction, most prominently as Randall Flagg in The Stand. As McConaughey plays him, Walter is a saturnine Erl-King in rock-star cosplay, swaggering around and getting people to kill each other or to stop breathing with a bland command. Truth to tell, McConaughey was more sinister in those moody Lincoln commercials (the ads actually convinced me he could play the Stephen King version of Satan), and the director, Nikolaj Arcel, doesn’t even give him a juicy intro — Walter is just suddenly there, looking on as his big death machine saps psychic children of their energy and channels it into a big death ray pointed at the Tower.

When the Tower takes a big death hit, our Earth rumbles, and a boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), feels it in his mother’s Big Apple apartment. Jake has been having visions of Roland and Walter, and it turns out he packs enough psychic oomph to shame Danny Torrance from The Shining. The movie seems awfully front-loaded to favor Jake, creating the unhappy sense that Roland, whose casting with a non-white actor caused some consternation among those pained by such things, has been relegated to a supporting character in his own epic story because, well, he’s black. After a while the balance evens out a little, Taylor’s performance gets better as Jake becomes more useful, and Idris Elba maintains his stoic sangfroid whether reciting Roland’s Mid-World doggerel (“He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father” and so on) or performing, as Pauline Kael put it in another context, “kinetic self-realization with a gun.”¹

This Dark Tower is practically guaranteed to vex the books’ fans, who will be painfully aware of what’s missing and what a wasted opportunity it all is. Judged on its own shaky merits, the movie skims the surface of the iconic saga, and the occasional bit of strangeness — like Walter’s minions the Low Men, looking, accidentally I’m sure, like members of the Trump administration — stands out in relief against much of the conceptual dullness. But McConaughey and especially Elba have given me intriguing men to picture when I return to the books. I read the first two, in college, several thousand years ago and remember little except the lobstrosities, which sadly stay home from work here. Much is appealing about King’s good-vs.-evil superstory, and the movie, by virtue of containing at least a swallow of King’s potion, is weird and borderline acid-western enough to hold one’s interest on a slow Tuesday. I imagine, though, that it won’t be the version of The Dark Tower that endures.

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¹This was in reference to Andy Garcia’s Vincent Mancini in The Godfather Part III.