‘Alien: Covenant’

'Alien: Covenant'

‘MAN IN HIS arrogance,’ said the astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, quoting Darwin, ‘thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and, I think, truer to consider himself created from animals.’ If there’s a central thread that runs through Ridley Scott’s reboot of Alien (other than ‘Xenomorphs are not to be trifled with’) it’s something like this: man is so narcissistic as to consider himself a creation of something greater than himself, with the only addendum being that he also wants to create something in his own image. There are evocations––most of the time heavy-handed––of the divine throughout the new franchise, from the Prometheus of the last film to the Covenant and Ozymandias in this one, and you might argue this theme of creation is an interesting continuation (and subversion) of the rape, pregnancy and birth themes of the original Alien. What a crying shame it is, then, that Covenant feels so shallow.

The film begins in a large and sunlit room, and with the first moments of David (Michael Fassbender) the creepy android of Prometheus. His creator, the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), instructs him to play some Wagner on the piano, which he does, and the pair discuss creation. On board the Covenant, a ship carrying more than 2,000 would-be colonisers of a new planet, an accident promotes the uncertain and religious first mate Oram (Billy Crudup) to captain, and his first major decision is to investigate a nearby planet impossibly well-suited to sustaining human life (an Eden, if you like). Terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), makes it known that she doesn’t agree with Oram and thinks the ship should continue on to its original destination. She’s right, of course.


It won’t have escaped your notice that the promotional images of Daniels call to mind the unbreakable Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the first Alien and forerunner of female action leads like Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa. Ridley Scott’s new film is not so much peppered as packed with references to the original, to the extent that anyone who’s seen the original could sit through Covenant, inwardly playing a game of Alien bingo, and in all likelihood do pretty well.


It won’t have escaped your notice that the promotional images of Daniels call to mind the unbreakable Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the first Alien and forerunner of female action leads like Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa. Ridley Scott’s new film is not so much peppered as packed with references to the original, to the extent that anyone who’s seen the original could sit through Covenant, inwardly playing a game of Alien bingo, and in all likelihood do pretty well. These call-backs go beyond mere tribute to the iconic ‘79 film, and lead you to wonder if in his eagerness to improve on the lukewarm Prometheus, Scott consciously reproduced some of the more successful elements of the first film. And it works––to a point.

Those who enjoyed and remember Alien well will find the narrative of Covenant predictable, but unlike Alien, which was notable for its suspense (famously, the Xenomorph only had three-and-a-half minutes of screen time), Covenant is more of a straightforward slasher set in space, with so much blood that it ceases to have a major effect relatively early on. The pop-philosophising comes intermittently in the form of a line of dialogue here or a flashback there, and at any rate you could find those quotations and allusions in the inventory of any old moustache-twirling villain. But this isn’t to say that Covenant is dull. The action is engaging, and the way in which Scott, alongside cinematographer (and long-time collaborator) Dariusz Wolski, bring about an atmosphere both awe-inspiring and pessimistic in Covenant remind us that he is still one of the world’s best directors. Meanwhile the designs of Steve Burg, who, thanks to his work on Interstellar and Ridley Scott films The Martian and Prometheus is making something of a name for himself as the go-to designer for ambitious sci-fi, are typically impressive.


Scott’s knack for visual grandeur went some way to compensating for his failure to answer the big questions of Prometheus. So too did the superb performance of Michael Fassbender as the android David, and in Covenant, it’s Fassbender, playing David and an android successor, the American-accented Walter, who, so to say, steals the show once again


Scott’s knack for visual grandeur went some way to compensating for his failure to answer the big questions of Prometheus. So too did the superb performance of Michael Fassbender as the android David, and in Covenant, it’s Fassbender, playing David and an android successor, the American-accented Walter, who, so to say, steals the show once again. (The robotic precision with which he pours a cup of tea in the first scene is extraordinary.) Waterston, Crudup and Amy Seimetz, who plays Faris, are also worthy of a mention.

Covenant isn’t the deep and thoughtful film its creators would like it to be, but it’s nonetheless a visually impressive, atmospheric, and altogether soundly executed sci-fi action-slasher, and a worth entry to the franchise.

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‘Trespass Against Us’

'Trespass Against Us'

‘HELL HATH NO fury like a locked-up super-goat,’ says Colby Cutler, the surprisingly sinister and infinitely quotable patriarch of Trespass Against Us. It makes some sense in context, but it’s still vague, and the same might be said of the film.

In the opening sequence, Chad, a chain-smoking Gloucestershire traveller and small-time crook, is driving through a field after a dog and a rabbit. His son Tyson sits on his lap and steers the car. The pair and the others in the overfilled hatchback are coursing, which is when a dog chases a hare. If the hare fails to outrun the dog, well, to quote another film involving a hard-to-understand traveller community, ‘the rabbit gets f***ed’.


Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. 


This first five minutes of first-time director Adam Smith’s film tell you a good deal about where the film is headed. Chad, an illiterate thief and getaway driver, wants to teach his son how to get by in the world, but is constantly undermined by his father, the small-time crime lord Colby. Like the dog, local police officer P. C. Lovage, played by Rory Kinnear, is in relentless pursuit of Chad, to the extent that the pair are on first-name terms. The animal metaphors in the film really are heavy-handed.

Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. This is in a large part thanks to Chad, who’s a gifted and icy calm driver in the mould of the central character in Drive, although he will stop mid-chase for a pack of cigarettes. He knows no other life than the criminal one, but he wants something else for wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson). But his main problem is that he can’t stand up to his father, a flat-earth- and intelligent design-believer who rattles off colourful idioms and sits in a big red leather swivel-chair like a Viking king on his throne. Colby thinks up the criminal schemes that risk Chad’s freedom and threatens him when he hints at wanting a different life, and all the while grows in influence over his grandson.

Trespass Against Us should belong to the same genre as London Boulevard and Layer Cake, though the music probably isn’t as good as that of the former and everything else is definitely less stylish than the latter. Chad wants to leave the criminal world behind but of course it pulls him back in, as the criminal world tends to do, even if, in this case, ‘criminal world’ seems hyperbolic. But Trespass Against Us can’t really decide what it’s about. On some level it is about giving up the criminal life, but on another, it’s about family. Tonally it’s also confused. It seems director Adam Smith couldn’t decide between the small-scale realism of, say, Shane Meadows and a grander crime drama. The score reflects this identity problem. The music which plays during the early scenes at the caravan site evokes rural idyllic bliss, to the degree that you start to half-expect to see a couple of hobbits wandering past, pipe and pint of ale in hand. But during genuinely gripping and inventive chase sequences, thumping electronic tones supply the accompaniment.


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. 


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. Rory Kinnear gives a solid supporting performance as a cop who’s not so much sinister as petty: during his confrontations with Chad, he acts like a schoolteacher, barely containing his glee at having caught a particularly difficult schoolboy red-handed. Trespass Against Us is funny, too, much of that humour coming from Colby’s primitive musings and the result of combining traveller slang with a broad Gloucestershire dialect, yah dinny.

The film has some charm but it’s confused and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

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‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

X-Men: Apocalypse

IF YOU WOULD LIKE further proof that the incessant adaptation to film of tired comic book franchises has gone a tad too far, sit through the latest offering in Bryan Singer’s X-Men series.

It’s bigger, it’s bolder, it’s badder. It’s even called Apocalypse, for goodness’ sake. And, most of all, it’s really boring.

If you have forgotten the events of the second instalment in the prequel trilogy, Days of Future Past, I do not blame you. After all, it was instantly forgettable. Apocalypse begins in Ancient Egypt, where we are informed via voiceover by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) that the first mutants were revered as deities. Then, just in case you weren’t paying attention, we see the familiar figures of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon inside a pyramid, standing around a supine figure on a stone slab. The figure is En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), who is betrayed by his treacherous followers and enters a thousand-year-long sleep before being woken up in the modern day by a group of cultish idiots, at which point he promptly tries his very best to end the world.

Mercifully, Apocalypse saves us the tedious origin stories, instead introducing most of the major characters––Cyclops, Angel, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler among them––neatly in a five-minute, globe-trotting whip-around. There are familiar faces, too, notably Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who now has a young family and is living a happy, humble life in Poland. No prizes for guessing how that turns out for him.

Somehow, nobody in a modern Egyptian medina notices our eponymous villain, who looks like a Pleistocene Senator Palpatine moonlighting as backup for the Blue Man Group, as he taps up a mohawk-sporting Storm, who is using her weather-control superpower––badly––to steal from the vendors. Apocalypse subsequently goes on a recruitment drive, winning over young mutants by levelling up their existing powers and kitting them out in fetish gear.

It was about midway through, at the time that Pleistocene Palpatine begins making a fire-and-brimstone speech about humanity’s various shortcomings, that I started to wish for an actual apocalypse, and even a scene involving flying missiles and the sound of Beethoven’s glorious seventh symphony failed to capture my interest, let alone imbue the film with the drama it desperately needed.

For reasons I haven’t quite determined, Apocalypse is jam-packed with references to the original trilogy and to the pop culture of the Eighties period in which the film is set. Nightcrawler, who looks to be returning from a Bullet For My Valentine gig, wears Michael Jackson’s iconic red Thriller jacket on a trip to the mall suggested by Scott Summers, who channels Ferris Bueller in his thick quartz sunglasses. The film also alludes, rather heavy-handedly, to modern-day issues such as mass surveillance, hacking and nuclear proliferation. The CIA, Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) notes, would kill to get their hands on Charles Xavier’s mass-mind-reading machine, Cerebro. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear Edward Snowden bashing his head against the wall of his shack in the Russian wilderness.

Nevertheless, Apocalypse does have its moments. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steals the show for the second X-Men film on the trot––in one scene, he zips around at supersonic speed to the dulcet synth-pop tones of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. There’s humour, too, which comes courtesy of James McAvoy’s hirsute young Xavier, still a welcome departure from Patrick Stewart’s kindly old Professor X. of the original trilogy, and one of the best things about the film. It is no spoiler to say that everyone’s favourite wisecracking Canadian mutant shows up to dish out a little violence. It isn’t quite on the level of his killing spree during the raid on the school in X2, but it is, nevertheless, one of the best action sequences of the film.

The great strength of the X-Men comics has always been to render concepts such as prejudice, racism, segregation and alienation understandable and relatable to young audiences (“everyone fears that which they do not understand,” Xavier tells Jean Grey) but Apocalypse devolves very early on into your camp, garden-variety, spandex-and-explosions superhero tedium, totally devoid of subtlety or self-awareness and overly preoccupied with blunt references to pop culture and the issues du jour. It’s a joyless struggle that makes a mid-season episode of Stargate look like high cinema and lets down a very strong cast of actors with a stilted, humourless script. Die-hard fans of the X-Men may well enjoy the film, but for the casual movie fan, I say save your shekels and your time.

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