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Nothing to Fear with Alien: Covenant

The summer movie rush is upon us leading with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and promising a plethora of blockbusters to come. Last weekend’s big entry into the fray is Ridley Scott’s latest foray into one of the first movie franchises he started back in 1977. Alien: Covenant is Scott’s second film after James Cameron’s highly successful action adaptation of the title. Scott’s original Alien was a true horror film set in space, while Cameron’s sequels were a collection of action-packed battle royals. Scott wanted to put the horror back in the story when he released Prometheus in 2012 and its sequel Alien: Covenant
this summer. Unfortunately, neither Prometheus nor Covenant is particularly scary.

Prometheus was received with mix reviews in 2012, but is generally considered a pale reflection of the alien story. It attempts to fill in the back story of how the Xenomorph we’ve come to know and love got its start. It tells a bleak story about the dawn of humanity and the progenitor of both Humanity and the Xenomorph. Covenant continues that story while trying to get closer in tone and theme to the original 1977 Alien.

If nothing else, it succeeds in copying the feel and tone of the original. The ship design and visuals harken back to the first film and even the sound effects on the Covenant are eerily similar to those on the Nostromo.

The Covenant is a colony ship ferrying more than 2000 people and 1500 embryos to a new world more than 7 years away when the ship encounters a severe ion storm and is damaged. While repairing the ship, the crew detects a signal that shouldn’t be there and goes to investigate. Of course, they find trouble that puts the lives of the crew and colonists in jeopardy.

The plot is so familiar that it is easy to figure out who will die and who will live and the only surprise comes at who will go first. The hero of the film is unsurprisingly a woman named Daniels, played by current “it-girl” Katherine Waterston, who must overcome all odds to save as many as she can and defeat the xenomorphs.

While the film was entertaining and possessing a certain nostalgia for recalling the feel of the first film, it misses in originality and sadly lacks character development. Daniels doesn’t show any growth through the film. We don’t see the “Ripley” moment where she is forced to discover her unknown, never-before-seen inner warrior. The film’s antagonist, David, introduced in Prometheus and played again by Michael Fassbender, is similarly lacking development, though it is not Fassbender’s fault. His alter ego, Walter, shows great development. None of the other characters are there for any reason other than to be Xenomorph chow, which was disappointing because the story hinted at some much needed tension in those characters’ stories that was never realized.

There were one or two scenes where the suspense did build, but sadly, they resolved before hitting the crescendo of panic that a good horror film provides, and real suspense comes from not being able to see the ending; not knowing how the hero will resolve the conflict. This film telegraphed every turn by following the formula set forth by its predecessor. That, coupled with a disappointing ending and a predictable cliff-hanger leaves one bored and definitely not afraid. While it is better than Prometheus, it’s nowhere nearly as scary, suspenseful, or satisfying a film as the original. At best, it’s a “Meh.”

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Ghost Busted in the Shell

Science fiction is a large genre, so large, in fact, that there are sub genres within it. One such niche enjoys a nearly rabid fan base and those devotees refuse to brook any content not in keeping with a narrowly defined parameter for the niche, and that is cyberpunk. In the late 80’s and 90’s, cyberpunk was a growing segment of the Sci Fi phenomenon with its dystopian view of a future where people are fully integrated with technology so that entertainment is had by plugging one’s brain directly into the network. Many cyberpunk movies have enjoyed widespread appeal, such as the Matrix series, while others have fallen flat. One of the more eagerly awaited cinema treatments of a cyberpunk classic is The Ghost in the Shell, and the cyberpunk faithful have resoundingly decried the movie as a failure. Their beef with the film centers more around the casting of Scarlet Johansen as the protagonist, because Johansen is white and the story features an Asian in the role, rather than discussing the real problems with the film, and there are many.

The story centers around a cyborg referred to as “Major” who works for the ministry of security, section 9 in an unnamed future metropolis that looks like a concatenation of Hong Kong, San Francisco,Beijing, New York and any number of other large cities. Major is hot on the trail of a cyber terrorist whom she believes is responsible for the death of her parents and her current condition as a cyborg. During the course of the story, she uncovers a conspiracy that shakes the foundation of her understanding of her identity.

The contrived plot is not a new one and it has been depicted in TV shows and other films several times. The characters are flat and unworthy of empathy and the cinematography is a cacophony of color and light that hurts the eyes and disorients the viewer. The action seems disconnected from the plot and is used just to distract from the otherwise boring and uninspired story.

The one redeeming aspect of this film is Scarlett Johansson, but not for her performance. Johansson’s characterization of Major doesn’t let the viewer into her personal struggle, despite scenes written just for that purpose. She coasts through those scenes, looking confused and detached where one would expect a sharp focus. Her performance was less “Natalia Romanov” and more “Lucy,” with a lot of jumping, running and shooting. The only thing about her performance, and the film in general, that could be construed as positive is the skin tight body suit she wear during combat scenes. The effects of peeling her artificial skin, or detaching her face are interesting, but they’ve been done before. Her nearly perfect physical form, however, is unique and is the only reason to sit through this dismal failure of story telling.

Major’s partner in the film, Batou played by Pilou Asbæk, is the only character that creates a connection with the viewer, but the writers don’t give him enough story. For those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he could be excellent casting for Cable in any upcoming X-Men film.

If you are a fan of Scarlett, see it at the matinee, otherwise, wait for cable. It is not worth full admission price at a mainstream theater.

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