It looks as though summer is upon us, which of course means it's blockbuster season. And while you'll have to look elsewhere for commentary about anything stemming from a comic book, I'm happy to here present a look at Sir Ridley Scott's latest addition to the Alien world. In short, I found it to be generally satisfying, although I am left with some lingering potential reservations about the future of the franchise.
Alien: Covenant follows some 10 years after the events of 2012's Prometheus, and indeed is in many ways a direct sequel to that film. A colonization ship is brought off its course by a cryptic signal, and naturally parasitic mayhem ensues.
I'll first talk about what Covenant does well, and for this writer one of the chiefest of those things is to make Prometheus have some sort of purpose. I was happy with this, because I really wanted that film to work, and it has only become more of a disappointment as time has gone by. But Covenant does much to right its younger brother's course.
This feeds into another element of what these two films do right, or at least work toward. I think that the premise of Alien (1979) only really works once. One reason it is one of the great horror films of all time is that is not reproducible. The only reason Aliens (1986) works is because it pivots from horror to more straight-ahead action. Prometheus and now Covenant have tried to take the series into more classic sci-fi territory, mainly dwelling on questions of creation and the origins of life. I think Covenant does this better than Prometheus (mainly due to less muddled storytelling) but I also think a single, concentrated dose would work better.
That said, Covenant tries harder to be more of a horror film than Prometheus did, and it has some pretty great sequences. But it also fights the temptation of veering into self-parody at times. After all, at this point we know exactly what a xenomorph can do, and the process by which anonymous crew members are weeded out. And I would say that one of the film's greatest weaknesses is the general forgettableness of those crew members. It is difficult if not impossible to develop truly meaningful characters in an action-orient ensemble film like this without relying on simple stereotypes, but other films in the series at least succeed in developing some sort of affection for their victims. Here the film is almost entirely populated with redshirts.
As I said at the beginning, though, my biggest reservation (and that word might be too strong) about the film is about what Fox and Sir Ridley plan to do next. Because the film does bring up some really fascinating and chilling ideas about life and creation. But I fear that those ideas have the potential to undercut much of what makes the good Alien movies good, and even what makes the bad ones Alien movies. Such is the risk with prolonged film franchises, though, especially one built on such a lean, singleminded premise as an incomprehensible, uncanny space monster. Overall, this singular installment works, often quite well, and helps improve its predecessor. But taken in the context of the rest of the series, I'm not sure that its charted course is quite needed.
Alien: Covenant features Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, and is rated R because it's an Alien movie why do you need to ask.
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Directed by Sir Ridley Scott
This isn't a great trailer but it's the not-redband one, if you aren't into that kind of thing.
Alright, folks, I'm back with another report from Movieland, and this time around it's Life, the sci-fi/horror film from Daniel Espinosa. While not a bad film, Life never really breaks out into anything particularly special, which is frustrating because it shows some pretty great initial promise.
Life is about a mission aboard the International Space Station, investigating a specimen from Mars representing the first evidence of life beyond Earth. And since it is a sci-fi/horror film things don't go quite as planned, for the humans anyway.
Ever since its first trailer, this film has been plagued by claims that it very closely apes Alien. And I will not seek here to refute those. Any film set on a spaceship where an alien runs amok will have to have parallels to that classic. Whether it does anything interesting with or against that archetype is where any new film will have to be measured. And Life does not accomplish much on that front. It shows skilled filmmaking in many areas, and is filled with well-paced, tense scenes. But it follows the established model faithfully, and therefore feels pretty by-the-numbers.
This is all the more frustrating because the film doesn't start this way. Its first scene, and by many measures the best, shows the real potential this film had. It follows the aesthetic established by Gravity and introduces our setting and characters in one long, slightly-disorienting take. Not necessarily groundbreaking, to be sure, but wouldn't an alien movie in that aesthetic be a great experience?
This scene feels like what was pitched to get the film made, and sadly it is quickly swept under the rug for a more conventional shooting style and story form. The remainder of the film is certainly competent, but lacks anything to distinguish it visually from any other space movie, and structurally from any monster horror film. Its thematic musings on the nature of life also have difficulty elevating themselves beyond the obligatory resting dialog before the film's final push. After a really gripping intro, we are left with little more than a generic riff on a genre that reached perfection in its first entry.
So Life is a film that, while not bad, is not quite good either. Its design, score, and actors' performances are all fine, but in the end do little redeeming work for a film that chooses to walk such an unadventurous line. Which was certainly a bummer for this lover of space movies.
Life features Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, and is rated R for the things that happen when a terrifying space creature attacks you and some swearsing.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
What do we talk about when we talk about monster movies?
The year's second major creature feature is here (I'm not forgetting about you, Monster Trucks!) and it has landed with a giant ape-sized wallop. Those of you who are interested in it are going to see it, and those of you who don't care aren't going to bother. So why am I writing about this anyway? Is there really anything to discuss? Short answer: I think so.
There is nothing new about the monster movie. And we keep gravitating back to them. Kong himself now has at least 4 features as a solo act, beginning over 80 years ago with his classic debut. So why can't we let him go? Kong: Skull Island answers this question, in part, in its own way.
The most obvious draw of the monster movie is the sheer visual spectacle. Think back to the 1933 original. Without that film's groundbreaking visual effects, where would we be today? There would be no Godzilla, no Jason and the Argonauts, Wallace and Gromit, Terminator, or, one could even argue, contemporary CG visual effects as we know them. It is difficult to overstate that film's impact. But it was originally produced as a piece of pop spectacle. Its poignant story certainly made it resonate, but its phenomenal effects made it a classic.
The visual elements are also what shine in Jordan Vogt-Roberts' new film, and, indeed, are what make it worth watching for the most part. In an age dominated by grayscale monoliths from Marvel and friends, the film's vibrant yellows and greens certainly stand out. The film is compositionally distinctive as well, mixing careful symmetry with off-center, floating shots to create something almost dream-like at times. The visuals are what sell its comparison to Apocalypse Now, although I find that comparison to be more than a little strained.
Story-wise, Kong is quite simple. It transplants the action to the days following the United States' abandonment of the Vietnam conflict, and depicts the exploratory expedition of the titular island, recently discovered thanks to satellite imagery. Here the movie, so controlled in its visual storytelling, might get a little lost in the woods with its human elements. It's not that it doesn't work: Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and company are all perfectly enjoyable. But it runs into the old monster movie dilemma of not quite having enough time for all of its characters. This doesn't make it deficient as a monster movie, but does leave one wanting a little more given its topical setup and superb visuals.
And about that setup: why make a Kong movie so flavored with Vietnam? It is an interesting flavor, to be sure, especially given the relative homogeny of other Kong films. It does also function as a motivating factor for many of the characters, but I don't think it really rises above that. Again, it doesn't mean that the film doesn't work. Kong's answer as to why we love monster movies is that they are just fun. And what we have here is a really fun, funny, spookily beautiful monster mash (with a great soundtrack and score, by the way.) So I say just go see it and enjoy yourself for a while. And anyway it is most certainly better than Beauty and the Beast is looking.
Kong: Skull Island features Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly, and is rated PG-13 for savage monster beatdowns and some swearsing (mostly from Mr. Jackson, naturally.)
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Well, folks, it's that time again: time to come together with hesitancy and trepidation to decide whether another M. Night Shyamalan film is worth another go. He is a filmmaker of unique ability that, sadly, derailed his career while at its zenith and has spent lo these last dozen years trying to make it back. 2015 saw The Visit turn a tidy profit and convince some that he was returning to form. This writer was less enthusiastic, (see the September 2015 column in these pages) but was nonetheless encouraged. However Split, another collaboration with horror producer Blumhouse, has convinced me that one of my favorite directors is indeed staging a sneaky comeback.
Split is the story of 3 teenage girls (led by Anya Taylor-Joy) who are kidnapped by a man (James McAvoy) with 23 distinct personalities. On the surface, it looks like a fairly typical hostage horror flic, and its January release date and much of its marketing material do little to refute this. While it does share certain elements with that particular genre, its heart and head are often in a much different place. It is, like Shyamalan's better work, an interior examination.
THOSE WISHING TO AVOID SPOILERS WOULD DO WELL NOT TO READ BEYOND THIS POINT. JUST KNOW THAT I RECOMMEND THIS FILM, AND WAS DELIGHTED AND SURPRISED THEREWITH.
Much of that examination takes place with Kevin, embodied by James McAvoy, to whom this film really belongs. I know many members of a contemporary audience would be uncomfortable with the villain of a film being a man with a mental disorder. But the film never really makes it that simple. To begin with, he and his other personalities are never really unsympathetic once we meet them. He is winning and charming and vulnerable and troubled, and even in menace there is more to be pitied than hated. It is complex role for a fine actor.
The personalities McAvoy illustrates for us are the chief backdrop of Shyamalan's inner investigation regarding the effects of suffering, specifically abuse. Of course there is a substantial WHAT IF speculation about the causes of multiple personalities and what their limits are, but then this is a fantasy. It all serves Shyamalan's greater question: what of good and evil comes of pain?
So in this sense Split is much more a Shyamalan film than The Visit, which dealt with its deeper themes in a more secondary way. In this film they are the primary focus. There is far too little action and too few jump scares for it to fit appropriately within the straight-up horror genre, which was always what made his good films so great.
OK REALLY NOW YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.
I had heard rumblings, prior to seeing the movie, of a really actually good twist, which Shyamalan is of course quite famous for. I was intrigued, but also skeptical, because these things are often artificially hyped for the sake of clicks. As the film progressed, I kept searching about for potential hints, but nothing satisfied me or panned out.
But when it came (personally I recognized a musical cue before the scene laid it out, which makes me feel more clever than I probably should) I wasn't sure how I felt at first. But as the credits rolled, I thought, that's the way to do it. To give an audience an authentic experience introducing an antagonist into an existing world, they can't know they are in that world. For the antagonist truly inhabits a separate place, one completely foreign to the hero. And to understand him and come to truly sympathize with him, we must live in his world without thought of another place. Now, I'm not holding my breath for some colossal cinematic smackdown in the nearish future, but it was a fun, if somewhat devious, way to reintroduce a story closed for 15 years. And to (possibly, hopefully) signal the re-emergence of one of our more unique mainstream filmmakers.
Split features James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula, and is rated PG-13 for hostage horror elements and gross stuff, mature material, and some swearsing.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
One of reasons we tell stories to each other is to, in some way, deal with tough questions. The world can be an uncertain place, and we are constantly confronted with challenges of some nature. Even our basest comedies have at their base some real question to deal with; in their case, the issue is abstracted to the ridiculous in order to be more manageable. Other stories take their questions more head-on.
One notable exception is, perhaps curiously, religious stories, especially films. These are often bereft of any real conflict, and therefore storytelling effectiveness, because conflict looks very much like faithlessness to some extent. And if one is producing a film for a religious audience, the introduction of doubt may not pay off in ticket sales. People come to have reaffirmed what they came in with, and affirmation often comes at the cost of insight.
Silence, by Martin Scorsese, is absolutely a religious, or at least a spiritual, film. But it is not like its compatriots of the Christian cinema ilk. It sets out, very intentionally, to ask some very difficult questions, and to challenge unexamined faith. The resulting meditation on religion and spirituality is a beautiful and reverent experience I would rank among the best of the director's work.
The film tells the story of Rodrigues and Garupe, two 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find their mentor Ferreira, who has forsaken the faith. The two encounter almost constant persecution and have to come to terms with what the faith means for them and their followers.
One of the most striking qualities of the film is how measured it is in its observances. In its subdued way, it really only chronicles events without influencing or editorializing them through extra-diagetic elements. Although it is the Jesuits' story, the film doesn't really take sides. And this is where it succeeds where other films about spirituality often fail. By maintaining a certain level of compassionate objectivity instead of proselyting, it is able to consider its subject more truthfully, resulting in a more satisfying and effective storytelling experience.
I don't want to talk too much about the film because I think that it just needs to be experienced on its own terms. But I say that it is absolutely a rewarding watch, regardless of your personal level of spirituality or religiousness. Its soul-searching is universal and its craft exquisite. And while asking difficult questions, it also offers considered and considerate answers.
Silence features Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, and Liam Neeson, and is rated R for violence.
Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese
Directed by Martin Scorsese
by Chase Harrison