Film Review: “Alien: Covenant”

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

For the first time in well over a decade, there’s a decent amount of hype and high level of expectation surrounding an “Alien” film. There’s genuine public interest and hope that “Alien: Covenant” would add another rich layer of backstory to the close-quarters terror that audiences experienced back in 1979. But at the expense of bridging the gap between “Prometheus” and “Alien,” Ridley Scott has answered a question nobody asked and poorly answered a question that’s been left lingering since 2012.

The crew of the intergalactic colony ship, Covenant, is awoken mid-cryogenic sleep after a deep space electric charge frazzles their vessel. In the ensuing chaos, the crew’s captain (for some reason played by James Franco) is killed, the ship suffers extensive damage and the crew is alerted to a distress signal. What makes the distress signal curious is that it comes from a planet that’s more livable than the one they’re currently taking 2,000 colonists and thousands of human embryos to.

Acting Captain, Christopher (Crudup), wants to show strength by making a command decision to halt their current path and investigate the planet’s habitability as well as the distress signal. Christopher shrugs off logical concerns by crew members, like why an extensive search of the universe by precise computer programs would have missed this unheard of planet. While he lends an ear to Daniels’ (Waterston) unease, Christopher barrels towards the unknown. I’m sure you know this won’t end well.

The beginning of “Covenant” is ripe with tension, as we breathlessly wait for the best laid plans to fall apart. But once we’ve settled into the mysterious planet and we catch our first glimpse of some prototype xenomorphs, the pressure alleviates and is never reapplied. “Covenant” is covered in thick foreshadowing, that gives away its final act, even to someone who might be new to the “Alien” franchise.

However, fans of the franchise will be wondering what Ridley Scott has done. He’s stripped the dread and action, leaving behind something new, yet unpleasant. “Covenant” is a visually Gothic movie that’s more fixated with body horror than actual scares. It’s more fascinated with Frankenstein rather than the monster. While it is a slightly refreshing change of pace, the human element is nonexistent and the character’s intelligence is subpar.

Fassbender has double duty as the androids, Walter and David. David, if you remember, is the android from “Prometheus” who rides off into the proverbial sunset with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) to find humanity’s creators. While most “Alien” franchise purists didn’t like “Prometheus,” I enjoyed it on the merits of a standalone film that plays a lot like a futuristic “Chariots of the Gods.” The thesis that all life is created by another living entity, and not a God, isn’t lost in “Covenant.”

Scott flirts a lot with man’s infatuation with creating life, discovering meaning, and tapping into what it metaphorically means to be immortal. It’s interesting to ponder, but it never evolves into anything meaningful and it’s buried under a lot of heavy exposition, robotic dialogue, and horror movie tropes. The most obnoxious of clichés is painting these astronauts and scientists like incompetent, horny teenagers stuck at Camp Crystal Lake.

I really wanted to like “Covenant,” especially since Fassbender’s performance was captivating and haunting at times, but I found myself worn out by its formulaic plot and how its human characters lacked human qualities. “Covenant” adds nothing new to the “Alien” franchise. It’s a bloated connector between two of Scott’s most ambitious films. But it’s interesting to note one scene in particular; it’s a narrated flashback that feels like Ridley Scott taking an eraser to “Prometheus.” Maybe he’ll eventually do that with “Covenant.”

Film Review: “Morgan”

Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy and Toby Jones
Directed By: Luke Scott
Rated: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Sometimes when I watch something so promising, and filled with so much talent, I wonder if I genuinely missed something when I walk out not liking it. “Morgan” features veteran talents like Paul Giamatti, Ridley Scott as producer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a script that made 2014’s Blacklist (a list of the best unproduced scripts currently floating around Hollywood). So here I am a week removed from watching “Morgan” and I think to myself, I didn’t miss anything. It’s a bad movie.

Anya Taylor-Joy (someone who’s bound to get an Oscar nominating performance one of these days) is stuck as the science experiment gone wrong, Morgan. The five-year-old, by human years, is actually around 18-by-whatever-made-up-logic-this-movie-makes-years-old. She’s the end result of a human embryo breeding project. She’s birthed with some of the best genes out there as well as a couple of super human capabilities that are never really explained. After a month, Morgan is able to walk and talk. After a couple of years, she’s a self-sufficient preteen with a childlike wonder about the world. After five years, she’s capable of inflicting bodily harm on her creators and show signs of deep hatred. And after Morgan stabs a scientist in the eye for no apparent reason, it’s time to bring in the corporate business suits.

“Morgan” has the capability to deliver a message about cloning, the inability to understand raw human emotions, and eugenics, but instead focuses more on visual technique. “Morgan” ends up being all style with no substance. The groundwork is there as we watch sterile and emotionless scientists suddenly become parents, growing up and watching Morgan’s guileless nature. Then we watch as the parental instinct kicks in when the scientists try to understand and defend Morgan’s growing sociopathy. She may be a monster, but she’s their monster. Another missed theme is how corporate culture looks at the numbers more than the human impact, but I digress because this movie failed on all thematic levels.

But even as the movie slowly falls apart, “Morgan” still has one final chance to deliver upon any resemblance of meaning behind its script. The writers, producers, and director, fail to give anything outside slick visuals, bruising action sequences, and a disquieting environment for its characters. The third act of the movie turns out to be more of an experiment in forbearance as the twist of the movie slowly gets unraveled. Although I figured out the twist about 30 minutes in while another critic I spoke to after the movie figured it out five minutes in. I guess even M. Night Shyamalan could recognize “Morgan” has a bad twist.

It’s really unfortunate watching Taylor-Joy get generously applied with Dave Chappelle white face make-up and play in one of the more frustrating creature features in recent memory. Taylor-Joy popped up on the scene earlier this year in “The Witch” and has a lot of talent waiting to be displayed. She does a fine job relaying Morgan’s genuine wonder and empathy, while balancing Morgan’s uncharacteristic murder streak. Taylor-Joy does all this well, but it’s hard to piece together the mind of her character when the movie continuously jumps back and forth between Morgan’s personalities.

It doesn’t help that the movie states she’s only five, despite having the mind and body of a full blown teenager. Is she a test tube bred deadly assassin battling teenage hormones with the id of a child progressing too quickly into an adult world that she has no comprehension of? If so, why is this experiment worth anything to anyone, especially a company? Those are questions no one making this film ever thought to ask and inherently asking that question gives away the movie’s twist.

Just like its character, “Morgan” lacks any growth, meaning, or excitement. Whenever the movie gets close to developing a theme or message, it reverts back to finding meaning behind violence like a Kindergartener throwing a temper tantrum, frustrated that it couldn’t find a way to expel upon its interesting premise. If this is the final movie of the summer, the summer certainly goes out on an uncreative whimper.

New York Film Fest Review: The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

If Saving Private Ryan taught us anything, it’s that you can make a damn great film about a Damon in distress. The Martian, Ridley Scott’s joyous tribute to the ingenuity of scientists, is lightyears away from Spielberg’s gritty epic but the results are still spectacular. The Martian is a massively satisfying sci-fi film on every level that’s anchored by a standout performance from Matt Damon.

When an unexpectedly harsh storm rips through their mission on Mars, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the heart wrenching decision to leave one of her crew on the surface of the planet, presumed dead. Mark Watney (Damon) in actual fact wakes to find he’s alive having taken a communication antenna directly to the equipment that monitors his vitals. Not to mention to his own abdomen. It’s really the perfect setup for a space horror and indeed Watney’s bloody DIY surgery is cringeworthy to watch, but that’s not the film we’re watching. It’s funny that the director who gave us the iconic ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’ and with Watney has added an addendum of unless you “science the shit” out of your situation and get your own communications back on line. Here Watney’s approach is that of a highly trained scientist–a botanist to be specific–who responds not with panic but with measured practicality and optimism. Watney turns immediately to video logging his progress, a clever way to clue the audience into what’s up as well as the unspoken truth that his journal, and own sense of humor, are vital to his sanity and by extension, his survival. Damon is charming as ever in his solo scenes, still grumbling at his now-absent crew mates as he rifles through their belongings for anything useful. Like Guardians of the Galaxy last year, Watney’s ship is stocked with disco records courtesy of his captain to keep the mood on Mars generally upbeat. When he has setbacks, Damon does let loose with some powerful emotional breakdowns that are all the more affecting for how strong a character we already know Watney to be.

Meanwhile on Earth, Damon is supported by a bevy of strong actors including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean (who gets in a pretty great Lord of the Rings shout out), Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig. They’re faced with not only how to keep their astronaut alive, but whether to inform Watney’s crew (still on their ship and out of the loop) and how to ‘spin’ their situation with the whole world watching. I think what’s most refreshing about the Earth-bound scenes is the spirit of rational teamwork among the NASA personnel. There’s disagreements and debates but never, as too often is the case in sci-fi films, a Bad Guy or any gross caricatures of government officials hellbent on an agenda. Some of the best scenes are the NASA leaders just throwing down challenges to their tech teams and watching all their wheels turning into motion. Scott wrings suspense out of the sheer amount of options the space agencies have for a mission where if one astronaut is lost in pursuit of another, the whole thing is a failure. If anything, the enemy is determining who ultimately will take responsibility for the chosen course of action and its outcome.

Already powered by its strong cast and the gripping central dilemma, The Martian also excels in every technical aspect. Harry Gregson-Williams provides a touching, often ‘futuristic-sounding’ score that never overpowers the action while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is gorgeous. Jessica Chastain simply floating through her ship on her rounds is already a beautiful image and in the RealD 3D I saw it in at NYFF, it soared. The film doesn’t rely on the 3D, but it is immersive in the space scenes and frequently had me in awe. A thrilling cinematic experience made even better for regarding complications in space as inevitable and workable rather than with terror. It felt like exactly what we need in a moment where NASA continues to make discoveries (just this week: water!) despite threats of shutdown.

The Martian opens on October 2nd.