Monday, May 22, 2017

Alien: Covenant

"Don't let the bed bugs bite."
-Something our parents and grandparents, generations warned us about-

Alien: Covenant (2017) certainly has a lot on its mind for an Alien film and much more so than the 1979 original, a classic.

There are even little visual nods to the original film peppered on the ship. See if you can spot them. But it all begins with a signal and a lure like that original. We know how that goes. Sort of as Alien: Covenant repurposes elements from the original and heads in some new directions. Michael Fassbender is crucial to it all. The remaining cast and those that remain underscore humanity at its most vital against a backdrop of horrific extermination.

I'm pleased to report the trailer did little to spoil the film despite still giving us too much information as the tendency of trailers is to do. There are still a few pleasant story surprises to experience.

Suggestions about a lifeless planet in the trailer give way to some explanation in the course of the film.

There is much regarding intent left to the viewer's discretion in director Ridley Scott's latest intelligent weave for the Alien franchise.

Why did the crew arrive on this planet? Was it part of a grand design? Is Weyland Yutani at it again? These are just a few of the questions.

There's a tendency to repeat some elements from the franchise but much of it is reconstituted and feels just as fresh as it did in 1979 especially given the familiar ground the mythos necessitates it to cover.

In law a covenant is a promise to comply or refrain with a specific action. The crew of the Covenant, a colonizing ship of 2000 plus, are beset or tasked with a strict mission and a set of guidelines. Are they breaking or complying with them? There is enough ambiguity to make you wonder about a number of things in play here for the latest entry in the series.

In religion a covenant is an agreement or compact with God made with humanity. Much is in play regarding this component of the film. David is the embodiment of breaking that covenant with man despite ironically being the creation of man himself.

This film manages to expertly craft a worthy sequel to Prometheus (2012) whilst further drawing from the Alien life form, the original film, as I mentioned, and the mythology that has preceded it from the original film to Prometheus cleverly weaving aspects from both pictures.  There are both familiar and refreshing components to the newest chapter.

The latest installment further delves into the idea of men and gods and creation leaning upon the return of David to carry on the story following the events of Prometheus. There is magnificent allusion to heaven and hell and good (God) and evil (the Devil).

In a sense we have the downfall of the creators, engineers who created man, by their very creation, man himself, and by man through the idea of technological man controlling our fate. The Engineers create a flaw in man. Both fatally misstep with technology. And of course do these mistakes in creation leave room still for God? The character David aspires to be as much, once again making the mistakes of Engineers and Man, by pursuing creation with which he cannot control in an attempt to supplant man. Another important character in the film highlights the flaw of David and his wild odyssey.

Alien: Covenant is entirely respectable within the cannon created by director Ridley Scott.

With auteur Scott behind the camera you know the vision is singular and the film rarely strays from the focus of its principal characters and furthering the story. This is an alien life form film with intelligence, a monster movie with brains.

Conversation is certainly mixed regarding the film with some claiming it bests Prometheus in some fashion, but it's a different film. Much like the newly discovered organisms it is a changing, mutating beast. In truth, Alien: Covenant provides Prometheus with even greater power as both expertly extend upon this universe in unique ways. The next alien film will likely have the effect here on Alien: Covenant.

Prometheus remains an exceptionally high quality film and one this writer enjoys revisiting. Likely the same will hold true here for years to come.

With age I frequent the theatre far less than I did as a younger man and one franchise that brings me home and excites me is Alien particularly with Scott involved. Alien: Covenant did not disappoint despite its imperfections. It takes a lot to impress this writer nowadays and Scott continues to awe me. Revisiting this film before it leaves multiplexes isn't out of the question at all.

My biggest complaint, though small, over the film was the cinematography or lighting. Scott employed Dariusz Wolski for this film as he did for Prometheus, but I found this film to be much darker to the eye (or it was the theatre?). I found the lighting made things less discernible. It was not as inviting as Prometheus in parts as a visual film. The Blu-Ray may one day change my opinion on that.

The second old codger complaint is the use of CGI specific to the alien. It is difficult to get past the fact CGI rules the day today even for Scott. Nothing can replace the beauty of those practical effects from Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). Alien 3 (1992) began the trend toward CGI and sadly I think these films suffer for it. They feel rushed in their inability to mimic biological movement or authenticity of flesh. Perhaps my standards are too high, but I expect more. I do. Still forgiveness is in my heart. I would simply have preferred to see Alien: Covenant with the kinds of visual effects that still blow me away from the classics. Nevertheless, the visual effects, including the Alien scenes are still very good and mostly competent just not entirely successful in tricking my human eye and I quietly bemoan the loss of the good old days in this production arena.

It's by no means as poor as recent efforts to CGI human beings in the Star Wars franchise.

Today we simply have to accept CGI. Today we can expect it. We just have to like CGI Yodas, rebooted CGI apes for the Planet Of The Apes franchise or impossibly quick moving alien creatures in any number of science fiction pictures that defy simple physics. We have CGI now. It's great and you'll bloody well like it.

But in many ways the two aforementioned complaints are linked because the darker a film the more credible the CGI in some applications. Thus the two problems appear inextricably linked and perhaps would explain the grip for both.

And While Alien: Covenant does falter too on some rather wildly grand, Transformers-like action scales for a few minutes it is a largely wonderfully solid return. And what I mean is that it veers off into the incredulous for me despite being nonetheless exhilarating for just a few moments.

When Ellen Ripley did battle at the end of James Cameron's Aliens or even Scott's Alien by God all of it was entirely credible. When the marines escaped with Aliens pinned to their windows and acid splashes abound none of the action defied the physical limits of the human body. All of it thrilled and the suspension of disbelief remained intact. Here, Alien: Covenant crosses that line a bit for the summer blockbuster crowd, but it's minor for me. Personally reel it in and keep it real.

But I shouldn't complain too much, because there is much to love with every new storied Alien arrival. Alien: Covenant offers a quality tale with spores more information and a fine sequel ten years after the events of Prometheus. The conclusion to this film is equally solid, but should by no means be an M. Night Shyamalan surprise twist to anyone. It's not about the facts as much as it is Scott's style and delivery here. When it comes to human safety and final girl suspense this is disconcerting stuff in the final minutes. The last act will have you eager to return to the Alienverse soon enough.

Honestly, I'm truly scratching the surface on the level of subtext happening in Scott's latest film, but wanted to offer some brief reflections on a film and a franchise of which I have great respect.

Alien: Covenant is a smart, wonderfully thrilling film with a great, purposeful cast. It has a strong beginning, middle and end to complete its narrative. It gradually builds upon Scott's sure hand for mood and suspense. And it's a film that satisfies fans of this series in intelligent ways franchises like Star Wars have simply failed in every way imaginable. The latter has left this science fiction man behind. The former is intellectually and viscerally alive, incubating and well nearly forty years after its first gestation in the hands of its mother and guiding force, a true science fiction visionary like his visionary first Alien film, Ridley Scott.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Space:1999 Y1 E14: Death's Other Dominion

"We are living people frozen in eternity."
"Is it death that gives meaning to life in the end?"

Adventures of the cerebral kind await Commander John Koenig, Dr. Helena Russell, Alan Carter and Professor Victor Bergman when they respond to a remote signal on nearby planet Ultima Thule.

In honor of all things wonderful by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson we return with another glorious FAB FRIDAY entry by revisiting one of their greatest TV achievements, Space:1999 (1975-1977).

Arriving on icy cold snow planet (189 degrees below at night), Ultima Thule, they find human survivors of the Uranus expedition of 1986. This is one of the many failed human missions first gleaned with the Meta Probe/virus thread touched upon in pilot entry Breakaway. You also have the lost Jupiter mission of the Astro 7 in Matter Of Life And Death. These are just a few examples.

Space:1999 never shied from shining its light on humanity's flaws. Our successes were always coupled with failures. Even trust in Computer was in effect trusting in ourselves, man's flawed creation.

Immediately elements of Space:1999, Year One, Episode 14, Death's Other Dominion rekindled memories of the original Battlestar Galactica's Gun On Ice Planet Zero (1978). At the very least in production design the two share similarities, but, of course, Space:1999 predated Battlestar Galactica by a good three years and featured the celebrated work of Keith Wilson (see here).

With the ice planet themes this writer was half-expecting to see Swedish born actress Britt Ekland appear.

While the storm sequences are effective, Blu-Ray genuinely brings out the best of that makeshift snow that is, seeing it up close, personal and visually sharp, actually foam, but hey it's an alien world so you never know.

It's like Professor Bergman proclaimed in Breakaway "We're a long way from home and we're going to have to start thinking differently if we're going to come to terms with space" (p.61). Things are just different in space particularly within the mythology and approach established by Space:1999 in its ephemeral two year run.

The former Captain of the Uranus expedition, Jack Tanner, played with vigor and Shakespearean aplomb by John Shrapnel, appears to have gone mad in his ice imprisonment, but he is merely one of the lucky ones to escape the damages of experimentation. He and others continue to urge the Alphans to leave and "go home."

But it was Dr. Rowland who lured the Alphans to this place, Ultima Thule. Of course madness is the result of eternal life for these immortals. They cannot create life and they cannot end it. They have lived for 880 years in a kind of time distortion.

Sadly, the deep dark secret and fact is that many, The Revered Ones, live in an almost eternally catatonic, zombie-like state as a result of Dr. Rowland's experiments in a red-hued catacomb that doubles for purgatory or hell. They live as the remnants of Rowland's attempt to control or tame nature and the natural order of life.

The dream is to board a ship called the Phoenix, another wonderful Martin Bower miniature (see here), and live among the stars as immortals escaping this icy prison planet.

Ironically though, as the horror of the episode's final minutes reveal, the Phoenix is quite literally the key to mortality. It is a transport to the end and not the beginning. It is quite literally a rocket tomb should the Thulians choose to use it. It is in fact an escape, but an escape from immortality.

Space:1999 was always a heady science fiction thing more interested in tempting and titillating the mind than filling the screen with sci-fi action adventure nonsense. More often than not Space:1999 embraced real science fiction and horror sometimes fusing them both as it does here in Death's Other Dominion.

Space:1999 often sacrificed good pacing for its deep dive into science fiction concepts yet its amazing production and great use of color always attracted young eyeballs that still managed to comprehend concepts and get the fact this was science fiction like nothing seen before. It slowly weaved its magic around even our young little minds without sacrificing its conceptualizing and storytelling missions. Space:1999 wasn't overthinking its aim to children, but rather focusing on science fiction stories. This was the key to its longevity and success.

However flawed in its attempts Space:1999 was indeed attempting something wildly different in touching upon those existential, metaphysical science fiction themes and largely succeeded.

Death's Other Dominion questions how far humanity might push for that elusive, eternal fountain of youth or the idea of living forever.

"We have the secret to eternal life. Must we also seek to understand it?" Yes, Space:1999 leaves the questions to the audience to consider and reflect never providing easy answers.

Freddie Mercury and Queen would one day sing a song called Who Wants To Live Forever for another immortally themed film called Highlander (1986). The answer here seems to be split.

In many respects Death's Other Dominion posits the simple idea of You Can't Always Get What You Want or The Grass Is Always Greener. Some of the Thalusians clearly have experienced the imprisonment of immortality for too long and most or many wish to leave for Moonbase Alpha happy to shed the idea of living forever for a taste of real happiness even if that existence is finite.

Meanwhile, the visiting Alphans appear to have lost their minds too (or is it the planet's influence?). There is an awful naiveté in their trust of Rowland.

Matters of faith and trust in human ingenuity are one thing but defying nature is entirely another. In this man versus nature tale could it be the unquenchable quest and taste for knowledge that accompanies the scientist has overtaken good sense (because they are literally drinking Rowland's Kool Aid)? Or has the mere desperation of Alphans to escape their own Moonbase imprisonment clouded good judgment?

Clearly there is a great deal of mystery surrounding Ultima Thule and its profound influence on those who reside there.

What we do know is that it is a prison. The icy death trap that is the planet is the sentence for all who enter it and lives will be forever frozen in time.

Ultimately what Death's Other Dominion teaches us is that no matter how much we wish to live forever, cheat death, we cannot escape it. Death will always be at our door. We cannot deny the fate of it try as we might. One day it will come.

Death's Other Dominion: B+.
Writer: Anthony Terpiloff (Collision Course)/ Elizabeth Barrows.
Director: Charles Crichton.

Additional commentary: In keeping with the tradition of offering counterpoint to science fiction and horror author John Kenneth Muir, clearly one of the world's leading experts on all things Space:1999 we return to his still terrific, still relevant book Exploring Space:1999.

The writer dubs the episode "one of Space:1999's most dramatic and effective hours" of television. It's hard to argue against a Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda) and Anthony Terpiloff pairing as they do bring a certain elevated quality to the series.

As noted often by analysts of the series, Space:1999 often analyzes man's over reliance on technology and ultimately offers reasons not to trust it. Muir notes once again the episode continues its "exploration of the downfall of technological man, and human arrogance." As Muir correctly notes, Dr. Rowland exhibits "excessive hubris." The Shakespearean overtones, approach to the entry and use of colorful language is clearly by design in the episode's creation. Indeed the Tanner character and Dr. Rowland are filled with tragic flavors thanks to actors Brian Blessed and John Shrapnel. As Robert E. Wood would note in his book, Destination: Moonbase Alpha The Unofficial And Unauthorized Guide to Space:1999, Dr. Rowland's hubris would be "his downfall."

Ironically, despite an overreliance on technology and despite its failures, Rowland literally intercedes and destroys computer equipment concerned it will actually succeed in foiling his own selfish plans.

Muir is a big fan of this particular installment referring to it as "excellent." Author Robert Wood would concur.

This writer found the entry smart and well-built but probably slightly less enthralling than the aforementioned authors. Still, sometimes viewing vintage work like Space:1999 through an experienced, contemporary lens can present its problems. The magnificent set designs, the wonderfully crackling dialogue and the pensive script once again highlight Space:1999 may have its flaws but by and large refused to dumb down material to tell a story or shine a light on the human condition. It's impossible to deny this is a high quality affair in 1975.