Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Alien Covenant: Survivor guilt
Ridley Scott's latest Alien film is a cold, sharp mess, with some strong, intense moments that are as good as anything else in the entire series, fatally undermined by a desperate search for shock tactics that bulldozes any narrative cohesion.
People die horribly after doing stupid shit and getting fucked over by corporations or technology, ripped apart by bio-tech monsters in a beautifully art-designed nightmare, which is all you can really ask from an Alien film. But then it literally loses the plot 20 minutes from the end and buries its own efforts to tell a complete story, sacrificing the whole movie to larger franchise-building needs.
It's easy to handle the stupid things in an Alien film because you wouldn't have an Alien film without somebody sticking their mug up close to a face-hugger, or people deciding they need to go "freshen up" in a necropolis, minutes after they just saw their friends and comrades die horribly.
That's almost a prerequisite for these films, because they don't know they're in an Alien film, and they don't know that they're all going to die horribly. If anything, it's nice to see a movie these days which plays it straight, without relying on the cheap snark and irony of meta-commentary - every other big film these days has to have a smart-arse audience surrogate telling everybody what's happening with a knowing wink to the camera, but in Alien Covenant, they blunder on obliviously into hideous death.
But when the fundamental basics of narrative film fiction leads to an unavoidable conclusion, and that conclusion rips all the emotional power out of the climax of the film, it has to feel like a wrong step, right out of the airlock and into the void of space.
Deep spoilers for the Alien Covenant from here. You have been warned, but feel free to stick your face in closer if you've already seen the film.
So towards the end of the movie, after most of the main characters have suffered the usual monstrous fates, Fassbender and Fassbender are beating the shit out of each other for several minutes, a bad android versus a good android, with the fate of the humans at stake.
You never actually see the resolution of the fight, and then one runs out to save the day and gets away with the survivors, and it's another long sequence before it's revealed that it's David - the bad 'un - who has survived, and now he's free to do his biological experiments on thousands of helpless, sleeping people because the idiots have happily assumed he was the good 'un. The end.
The intent behind all this is easy enough to figure out. The filmmakers want to show how serious and hardcore they are by refusing to give this part of the story a pat and happy ending. Life is pain, and life in the Alien universe is immeasurably more so.
But the first problem with this is that it's so fucking obvious - of course it's David hanging around for the final few minutes of the movie, long before they reveal it. All he had to do was rip off his own hand to convince them he was the good guy, and he's a robot, so that's no bother.
It's not just the rampant foreshadowing of it all - David was the first character seen in the film, he's not suddenly going to be disposed with off-camera. This is a basic rule of film fiction: if there is no actual depiction of the villain's destruction, he's obviously alive and kicking, and the refusal of the film to give his story apparent closure is the only clue that's needed.
The 'twist' itself isn't really the issue - it's the fact that it makes the crucial climactic part of the film nonsensical, because you end up wanting the two remaining characters to fail. You're supposed to give a shit about the final survivors, but when their success will result in the deaths of thousands of oblivious colonists, their fight to get off the planet is hollow and mean-spirited.
So when the film is racing towards the end credits, and you get a bonkers action scene with a maintenance space ship trying to take off while an alien mega-fiend is scuttling around, and the lead character is flailing around at the end of a rope, any triumph or relief from the humans' inevitable victory is hideously undercut.
And the film continues onward, and because this is an alien film, it all ends with things getting sucked out of the airlock, and the final hero dragging her arse back from oblivion, but who cares about these fools anymore? They've condemned everyone they're ostensibly responsible for to a hideous chest-bursting death. Nice one, fuckers.
We all like a good, dark ending that shatters everything we know, but it's no coincidence that the two obviously best Alien films both end with Ripley surviving to live another day. You need someone hanging on long enough to defeat the monster, or it's all for nothing.
It could be saved for the inevitable sequel, but this latest example is like tacking the start of the third Alien film on to the end of the second - the cheap shock of 'it was all for nothing because Newt never woke up again' is one way of starting a new film, (and not a very good one), but if Aliens had finished like that, it would have been a colossal bummer.
It all diminishes Covenant as its own film, because it's only part of a dull multi-film cycle that is determined to mine all the mystery out of the original concept. It's just another step in the evolution of these extraordinarily angry alien creatures, not a story with its own purpose or point.
Alien Covenant looks magnificent, is supremely moody and gets a lot of mileage by introducing the couple's dynamic to this meat-grinder of a franchise. But it ends with a flat thud of nihilism, and when you're actively hoping the last few members of the main cast fail and die in their efforts to survive, what's the point of it all?