The Classics of Horror #11 – Alien (1979)

Upon re-watching Alien for the umpteenth time last night, I love it even more than I remember.

Do you want to know why? Because it almost made me forget about Alien: Covenant

alien-1979-movie-review-ridley-scott-science-fiction-film-xenomorph-john-hurtAll jokes apart, Alien is a masterpiece of horror cinema in space. It tells the story of the crew of a space vessel (the Nostromo) that perceives an unknown transmission as a distress call from an uncharted planet. When one of the crew members is attached by a mysterious, spider-like creature, the others take him back on the ship to check on him and, as you know, all hell breaks loose.

The chest-bursting scene, the fast growth process of the xenomorph, the revelation of Ash being an android, the badassery of Ripley, the design of the creature, the atmosphere on the Nostromo: everything in Alien delivers awesomeness.

You probably already know the stuff I’ve written so far. Therefore, let me explain why I think Alien deserves a spot in a classic of horror list and what I love about it.

Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien paved the way to all the Sci-Fi monster movies that came out within the next 40 years or so from its release. The sense of dread and isolation delivered by this film is something many directors have tried to achieve with mixed results, never reaching the level of Alien nonetheless.

Such atmosphere gradually builds up throughout the movie, but it’s already there when, after the opening credits, the space vessel is shown in its entire, desolated form. The darkness surrounding every single scene helps to keep the viewer on the edge, without the need of loud noises, jump-scares and characters overreacting.

MV5BMjY1NzQ3Mzk3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjM2NTUyMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1495,1000_AL_.jpgIndeed, the crew members and their actions are also what sets this movie apart from endless of imitators: their comradery is palpable since the very first scenes, as well as the internal struggles they have with each other and with the protocols they must follow. As opposed to them, Ash (masterfully played by Ian Holm) looks strangely out of place, being rarely nice to his colleagues. Thus, Ash’s reveal as a synthetic comes unexpected and surprising.

Ah, the good old days when the evil android wasn’t a posh, British asshole with power deliriums!

tumblr_m4qfv49wnW1rs1ef6o1_500Yet, mentioning the characters is impossible to overlook to Ripley. Sigourney Weaver pulls it off in this film, being able to seamlessly switch from one feeling to the other according to the situation. Every time I re-watch the scene in which Ripley tells Parker off, my level of testosterone increases and I felt so pumped I could fight a xenomorph bare-handed!

Okay, that was silly, but you got the point. The character of Ripley was so ahead of his time: a heroine who’s more resourceful than every other man on the ship and transmits charisma every time is on screen. Ridley Scott, thanks for Ellen Ripley!

And thanks for the xenomorphs. It’s a bit sad that, in almost 40 years, none could come up with a creature design better than the one in Alien. Simultaneously, though, this is a clear and undisputable merit of makeup team, cinematographers and director of the movie. Lurking in the dark, waiting for its next victim, the xenomorph is a perfect killing machine that needs no motivation or any further explanation for its existence. Nor did it need an origin story, damn Alien: Covenant!

Yet, Alien is scary. I know, as a horror reviewer I should use this adjective more often: unfortunately, it’s not easy to find something that really frightens the audience.

Alien, though, delivers. In my opinion, it’s a timeless, suspenseful generator of fear and uneasiness.

In all honesty, I don’t know what else to say about it. Upon my 7th (seventh!) view of the film, I still didn’t find any flaw. To me, Alien is technically perfect – yes, the final explosion of the Nostromo at the end looks quite dated, but that’s it.

Alien_1979_Directors_Cut_1080p_Bluray_DTS_x264_VBesides this tiny detail, the movie holds up perfectly since it’s all practical: the Nostromo, the xenomorph, the chest-bursting scene, the decapitation of Ash… they are all made through practical effects that will never ever look old or dated.

Do yourself a favour and watch Alien now if you haven’t seen it yet. Otherwise, if you have, just re-watch it right away and appreciate its greatness.

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Everything wrong with Alien: Covenant (spoiler filled)

Have you ever been let down – big time – by, say, a friend who turned out to be a huge disappointment instead of the amazing person you depicted him/her to be?

Well, said friend is Alien: Covenant (2017) for me. I love Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), I find Prometheus (2012) mentally challenging in the best way possible, I like Alien 3 (1992) and I even enjoy Alien vs Predator (2004) as a guilty pleasure.

Naturally, then, my expectations for Alien: Covenant were very high. I so decided to venture beyond the surface of the film to explain why Ridley Scott’s latest movie is a huge disappointment for me.

In order to do that, I will have to include spoilers for both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant – if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want its story ruined, check out my spoiler free review of Alien: Covenant. Also, I decided to focus on the negative elements of this motion pictures, meaning: the movie is not entirely rubbish, but here I’ll talk about everything wrong with it.

For a big fan of the franchise as I am, Alien: Covenant was really painful to (re)watch. Therefore, I have to thank my girlfriend who sat through it with me and endured my sarcastic and frustrated comments during the runtime.

The film opens with David’s (Michael Fassbender) backstory that we get to know through a dialogue between the synthetic and Mr Weyland (Guy Pearce). Although interesting, the scene raises more questions rather than starting to answer those left hanging in Prometheus. On top of that, it seems to set a Prometheus-ish tone that, on the contrary, will be betrayed as soon as the title appears on screen.

Soon enough, Alien: Covenant turns into an Alien movie, rather than a continuation of Prometheus. I’ll explain later why this is a bad thing.

Everything wrong 1.jpgWe are now on the Covenant, a spaceship directed to an uninhabited planet they hope to colonise. Out of 15 crew members, including Walter (another humanoid played by Fassbender as well), there are three married couples. This is the first sign of lazy writing.

No risky mission in the universe will allow couples to travel together… unless their inclusion has the sole purpose of convey emotions that, otherwise, would be lacking due to little acting skills of most of the cast members and non-existent chemistry on screen.

Basically, the first act of the movie is a big build-up in which nothing unseen happens and the characters appear one-dimensional: Walter-Fassbender and the dialogue between Daniels and the captain are the only enjoyable moments.

As you know if you saw the film or read my previous Alien: Covenant review, most of the crew lands on a habitable planet from which they received a suspicious signal by an unknown source.

Once they arrive on the planet, we are struck by incredible landscapes backed up by spotless cinematography and gorgeous visual effects.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of awe is ruined in 0.2 seconds by a crew member who approaches a field saying: “Believe me, this is wheat, I know wheat”. No shit Sherlock! This brief sequence sums up both the disposability of the characters and the lazy storytelling featured in Covenant.

Finally, something relevant happens: two of the crew members are infected by an airborne unknown virus – which, who saw Prometheus, would recognise as the lethal weapon transported by the Engineers on their spacecraft.

However, the ‘infection sequences’ are highly predictable and reminiscent of those B-movies in which a teenager goes to take a leak and gets butchered by the killer. In fact, all the ‘thrilling moments’ are foreseeable in Covenant and, therefore, not as effective as they could have been.

Then, two monstrous creatures burst from the back and chest of our unlucky infected characters and furiously attack the rest of the crew and kill some of them in the goriest way possible. As I said in my previous review, these sequences would have been awesome if only horrendous Dutch angles, poor lighting, nauseating camera-work wouldn’t be there.

Oh, and it also would have been nice to have characters who don’t act like complete assholes!

Everything wrong 2Furthermore, the Neomorphs (these creatures born from the airborne virus that impregnates humans) feature very poor CGI: in both Alien and Aliens, the Xenomorphs are entirely practical and, therefore, frightening and timeless. On the contrary, the monsters in Covenant look already fake and, soon enough, will look dated.

The attack sequences, very fast-paced, are followed by a caped saviour who rescue the remaining crew members and take them to a ‘safe place’ (i.e. the now uninhabited city of the Engineers). The mysterious rescuer reveals himself as David, who landed on the planet with Doc Elizabeth Shaw 10 years before.

Now, the pace gets, once again, slow, showing how pacing and matching of tones represent one of the biggest issues of the film.

Everything wrong 4David carries the plot along and, while providing a very interesting backstory to his character, gives the audience some involuntarily laughable scenes (“look at me, I’ll do the fingering”) and spoon feeds the viewers, filling the gaps between Prometheus and Covenant.

David-Fassbender explains to Walter-Fassbender that the Engineers’ civilisation was, accidentally, destroyed by David himself who, unwillingly, dropped tons on lethal weapons on them and crashed the spaceship in the process, killing doctor Shaw in the crash.

Everything wrong 3.jpgIt’s very obvious, as it will be discovered a few scenes later, that David wanted to kill the Engineers in one of his delusions of grandeur. He, also, killed Elizabeth Shaw by infecting her with the virus in order to give birth to a new species. It’s clear, at this point, that David’s motivations revolve around his desire to be creator instead of mere creature.

However, the mass massacre of the Engineers seems clearly motivated by Ridley Scott’s decision not to continue the Prometheus universe expansion. In this way, we will probably never get answers to the questions cleverly raised in the 2012 film.

Anyhow, the story progresses with the Neomorph getting killed by the captain of the crew who, then, is guided by David to a Facehuggers nest where, obviously, he gets impregnated and gives birth to the first Xenomorph.

Wait a second, weren’t there two Neomorph? What happened to the second one? The film doesn’t bother to give us any answer, again. This is a humongous plot hole which I don’t know how can be overlooked by critics and viewers.

Also, at the end of Prometheus, a Xenomorph bursts out of the chest of the last remaining Engineer. However, in this case the creature is the product of a mixture of Engineer’s and big octopus-like monster’s DNA. How the hell two different DNA combinations (octopus + Engineer and human + Facehugger) can give birth to the same creature?

This goes beyond the suspension of disbelief. Mind you, I’m not criticising the genetic/scientific aspect of it. Instead, I’m pointing at the lack of coherence within the Alien universe.

everything wrong 5Back to the story: the first Xenomorph bursts out of the captain’s chest and David is before him, putting his hands up. What’s the reaction of the laughable CGI creature? It imitates David and puts its hands up as well! That’s too much to take. I can’t believe Ridley Scott turned the most iconic monster in cinema history (his monster) into a freaking pet!

Everything wrong 6.jpgObviously, the Xenomorph has an exponential growth, gets to the adult stage quickly and starts to hunt down the rest of the crew. Only Tennessee (McBride) and Daniels (clear replacement for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley) survive, after the two Xenomorphs (oh yeah, there is another one because another Facehugger previously impregnated another disposable character) kill the rest of the crew.

Meanwhile, there is a face-off between David-Fassbender and Walter-Fassbender, which ends with the evil David in disguise replacing the loyal Walter on the spaceship.

Before I conclude, I want to pinpoint two major issues that bothered me ever since I watched Covenant for the first time.

Firstly, David wants to create the perfect living creature and, finally, become a creator. However, in the original Alien movies, the Xenomorphs weren’t created by anyone in particular. Their society resembled a hive, with a queen giving birth to eggs filled with Facehuggers who stayed dormant until they got in contact with other living beings. Covenant ignores all of that and originates a parallel, less impactful Alien universe.

Everything wrong 7Secondly, why would David not be fully satisfied with the Neomorphs and want to improve upon them? In the original three movies (I refuse to consider Resurrection part of the franchise), the Xenomorphs are perfect killing machines. In Covenant, instead, the Neomorphs look faster, scarier and, above all, their system of reproduction is airborne, meaning they’re easier to create and spread.

All in all, Alien: Covenant is not an awful movie per se. However, is the worst film possible for the Alien franchise: it confuses the storyline, tones down the terror deriving from the Xenomorphs, tries unsuccessfully to recreate the same atmosphere of better Alien films and ignores the existence of Prometheus. Simply put, Covenant is a bloody mess.

If you are wondering my personal ranking for the Alien franchise, there you go:

 

Alien
Aliens
Prometheus
Alien 3
Alien vs Predator (yes, I’m serious)
Alien: Covenant 

Alien: Resurrection
Alien vs Predator: Requiem