BY ZOEY SMITH:
Alien: Covenant Review
Much like how Alien: Covenant’s shell-shocked interplanetary colonists stumble away from the traumatizing horrors of discovering the true nature of the Xenomorph menace, I too have walked away from Ridley Scott’s latest stab at making a decent Alien film in a daze of debilitating, numbing existential confusion, disillusioned with a truth that did not align with what I was expecting.
Disclaimer: I’m a huge Alien apologist; I’ll praise the glories of the first two films as shining examples of the glories of cinema, I’ll beg people to give the criminally un-loved Alien 3 a second chance, I’ll gladly play along with nonsensical theatrics of AVP films and Alien Resurrection; hell I’ll even try to convince people that Prometheus was good-ish (hint: deleted scenes). The Alien franchise has, over the course of 8 films, been subject to the artistic visions of their respective creators. Given that 5 directors have had their turn at creating Alien films, every film in the series bears the distinct style, substance, and tone often reflected of their directors. In a way, it can be said that the Alien universe has been a hotbed of cinematic expression and creation. It can also be said that Alien: Covenant brings its experimental A-game, but totally drops the ball by trying looking backwards far more than it should.
My expectations for this film, as incredibly low as they were, were entirely upended by this film’s gonzo left-field sensibilities and slick production. Sure, the unfortunate stench of nostalgia mining is as present as ever, but underneath that mass-market exterior is a profoundly strange film deeply concerned with the nature of creation, and the responsibilities creators bear. However, it is extremely debatable as to what the film is saying about this subject matter, if anything at all. Just slapping “heady” themes into your film doesn’t make it smart, and all the profound meditation in the world can’t save Alien: Covenant from its deeper sins of plain mediocrity: it’s a rather stunning accomplishment to make a film that is both unpredictably imaginative and tediously formulaic as this.
For those not up to speed, Alien: Covenant takes place sometime after the events of Prometheus, where a ship over 2000 space colonists, on route to start a life on an Earth-like homeworld, choose to investigate a cryptic message being transmitted from a mysterious, undiscovered planet. Once on planet’s surface, the colonist stumble across the Engineer cruiser that Dr. Shaw and David hijacked from Prometheus, only to later have several crew members infected with by a surprise reappearance of Black Goo (remember that?). After the infection, the new Neomorphs emerge (omfg am I the only one that yearns for the days when monsters were just referred to as ‘the monsters’) and totally wreck the shit out of the remaining colonist. Before everyone is killed, the group is rescued by David (played by the film’s best asset, Micheal Fassbender), who then takes them to seek shelter in an alien city littered with thousands dead Engineers. It is here that the group discovers the truth: that David and Dr. Shaw arrived to this planet, an engineer homeworld, and unleashed the black goo upon their civilization! And that David has a god complex which drives him to experiment with the black goo! And that David created a strain of goo that closely resembles that of the Xenomorph we all know and love! And that David killed Dr. Shaw to create the first Xenomorph!
Yeeeeaaaaaaa it’s a bit of a letdown, made even more vexing by the fact that NOBODY ASKED FOR THIS. NOBODY WANTED A XENOMORPH ORIGIN STORY. Well, maybe a group of uncritical diehard fans were clamoring for this, but that hardly represents what most moviegoers care about.
It’s never fun to witness genuine artistry to be utterly betrayed by staid tropes and genre conventions, even if said tropes are ripped straight from legitimately interesting sources. While Alien: Covenant doubles down on the deeply existential musings Prometheus, the film also liberally remixes both the first film’s cold, bleak aesthetic along with a more raw, gory take on James Cameron-esque action sensibilities established in Aliens. Perhaps the perfect recipe for an Alien film, but all the parts work to frustrate more than enthrall. The encounters with the new Neomorph threat come across as predictable and limp, only made watchable by Scott’s tight pacing, energetic execution, and handsome style. The unsettling, grotesque presence of the Alien is diminished thanks partly to shoddy CG work, and more so to years of exposure in popular culture. Tension is implied to exist in this film, but the mechanisms responsible for creating this response fail to do so.
Sandwiched between the action bits are the parts of the film I should theoretically love: probing, exploratory science fiction with ‘big questions’ questions on its mind. Character-focused world building. Stunning cinematography that doesn’t flash by faster than my brain has time to process. A creepy, ethereal soundtrack that samples the best motifs from past films. Scenes where people sit in a room and talk a lot and not much happens. Space ships and people doing space stuff in spacesuits in space. Oh, and this film gets weird.
Really, really weird. I mean, when your film opens with a 5+ minute scene of guy lecturing his android creation on the reason for his existence, you’ve gone down a path of weird you cannot pull back from. We are treated to many levels of weird; uncomfortably close and personal alien encounters, strangely theatric Xeno infections/births, bizarre character moments (there’s a bit where the David teaches another android how to play the flute!), and tonally misplaced, over-the-top set pieces. While all of this strangeness HAS been present in previous Alien films, Covenant’s deathly serious tone mixed with its more nonsensical elements puts it in the same league as the bizarrely hyperactive Alien Resurrection. Hell, A:C may even be a legitimate contender with Resurrection for the title of Weirdest Alien Film (but, it is a tough call; Scott’s cool, measured affect is in a completely different league than Resurrection’s adolescent, feverishly bonkers style). I’m sure a part of me would totally be down to watch this again, provided plenty of booze/hard drugs is on hand.
I still cannot confidently say whether I liked this film or not. I think, under repeated viewings, I might come to appreciate how ‘out-there’ this film gets with themes and plot, even though the overly familiar elements failed to excite. I’m normally extremely hugely accepting towards films whose ideas outshine their execution, but Alien: Covenant challenges my tolerance far beyond what I comfortable with swallowing. There’s a lot of neat stuff, weird stuff to mull over here, but unfortunately there’s also a lot of endure. Perhaps, maybe, too much.
(HEY, maybe the fucking DELETED SCENES will clear some of this up? Sweet Jesus, have you SEEN the digital short clips that were apart of Covenant’s marketing? There were some legit character bits in there that ARE NOT IN THE MOVIE. Ugghghghghghhghghghghghghghghh I thought Scott was trying to learn from his mistakes on Prometheus)
BY ZOEY SMITH:
A part of me feels obligated to be enraged by Rupert Sander’s new, mostly-Americanized Ghost in the Shell remake. I can’t shake the feeling that I SHOULD be enraged at this whole endeavor, this is cold, vapid, flashy film. BUT honestly, and I’m shocked at how ho-hum this whole affair turned out to be. Hardly anything in this film reeks of out-right terrible-less-ness; apart from the casting mistakes made during pre- production, bad-movie-lovers are in for just as much disappointment as those with high expectations; only those of us in the middle are going to have any kind of fun.
Speaking of fun, it’s refreshing that the original film’s stylish Eastern cyberpunk look and feel are the best part of this package; the setting is striking and beautiful, the world is an exceptionally well crafted, and the action scenes are flashy as ever. It’s just a shame that nothing else offered here really measures up to the eye-candy. The plot retains the cold, over-complicated cyberpunk trappings of the original, but with an over-simplified core and drastically reworked main storyline (also there is a noticeable lack of exposition-dumps and heavy philosophical monologues). The plot is a predictable trek through exhausted sci-fi beats at best, with the super solider Major (played by Johansson) investigating a connected trail of murders while also aiming to uncover mysteries of her hidden past. As she slowly beings to unravel the layers of conspiracy at work, one can’t help but feel that this is all fairly rote and predictable, despite the film trying really hard to get you involved in its characters (something the original film was disinterested in doing).
Oh, and I guess we’re going to talk about the casting decisions now? Look, there’s no easy way to go about it; diversity in cinemas has been an ongoing movement within Hollywood and popular culture, and this film’s decision to cast a white woman as the lead character of a film whose cultural influence is undeniable, it’s just heartbreaking to see that the original’s heritage is deemed as being a detriment to the film’s success. YES, the director’s argument that Johansson’s involvement was the instrumental piece that completed the “how do we get this made” puzzle isn’t moot. But in this particular case, it’s easy to conclude from a distance that the politics of Hollywood have leaned in favor of those who believed Johansson would get people in cinemas, and this film is now what we got. Personally, as a person who deeply believes in the importance of representation and diversity, I feel like the casting here was a huge missed opportunity. (As a side note, it is worth pointing out that the film has a vast amount of representation with its supporting characters, which I feel is worth pointing out).
To be perfectly honest, this whole movie is a missed opportunity. The spectacle is appreciated, but it alone can’t save this underwhelming film.
BY ZOEY SMITH:
I’m just going to come out and say it.
I hate super hero films.
No, I don’t…. But like….
I think what bothers me is how staid the genre’s Hollywood presence has become. Marvel’s philosophy of making ‘safe-but-good-enough’ films rarely leaves me feeling satisfied, excluding the studio’s more adventurous projects like Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy (which admittedly still feel a bit focus-tested, at times). My expectations for Marvel films are rarely surpassed, nor are they let down. I’ll always buy tickets for a new Captain America film, but will these thrills always remain the same? Will I always have to live with this unappeasable anxiety that I’ll never be given a reason to adjust my expectations?
I honestly had no idea what to expect from Logan, the 3rd and final X-Men spin-off film featuring the franchise’s most popular asset, Huge Jackman. Prior to seeing the film, I felt that the prospects of an R-rated super hero film held interesting potential. Early trailers revealed what looked like a bit more of a dramatic, serious experience than your typical big-budget comic book adaptation, but with that nice R-rated cherry on top. This new direction looked very promising! BUT, if films like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen are any indication, nuance and integrity vital to so many comic-book stories aiming for thematic resonance can be lost on filmmakers more interesting in leveraging the more superficial details and crowd-pleasing spectacle of the super hero story in question.
In Hugh Jackman’s final performance in his iconic role, we see an aged, morose, purposeless Wolverine get roped into helping a young girl with mutant power escape from U.S.-sanctioned mercenary death squads hellbent on eradicating on what was a failed experiment to engineer super soldiers out of laboratory-grown children.
We find Logan at the start of the film as a man that’s all but given up on the world. With nearly all of mutant-kind has been eradicated, the Wolverine’s days as an agent of good are of no value to the dominant society; shadow agencies have ensured that the status quo remains dominant in society with nearly limitless use of violence. There is no reason to be good, because there is no thanks, no respect, no acceptance of mutant-kind. How bleak.
In many ways, Logan dives heavily into tropes from Dystopic and Western fiction; the distant loner is faced with doing the right thing, the ever-present threat of lawless consequence, the torment of knowing that violence his behind every corner, the need for sacrifice to protect those you love.
Nothing about this film is fun; the nerd-gasmic proposition of cool, gritty Wolverine battles are completely displaced by the urgency and bleakness surrounding every encounter. Every action sequence is undercut with anxiety, a desperate hope that our heroes will have enough time to get the heck out of whatever nasty corner they’ve been backed into.
Hugh Jackman’s pitch-perfect performance is accompanied by Patrick Stewart’s astoundingly tragic performance as Charles Xavier/Professor X. Dafne Keen’s performance as Laura Kinney, code-named X-23, is simply arresting. Child stars rarely measure up to the performances of those around them, which makes Keen’s unnaturally adept presence even more striking.
On a technical level, the film is marvelous. Even with a 137-minute run time, there is not a wasted moment on screen, as every encounter steers the plot into interesting and unpredictable directions. Every exchange is expertly crafted, every line of dialogue one adding character depth and tension. Back this up with a suitably evocative (if unmemorable) score and you have the perfect recipe some of the most effective drama to take place in an action film in a long time.
I was not prepared to see such heart and emotion in what I dreaded was going to be one of the first cynical cash-grabs in our post-Deadpool world. Instead, we got a seriously somber, poignant film about loss, violence, and survival in the clutches of a cruel, callous world. Absolutely see this film.
BY ZOEY SMITH:
In case you’ve never seen it, the tragedy of Old Yeller was that (spoilers?) the fate of the titular retriever’s was inevitable ; after being bitten by rabid wolves, Yeller’s beloved family waits until he fully succumbs to his illness. Then they shoot him.
It’s tragic, but there was no other way.
Same can be said for Phoenix ComiCon’s decision to replace its wildly popular volunteer program with paid full-time staffers. As a person that has volunteered for the past 3 years, I can say that this change is both heartbreaking and for the best.
Yes, the cries and angst of the passionate PCC volunteers should not be ignored. Yes, volunteering at PCC was a wonderful experience (for me), allowed affordable access to an otherwise pricey Con (for me), and gave individuals a chance to peek behind the curtains and see how a con is run (which is really only cool if you’re into organizational/IT planning and logistics). Volunteering was really the only option for people like me (read: poor), and its absence will definitely guarantee that some can no longer go.
But, from a business perspective, volunteer staff was a mixed blessing for PCC; while it meant that they could always fill their 1000+ man requirement with ease, it did not guarantee that the ground-floor presence would adequately serve the needs of both the Con and its customers. PLUS, factor in that changing state laws are essentially forcing the Con to adopt this business model, and there you go: the volunteer program was taken out back and shot.
From my experience, it basically boiled down to a small handful of paid managers struggling to direct untrained, unprofessional volunteer staffers who lacked professionalism. Work load distribution among volunteer staff was extremely inconsistent within the two separate departments I worked for (Information Tech Services and Line Control), resulting in a few volunteers carrying their department for 5-6 hours.
Again, these are my own personal experiences, and not a reasonable metric for judging the effectiveness of the volunteer program at large. But I can’t help but feel that stories of confrontational staffers insulting con attendees, mismanaged lines, disorganization, and cross-department communication issues at least gave PCC’s CEO less pause when making the decision to nix this program altogether.
Personally, paid staffers sounds wonderful. A contract with an organization gives that company more control over its operations and more leverage to assure that staffers are responsible for their actions. Paid staffers have to give a shit, and they have to keep the con running. Even if the affair is still chaotic, paid staffers could yield better results (friendlier staff, more efficient work processes).
The switch also benefits employees as well: they get paid, have better assurance that their coworkers will give a shit, and hopefully have sane working hours (I can’t tell you how many times I saw managers devote extra time and energy to keep things running, despite having worked HOURs prior).
While it’s arguable that the volunteer work force COULD have possibly been spruced up and modified to better serve the convention, there was a rather nasty legal issue that forced the con’s hand into action. Apparently, Phoenix Comic Con for-profit status made having volunteers a serious legal issue, as the con itself could have legal action levied against it if it didn’t either merge with a non-profit group (which required $20 from volunteers) or outright ditch the program altogether. While the $20 option definitely ensured that the Con would have plenty of staff positions open, social media backlash helped cement the change.
Even if the Con winds up spending more money on wages for employees, the value proposition of a professional staff is definitely there, and as heartbreaking as it is, PCC pulled the trigger on that decision.
It’s tragic, but there was no other way.