A Swampflix Court Dissenting Opinion: Prometheus (2012) & Alien: Covenant (2017)

The unknown is terrifying, and Ridley Scott used to know this. As much as I love A Nightmare on Elm Street, The VVitch, Get Out, Raw, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and the Argento canon, 1977’s Alien is actually my favorite horror movie of all time. It’s claustrophobic and atmospheric, and the terror of it works on multiple levels. Atypical heroine Ellen Ripley and her compatriots are forced to contend with two different faceless evils that press inward upon them from different directions: the known and the unknown, the “company” and the alien itself. Both of these entities pose a different kind of existential threat to the crew of the Nostromo, and that’s a huge part of why the film works.

The xenomorph, as it would come to be known, is a horrifying Lovecraftian nightmare, an unknown and unknowable force that lies outside the realm of all previous human existence. It lives only to consume, kill, and reproduce, and its grotesque chitinous body is hidden in shadow and smoke, and our revulsion upon seeing it is primal; the alien is simply not right, and its existence is a reminder that space itself is an eternal night of darkness that extends in every direction, full of sights that chill the blood and churn the stomach. The quietly understated human characters who comprise the Nostromo‘s crew are not Starfleet’s finest or mystical monks with laser swords: they’re blue collar blokes like most of the audience was and is, and they, like us, are completely unprepared for the horrors that lie in the deep darkness beyond our tiny, sunlit hospitable zone.

My biggest problems with Prometheus when it first came out (I am much less willing to overlook or reinterpret its faults than Brandon is), was that the chain of events needed to create the not-quite-xenomorph seen in the finale was needlessly complex. First, the mutagen goo has to be ingested, then it has to mutate Noomi Rapace’s lover’s zygotes, then said sperm has to enter another person (perhaps with conception happening, although it’s not explicit), then the new lifeform had to leave the life form in which it was incubating to then seed another life form for another form of incubation, then we get the chest-bursting and the derpy alien that followed. There are simply too many variables and the requirements for too many different forms of life for the process to seem like a cohesive possibility, relying on contrivance and truly unlikely coincidence to exist. My suspension of disbelief is pretty extensive, but even I have limits. And I will give Covenant this: as annoyed as I am by the continuing revelations of where the classic xenomorph came from, at least the film makes it apparent that it took a significant amount of time and experimentation for David to create them.

Covenant on the whole feels wrong on multiple levels. Everything that happens after the xenomorph erupts and starts tracking down the remaining members of the ship’s crew works, for the most part, capturing a lot of the claustrophobic terror of the original (give or take the scene where David’s littlest newborn alien spreads its arms out like it wants to give him a hug, which is actually more unintentionally comical than the parody chestburster scene in Spaceballs was intentionally humorous). That outright horror, however, highlights how little this film works as a cohesive whole, as the deeper philosophical issues that Scott seems to think he’s exploring simply don’t mesh with the campier elements of the film (the aforementioned chestburster and its need for a hug, David’s laughable wig in his first scene, everything that Billy Crudup does) or with the frightening alien stalking the Covenant itself. More than anything, the film reminds me of 1997’s Lost in Space, a movie that I frequently cite as being a flick full of ideas, which is praiseworthy, save for the fact that all of those ideas are bad.

For me, the latest problem isn’t one of aesthetic nitpicking (why does the Covenant look so much more advanced than the Nostromo?) or valid scientific questions (why is no one wearing something as basic as an air mask when they go down to the planet?), although those are valid criticisms, it’s the fact that all this retconning has minimized the terror of the xenomorph by telling us too much about it. This is a frequent problem with prequels in general: in the original Star Wars, we’re never given any reason to believe that Obi-Wan’s robes are some kind of special Jedi outfit; the viewer is left to assume that he wears robes because that’s what you wear in a desert, just like the Jawas do. We never see Luke wearing robes in any of the later films; he wears what appears to be standard civilian garb. But the prequels decided to make the robes that Alec Guinness wore in A New Hope the uniform of the Jedi, for no reason that I can think of except that, perhaps, the assumption was that the audience was stupid. I suppose that this Jedi conformity could have been mentioned in the extended universe books, but I’m not going down that hole.

I’m not saying that Alien is ruined by Scott’s later works, but I would go so far as to say that he is doing as much damage to its legacy as The Phantom Menace and its follow ups did to the Orig Trig, at least in my opinion. Before Scott dreamed up a reason to call it an “Engineer,” the Space Jockey was just one more part of an unsolvable riddle: a giant dead body from an unknown race, seemingly eviscerated with its chest open, fossilized. It’s a tableau that induces anxiety because the riddle doesn’t seem like it can be solved, with the perpetrator and the victim both lost to time immemorial–or so it seems until the monster is born again when a group of little humans, completely unprepared for the horrors that exist beyond the fragile atmosphere of their world, stumble into the killing fields of an implacable star beast they cannot comprehend or reason with. Until Prometheus came alone, there was no reason to believe that the Space Jockey had anything to do with the creation of the xenomorph; instead, he seemed to represent a previous incarnation of the cycle of violence, another innocent stargazer who happened upon a living nightmare in an earlier time and succumbed to it, its titanic stature further cementing just how fucked Ripley and her comrades are.

By explaining where the Space Jockey came from, showing him to be part of another monolithic species (seriously–all the Engineers look the same) who are adept at genetic manipulation and space travel but live like shepherds, and also making them interstellar saviors, that awe and fear and majesty of that original scene in which the tiny humans approach the body of a dead giant is completely undermined and cheapened. The film series seems to be headed towards a revelation that David was responsible for engineering the situation that leads to the creepy scene that the crew of the Nostromo will eventually stumble upon, making the diorama less of a frightening exhibit that defies explanation and more of a crime scene with fantastic genetic weapons, which is not only insulting but insipid.

Further, by giving the alien menace a face in David, Scott further distances himself from the Lovecraftian menace of the original film, in which there was no human face that represented the xenomorph and its interest. Aliens featured Paul Reiser as a villain with a face, but he was merely the representative of the faceless corporation that had been in the background of the first movie, and it worked by giving us someone to hate as a balance to the xenomorph queen, which we fear. By putting a human(oid) face on the alien menace in the form of David and his devotion to the destruction of the human race for its folly in playing god and creating him by, um, playing god and creating new life, we cross into Marvel style supervillainy. For lack of a better term, it’s basic as fuck masquerading as deep. And hey–I like the Marvel movies, but that’s a different franchise for a reason (although I wouldn’t object to an MCU movie that featured The Brood, unlikely as that may be).

I’ve dwelt on this long enough, so I’ll wrap up my argument as well as I can: Covenant seems like Ridley Scott’s attempt to reinvigorate the Alien franchise with a soft reboot, akin to the reinvention-by-way-of-remaking of the Star Wars franchise using The Force Awakens to wash away the taste of the prequel trilogy. But instead of doing away with what Alien: Mission to Mars Prometheus did wrong and moving on from there to recreate the original Alien with a fresh start, there’s an attempt to smash Prometheus and Alien into one movie, and it simply doesn’t work to wipe the slate clean or build a new framework. It’s not a problem of design, or performance (I’ve been adoring Katherine Waterston since Queen of Earth, although I have yet to figure out what Danny McBride has been putting in the water that makes everyone love him so much), or casting, or editing, or cinematography. Frankly, all of these individual components work pretty well. The ultimate failure of both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant is one of Ridley Scott’s vision. He created one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and he just can’t stop himself from ruining it with his bad ideas and desire to explain what works better as a mystery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Of all the wacky, scary, goofy, gory follow-ups to Ridley Scott’s space horror masterpiece Alien, it’s Scott’s own 2010s prequel Prometheus that stands as my clear favorite. Aesthetically, Prometheus is on the exact wavelength of arty pulp I crave in my genre cinema, the same gorgeous-imagery-meets-dime-store-novel-idiocy dynamic that wins me over in titles like Interstellar & The Neon Demon. I also love that film on a basic thematic level, though. The idea of human beings asking Big, Important philosophical questions about our origins & purpose to literal gods and receiving only brutal, wordless violence in response is such a killer concept, one that’s both morbidly funny & surprisingly truthful to the human condition. Alien: Covenant, also directed by Scott, picks up ten years after that Prometheus timeline, positioning itself as a sequel to a prequel (what a time to be alive). In some ways it attempts to continue those exact questions of Who We Are & Where We Come From, as if they’re the only things that matter. Humanity is once again punished for the hubris of trying to prove that its existence is no random accident, but rather a deliberate design from gods beyond our solar system. The results & significance of that query are severely downplayed in this second run-through, however. Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags these themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years, Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series, only middling because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

Alien: Covenant is, above all else, a Michael Fassbender showcase. Reprising his role as the A.I. robot David & appearing simultaneously as a second A.I. named Walter, Fassbender delivers his strangest onscreen performance going at least as far back as Frank. In the context of how Covenant fits into the Alien franchise at large, it could maybe be understood as a Jason Takes Manhattan-type eccentric outlier, if only retitled as Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot. A whole new crew of intergalactic colonists find themselves stranded on an alien planet with only one non-xenomorph related resident: David, Fassbender’s chilling A.I. robot from Prometheus. Among the crew is Fassbender’s Walter, who David takes a special liking to while the disposable human characters are picked off one by one by xenomorph teens (they’re less evolved, less “perfect” offshoots of the typical alien species). There’s a strange sexual tension between these two Fassbender bots that only gets stranger as they spend more time alone together. In the movie’s best moment there are no killer xenomorphs to be seen, no on-screen bloodbath to placate anyone looking for a straightforward body count horror. It’s a quiet moment in David’s art studio (which could easily pass for HR Geiger’s masturbatorium) where he teaches Walter how to play the flute, openly bringing any unspoken sexual tension to the surface by directly hitting on his A.I. brethren. Lines like, “Watch me, I’ll do the fingering,” & “Put gentle pressure on the holes” are almost enough to push Covenant solidly into outright camp and their relationship only gets more perverse from there. Fassbender does a mesmerizing job of differentiating between his two characters: one is a spooky robot with barely-secretive agendas and one’s a tough guy soldier with mommy issues involving his mothership. You never forget which character you’re watching, even when the plot should probably ask you to, and that kind of dramatic craft confidently carries a lot of scenes that could easily devolve into absurd inanity, like the seductive flute blowing or a brief foray into kung fu. Regardless of your thoughts on Prometheus or the collection of Alien sequels as a whole (which each seem to be individually divisive), Covenant is worth seeing for the Fassbender weirdness alone.

David & Walter aren’t the only romantic couple in Covenant, but they are the only one that matters. The titular space mission in the title references Abraham & Noah’s covenants with with God, setting up the spaceship, Mother, as a kind of Ark meant to rebuild humanity on an alien terrain. Every crew member is married in pairs and responsible for the transportation of thousands of future citizens meant to populate a distant world with human seed. Mostly, these human characters have no more personalities or purpose than the drawers full of human embryos they’re being paid to transport across the universe. Katherine Waterson does a decent job of physically emoting as she watches her crew members die at the hands(?) of the film’s teenomorphs. Billy Crudup is believably off-putting as a captain who’s in way over his head commanding a crew who doesn’t respect him because he’s a Kirk Cameron-style “man of faith.” Danny McBride never truly disappears into his role in any detectable way, but he somehow isn’t the most distracting celebrity presence in the film, against all odds (there’s a celebrity death that needs to be seen to be believed; it’s essentially a prank). None of these characters matter. Unlike in Prometheus, the questions of Faith & the Meaning of Life don’t matter here either. Only Fassbender’s Cruella De Vil levels of villainous camp & the teenomorph (and eventually straight up xenomorph) creature attacks register as memorable, worthwhile aspects of Covenant, but they’re both effective enough to save the picture from from horror film tedium, even individually. The moments of horrific monster movie gore are both plentiful & plenty fucked up. Fassbender’s weirdo characters are given plenty of screen time to warp the picture into a strange dual character study, correcting the one frequently cited Prometheus complaint I can truthfully echo. As with a lot of post-Corman creature features, the monsters & kills are exciting enough to cover up the shortcomings of the film’s basic philosophy & humanity. In fact, the human aspect of the film is so weak that it almost directly supports its own villainous arguments about the superiority of other, “perfected” beings.

I’m never really sure what audiences want from Alien sequels. Prometheus & Resurrection are my favorite follow-ups to the original film because they push its imagery & mythology into unexpected directions – goofy, gorgeous, or otherwise. They’re also both frequently cited as the worst of the franchise because they deliberately stray from a more-of-the-same horror sequel ethos, so what do I know? I can see Covenant eliciting a similar polarizing reaction from Alien devotees, as it dabbles both in the goofiness of Resurrection and the overreaching philosophy of Prometheus without ever landing convincingly on either side. I ultimately find that split a little middling in the grand scheme of the series, but the film is brutal enough in its sequel-by-numbers gore & campy enough in its Fassbender weirdness to survive as yet another entertaining entry into an increasingly trashy, but eternally mesmerizing horror franchise that’s likely the most consistently rewarding one we’ve got running.

-Brandon Ledet

20th Century Women (2016)

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“How do you be a good man? What does that even mean nowadays?”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer example of why critical Best of the Year lists are absolute bullshit (due to the arbitrary wackiness of release dates) than 20th Century Women. From an official standpoint, Mike Mills’s latest (and greatest) has a December 28, 2016 release date thanks to its limited release screenings in major cities like New York & Los Angeles. It took nearly a month for the film to expand its distribution wide enough to reach cities like New Orleans, though. These Oscar-minded, slow trickle releases usually mean that modest little pleb film bloggers like myself, who don’t have the luxury of festival circuit browsing & For Your Consideration advance screeners, miss a lot of major Best of the Year contenders until weeks after their year-end roundups are published & etched into digital stone. So let me announce right here & now that my personal Top Films of 2016 list is a total sham, a shameful fraud. No disrespect meant to my beloved The Neon Demon, but its crown is made of the flimsiest fool’s gold. The best film of 2016 is, in fact, 20th Century Women.

Just about the last thing I expected when I bought a ticket to this immaculate, miraculous picture was a reach-for-the-fences ambition in narrative structure & visual craft. The advertising leading up to its release did an exceptional job of highlighting its function as an actors’ showcase for its holy trio of talented women: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. The movie certainly does not disappoint there and I guess on some level it does function as the kind of insular Awards Season drama about alternative family structures & eternally hurt feelings you might expect based on the trailers. That’s only a fraction of the territory writer-director Mike Mills covers here, though. Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a “good” man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never “got.” Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.

It would be incredibly easy to reduce the plot of this semi-autobiographical work down to a sentence or two. Annette Bening stars as a dream mom, an incredibly intelligent & self-confident woman who had her only child at the age of 40. Concerned that she’s not fully equipped to alone raise her son to be a “good” man, she enlists the tenants of her home (played by Billy Crudup & Greta Gerwig) and the boy’s best friend/biggest crush (Elle Fanning) to raise him as a village, the way a commune would, a plan cited to be inspired by her own communal upbringing during the Great Depression. This coming of age narrative could feel painfully over-familiar, even within the hyper-specific context of its late 70s West Coast punk scene setting, especially since the assumed POV of the narrative would center on the 15 year old boy everyone’s helping “raise.” Mills’s narrative structure is far too non-linear for the story to play as Oscar season convention, though (a fact backed up by the film only earning a single nomination, one for Best Original Screenplay). 20th Century Women engages in an internal tug of war between over-explaining & withholding information. It will introduce a character’s persona by telling their entire life’s story from birth to death in the length of a paragraph, only to double back to fill in the details & color between those lines. It will continually threaten to slip into time-spanning montage, only for the in-the-moment immediacy of a specific image to crash to the surface. It will threaten heartbreaking moments of devastating melodrama only to reveal that life is more often defined by smaller, less obviously significant events & conversations. The film almost plays like a feature-length trailer, but without the lack of depth that descriptor implies. It’s cliché to say so, but 20th Century Women is pure cinema, the art of the moving image; and it confidently, abstractly allows its medium to dictate its narrative in a way that a simple, reductive plot synopsis cannot convey. It’s in so many ways more than a sum of its parts.

A large portion of my rapturous appreciation of this film is undeniably hinged on the way it plays directly into my personal pop culture obsessions. The very first needle drop sound cue (a literal needle drop thanks to Greta Gerwig’s young punk tenant character) is my favorite early-career Talking Heads song, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” From there it takes the time to explore punk culture as a philosophy and an ethos, not just name-dropping niche artists like The Raincoats for cool points, but verbalizing what makes their DIY aesthetic life-affirming & interesting to the ear. It explains how the scene can be paradoxically empowering through a sense of community among outsiders and alienating in its bitter, insular rivalries that arise from things as petty as who’s slept with whom and what bands people associate with as a personal philosophy. The movie also indulges in the beauty of its own imagery the way only cinema can, often functioning as an Instagram or Tumblr account in motion. From its opening shots of calm ocean waves & symmetrically framed car fires to its slideshow photographs of punk scene portraits, outer space imagery, and common objects like cigarette packs & birth control pills isolated in an art studio void, 20th Century Women never shies away from the simple pleasure of a well-constructed image, but always finds a way to make each indulgence thematically significant. Its structure is explained in-film through easy metaphors like a mixtape or a self-portrait series made through photographs of possessions (which is described as “beautiful, but a little sad”), but I think those reference points sell short its command of “movie magic.” Each stylistic choice is a natural extension of its 1979 setting, but feels as if it were speaking to me directly on a much deeper level than pure aesthetic.

It’s a shame I didn’t see 20th Century Women in time to properly cite it as my favorite 2016 release. It’s also a shame that Annette Bening didn’t earn any Academy Awards attention for her deeply endearing role as the film’s matriarch. At the very least, her lines like, “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to bring depressed,” and “Don’t kiss a woman unless you know what you mean by it,” would’ve made great fodder for an awards show highlight reel. No matter. Long after these end of the year roundups are long forgotten, this film will still be its wonderful, perfect self. Mike Mills has delivered a timeless, masterfully beautiful triumph of humanist filmmaking and no arbitrary release dates or Oscars snubs can delegitimize that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet