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

The Reverence & Irreverence for Unicorns in Black Moon (1975) & Legend (1985)

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When we were discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, it was all too easy to pick on the film’s depiction of a plump & frumpy unicorn, since that’s not the image we typically associate the mythical beast with. The movie itself even picks on the unicorn, with its protagonist Lily (one of three Lilys) stating plainly to the poor beast, “You’re not very graceful. In my books unicorns are slim & white.” The Eeyore-esque unicorn then laughs in her face & brays “The most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.” Black Moon playfully subverts the iconic image of a unicorn with what is essentially a horned donkey with a smartass sense of humor. The most realistic depiction of what Lily & ourselves were picturing when we mentally conjured a basic unicorn wouldn’t gallop onto the screen until a decade later in Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend.

As a European art film featuring cross-species breastfeeding & a literal battle of the sexes, Black Moon isn’t at all interested in basic cinematic concerns like clear narrative or commercial appeal. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s when American movie studios would start mining the same fantasy realm representation for wide commercial releases, but you can see echoes of the Natural World magic & down-the-rabbit-hole story structure of Black Moon in popular fantasy titles like The Neverending Story, The Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke. Although Legend was an outright commercial flop it was a big studio picture that firmly fit in that category. Legend is more of an adventure epic than Black Moon in a lot of ways, structuring its tale around dual journeys to restore order to a broken world instead staying put & feeling out the weirdo magic vibes of one particular location. Both films do pursue a dead still sense of pacing, though, concerning their narratives more with an overwhelming immersion in Nature than any kind of action-packed pursuit. Legend‘s scope & budget allows for the inclusion of goblins, demons, fairies, zombies, and swamp witches that you aren’t going to see anywhere near Black Moon‘s small scale domestic horrors, but both films do depict a mortal woman in over her head in a magic realm and they do share  a common talisman: the unicorn.

In Black Moon, the unicorn doesn’t do much but trot lazily & crack wise. It’s just one element among many that confounds our hero Lily in her quest for simple answers about where she is & why that world is so hostile. In Legend, on the other hand, unicorns are everything. They’re exactly what Lily was conjuring when she insulted their Black Moon equivalent: slim, white, majestic, and (just like everything else in Legend) slathered in glitter. Lily chases down the Black Moon unicorn out of sheer curiosity and the consequence of the transgression is a line of dismissive insults no worse than anything else she suffers in her newfound home. In Legend, princess & Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Lili (Mia Sara), lures a unicorn in for an intimate moment, but her indulgence’s consequences are much more severe. When the princess calms the mythical beast into standing still a goblin severs its horn, instigating a fantasy genre version of the Ice Age. There are only two living unicorns in Legend‘s folklore and their existence & health affects the state of the world no less than almighty gods. According to Tom Cruise’s woodland nymph character (who’s a decent stand-in for Black Moon‘s mute Fabio houseboy Lily), the unicorns “speak the language of laughter” & “Dark thoughts are unknown to them.” Furthermore, the princess “risks [her] mortal soul” when she says that she doesn’t care that the creatures are sacred. Like in Black Moon, the unicorns can talk, but they communicate in beautiful whale songs. Everything about them boasts divinity. And when “a mortal laid hands on a Unicorn” the whole world goes to shit.

Recent try-hard films like Deadpool & Suicide Squad and their like-minded internet memes have made the image of the unicorn a sort of cheap visual gag supposedly humorous for its Lisa Frank brand of femininity, a likely result of its brony-based cultural resurgence. Black Moon, similarly (but more purposefully), pokes fun at the divinity & femininity of classic unicorn representations by subverting the mythical creature’s attributes in an image & demeanor that pokes fun at the importance of physical beauty. That subversion wouldn’t mean anything without a unicorn hegemony to buck against, though, and you’ll find its best contrast in the divinity of Legend‘s horned equestrians. Ridley Scott’s mid-80s fantasy epic is maybe a little lacking in pace & plotting, but it’s a jaw-dropping work of gorgeous production design if I’ve ever seen one (I could happily spend 1,000 mall goth lifetimes in Tim Curry’s demon lair if nothing else) and that attention to glitter-coated beauty is a perfect stage for a traditional white unicorn ideal, the exact antithesis of what’s presented for laughs in Black Moon.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Martian (2015)

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I don’t know if it’s just a mood I’m in or a reflection of the kind of studio films that get released this time of year, but The Martian is the third in-the-theater experience I’ve had in a row where I enjoyed what I was watching without ever being super impressed. Black Mass was a serviceable 70s gangster pastiche made entertaining by a long list of great performances from incredible actors putting in above average work. Sicario was a decent war (on drugs) film that survived mostly on the strength of its intense action sequences & striking cinematography. Going for the hat trick, The Martian was pretty good, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of structure or narrative in the context of hard sci-fi cinema. In this case, what saves the movie from genre-related tedium is a depiction of believable people (read: nerds) engaging in practical problem solving in an impractical scenario: rescuing an astronaut/botanist who’s been stranded on Mars with limited resources for survival. The movie loses a good bit of steam when it gets mired in NASA politics & the logistics of making physical contact with the MIA astro-botanist, but for the most part the recognizable humanity in its extraordinary extraterrestrial situation makes for an interesting watch.

Matt Damon is asked to hold down a lot of the film’s weight as the titular astro-botanist Mark Watney, who might as well be considered a ghost as well as a Martian, as he has been assumed dead by his colleagues (with good reason). I almost hate to say it, but it’s the found footage aspects of his early post-abandonment screentime that holds most of the film’s charms. Despite facing almost certain death in The Martian‘s first act, Watney logically explains the details of exactly how/why he’s fucked as well as the practical day-to-day details other films would usually skip over, such as the bathroom situation in a Martian space lab. Speaking of the scatological, there’s a surprising amount of poop in this film. You could even say that poop saves the day, which is certainly more interesting than whatever control room shenanigans solve the conflict in Apollo 13 or other similar fare. Besides his poop-related resourcefulness, Watney has an entertaining sense of humor that distinguishes him from typical space rescue heroes, exemplified in lines like “Mars will come to fear my botany skills,” “Fuck you, Mars,” “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”, and constant tirades against his captain’s love of disco that remind me of the iconic “No more fucking ABBA!” line in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The problem with The Martian, if there is one, is that every other actor in the film is completely wasted. Heavyweights Jessica Chastain & Michael Peña are given essentially nothing to do. Kristen Wiig is mostly present to look skeptical. Jeff Daniels is a run-of-the-mill business dick. And so on. Only Donald Glover’s performance stand out among the supporting cast, but not in a good way. Glover’s king nerd is distractingly awful in his attempts to outnerd his nerdy colleagues, providing the film’s sole representation of uncrecognizable human behavior. Glover is an island of falsehood in a film that generally feels believable. If I could ask director Ridley Scott one question about The Martian it would be what the hell was he thinking allowing Glover to embarrass himself/everyone else with that performance. It’s spectacularly awful.

Speaking of Ridley Scott, The Martian often feels as if it were a direct response to the backlash against more fanciful sci-fi like Scott’s own Prometheus & Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. If that’s the case, my lack of unbridled enthusiasm for the film may be a simple matter of taste. I loved Prometheus. Loved it. Also, Interstellar was my favorite movie last year. The practical problem solving & believably nerdy behavior of The Martian is likely to win over those two films’ naysayers, though, and believe me, they are in no short supply. A lot of people are really going to like this movie, but it lost me a little in the second half once the logical, step-by-step rescue process had larger political implications that extended beyond Watney’s immediate needs, such as growing crops & performing self-surgery. I know it makes me a cinematic philistine, but if The Martian had stuck to its found footage format or introduced some kind of The Angry Red Planet-esque space monsters to its believably human/nerdy aesthetic, I’d probably be singing its praises right now. Instead, I simply think it’s pretty good. Not Prometheus good, but pretty good.

-Brandon Ledet