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

The Five Most Surprising Comedic Actors Lurking in Galaxy Quest (1999)

 

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As a full-length ode to what made the original Star Trek television series such a joy to watch, you can’t do much better than 1999’s sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest. I guess you could argue that there’s a little influence from the The Next Generation incarnation of Star Trek mixed into the film’s DNA, considering that the spoofy homage was contemporary with titles like Nemesis, particularly noticeable in the design of the space crew’s alien enemies, but for the most part it feels true to the original Star Trek run. I suspect our resident Trekkies Alli & Boomer could do a better job explaining exactly how Galaxy Quest captures & lovingly mocks the post-Lost in Space philosophical ponderings of Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s cultural landmark, but I can say for sure that it’s difficult to think of an example of an homage that does old-line Star Trek better than Galaxy Quest. The depressive black comedy Space Station 76 might come close and JJ Abrams’s reboot of the franchise might nail a few stray details, but Galaxy Quest is more or less the pinnacle of lovingly farcical Star Trek sendups.

Besides the film’s accomplishments in capturing the spirit of its obvious, but unspoken source material, what always strikes me about Galaxy Quest is the strength & likeability of its ridiculously stacked cast. The film follows the actors who played characters on a Star Trek-esque sci-fi show as they’re misunderstood to be a real deal spaceship crew and unwittingly recruited by an alien species they mistake for enthusiastic fans of the show for a real, life-threatening outer space adventure. The casting of the Galaxy Quest crew has always struck me as inspired. The sadly deceased Alan Rickman is perfectly pitched as a Leonard Nimoy surrogate: a self-serious stage actor who’s annoyed by his genre nerd celebrity, yet still wears his prosthetic alien makeup around the house as he glumly performs simple chores. Tony Schalhoub turns “phoning it in” into his own artform as an in-over-his-head engine room technician amidst a constant state of crisis. Sam Rockwell’s role as a bit part actor justifiably paranoid about dying on the mission because he played a one-line, no-name character on the show is great meta humor. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver’s space bimbo with no real purpose on the crew besides displaying her breasts is a great subversion of her resilient, insanely competent role as Ripley in the Alien series. Even Tim Allen is a joy to watch here, bringing his iconic role as Buzz Lightyear to full live action glory as the crew’s self-important ass of a captain. Once Galaxy Quest hits its narrative groove each of these crew members helplessly find themselves slipping into their scripted roles and lift tactics from old episodic plot lines to problem solve their way back to Earth, much to the delight of their extraterrestrial fans/kidnappers.

Those famous actor crew members are largely what makes Galaxy Quest such an iconic work in the first place. It was on my most recent watch, however, where I discovered that they’re far from alone in terms of recognizable faces in the cast. It’s been a good few years since I’ve revisited Galaxy Quest, which always struck me so one of the heights of easy, pleasant viewing, and I was surprised by how well both its humor & its CG special effects have held up in the past couple of decades. What really surprised me, though, was the number of familiar faces lurking behind the film’s main flashy space crew. Here are the five Galaxy Quest supporting players that most caught me off-guard, listed form least to most exciting.

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5) Enrico Colantoni

I really shouldn’t be surprised that Colantoni is in this movie because as a kid I probably knew him just as much for his role here as an alien nerd as I knew him as the chauvinist photographer from Just Shoot Me (I watched a lot of trash television as a youngster). In the years since its release, however, memories of Colantoni in the role had faded thoroughly to the point of vague déjà vu and I’ve come to think of the actor solely as Keith Mars, one of the great television dads (from the cult show Veronica Mars, in case you’re unfamiliar). Colantoni is damn funny as the lead alien kidnapper/nerd here, bringing a distinct Coneheads vibe to the performance. However, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I was waiting for him to say “Who’s your daddy?” at some point during the production, a moment that obviously never arrived.

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4) Missi Pyle

The eternally underutilized character actor Missi Pyle probably shouldn’t surprise me by popping up in a bit role as one of Colantoni’s alien underlings. Pyle’s career has long been relegated to supporting player parts on TV comedies & straight to DVD/VOD farces (she’s actually pretty phenomenal in her role as a drunken loser in the mostly unseen Parker Posey/Amy Poehler comedy Spring Breakdown, a part that seemed tailor made for Jennifer Coolidge). I think I was mostly surprised by Pyle’s inclusion in the Galaxy Quest cast because I had mentally placed Milla Jovovich in the role as I reflected back on the film. Her character’s space goth visage recalled amalgamation of Jovovich’s roles in Zoolander & Resident Evil and her super geeky, posi, genuine vibe in the role recalls Jovovich’s most iconic performance as Leeloo in Luc Beson’s ludicrous space epic The Fifth Element (a film Galaxy Quest resembles in a few production details, especially in the design of its alien weaponry).

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3) Justin Long

Much like Missi Pyle, Justin Long has been in almost-famous purgatory for decades, never quite breaking out of bit roles in low profile comedies while his friends & collaborators “make it big” without him. Outside a few standout parts in comedies like Idiocracy & *shudder* Tusk, he’s mostly a background player who’s asked to allow other comedians to take the spotlight. That small potatoes status is still true in his diminished role as a geeky, convention-going superfan in Galaxy Quest, but looking back I had no idea he was in this movie at all. It’s no wonder that I didn’t recognize Justin Long in 1999, since Galaxy Quest is listed on IMDb as his first credited roe, but I was still surprised to see him onscreen here, all bright eyed & babyfaced. His few scenes as the Galaxy Quest crew’s #1 (human) superfan, the kind of dweeb who obsesses over decades-old plot holes that don’t quite match the blueprints of a fictional spaceship, is more serviceable than scene-stealing, but he was still a pleasant addition to the cast. It’s a status I’m sure he’s used to filling.

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2) Rainn Wilson

In case you’re not noticing a pattern here, a lot of the more surprising supporting players in the Galaxy Quest cast are the alien kidnapper/fans that kick the film’s plot into action. Although the presence of Pyle & Colantoni caught me off-guard, what really threw me off was that Rainn Wilson was lurking among them. Much like with Long, Galaxy Quest was a kind of a career-starter for Wilson, who had only appeared in an episode of a soap opera before joining the ranks of this sci-fi comedy’s geeked-out aliens. As an unproven newcomer (this was obviously years before Wilson’s star-making turn as Dwight Schrute on The Office), Wilson mostly lurks in the background as a stealthy member of the extraterrestrial superfans. However, he fits in perfectly with his compatriot dorks & the film stands as an early glimpse at the total-weirdo energy he’d later bring to his iconic television role, as well as the strange diversity in his choice of projects, which include recent strange outliers like Cooties & The Boy.

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1) Kevin McDonald

Speaking of the ridiculous range of underutilized talents lurking in the film’s geeky alien troupe, I spent a lot of Galaxy Quest asking myself “Is that Kevin McDonald? No, it’s not. But is it, though?” while watching character actor Patrick Breen fill out their ranks as a Spock-like superfan of Rickman’s eternally inconvenienced personification of nonplussed stoicism. Patrick Breen, it turns out, is not Kevin McDonald. They are two separate people. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Kids in the Hall vet did show up in the film’s closing minute in a thankless, jokeless role as a sci-fi convention MC who announces the arrival of each crew member as they make their inevitable return to the Earths’ surface. Just when I thought Galaxy Quest could hold no more room for further casting surprises, Kevin McDonald swooped in at the last second, as if the film were reading my mind.

I guess that’s to be expected in a movie where Sam Rockwell plays a full-length tribute to the very nature of a thankless bit role actor, but how could Galaxy Quest’s casting director Debra Zane have known that all of those supporting players would eventually become such big names in the first place? Her intuition seems to have been just as futuristic as the film’s sci-fi setting and her work of gathering up all of these strong personalities is a large part of what makes the film such an enduring delight.

-Brandon Ledet

Vamps (2012)

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Amy Heckerling directed two of the most iconic teen comedies of all time, Clueless & Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and yet she hasn’t been afforded much leeway as a filmmaker. Outside her work on television there’s a dispiritingly low number of titles to her name and while I’m not willing to fully go to bat for either Look Who’s Talking or Johnny Dangerously, I will say Heckerling does have at least one credit to her name that’s criminally overlooked: Vamps. A madcap romcom about two party girl vampires trying to survive the afterlife in the big scity, Vamps is wildly fun & immediately endearing, recalling Herckerling’s best work to date in the high school satire Clueless. The two films’ connection runs much deeper than the directer reuniting with actors Alicia Silverstone & Wallace Shawn, however. They both have a genuine empathy for all of their characters, even the high school mean girls & bloodsucking undead (as well as their respective “enemies”), and they both find plenty of room for personality & biting wit within the rigid romcom formula. Vamps is Heckerling at the top of her endearing-but-satirical game and every time I revisit it I become more  baffled that it has yet to cultivate a solid cult audience.

An ultra-feminine precursor to What We Do in the Shadows, Vamps follows two NYC roommates as they navigate big city nightlife & supplant their thirst for blood (held at bay by feeding on rats) with an endless eternity of clubbing & casual sex. Silverstone more or less reprises her role as an all-growed-up Cher “Clueless” Horowitz & her bestie is played by Krysten Ritter, who’s essentially a much-less vicious version of her Don’t Trust the B character Tall Slut No Panties, uhh, I mean Chloe. Except, you know, they’re vampires. Injecting a little horror movie fantasy into this Sex and the City worldscape of trying to find the right guy by sleeping with all the wrong ones livens up the format a great deal. It’s amusing to watch these women lie about their age by hundreds of years, attend Sanguines Anonymous meetings, find work modeling clothes for other vampires who can’t use a mirror, and check out hot guys’ jugulars as they, in turn, check out their cleavage. That’s not where Vamps gets the most mileage out of its vampire genre gimmick, though. Its combination of sisterly camaraderie with old world nostalgia is its true undead heart. Silverstone’s character in particular struggles with memory of a world before cellphone addiction & cancer-causing sugar substitutes and it’s her combination of Luddite philosophy & aggressive femininity that affords this film it’s own unique voice.

Vamps feels a little like an entire sitcom’s run conveniently contained at a romcom’s length. It’s by no means breaking any molds in terms of genre or humor, especially recalling other feminine horror comedy genre mashups like Hocus Pocus, Death Becomes Her, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Its playful mix of bloodlust, fashion, cute guys, and immortality might not feel entirely fresh in the 2010s, but Heckerling keeps the mood consistently light, endearing, and bizarre. Besides, the movie delights in feeling outdated in a modern world it has little reverence for. Big time supporting players like Sigourney Weaver, Maclolm McDowell, and Dan Stevens are all just as charming & effective as the main cast and a few inspired gags like a rat blood spit take & a vampire’s hideous spray-on tan find some unexpected, as-yet unexplored territory in a genre that’s been mined beyond death. It’s Heckerling’s specific, unmistakable comedic voice that makes Vamps feel remarkable despite what you’d expect from it’s genre trappings & modern age griping. Unfortunately, because that voice is so rarely heard these days it’s a sound for sore ears.If Herckerling has any other projects cooking that are half as charming as Vamps we’d be lucky to have them in our grotesque modern world. I’m afraid they’d also go noticed & unappreciated, though. There’s little evidence in the last twenty years of her work’s public reception that would make me think otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet