Alien: Covenant (2017) Review

rsz_ac1ALIEN: COVENANT (Dir Ridley Scott, USA, 2017)

Starring- Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz

No doubt when a new ALIEN film turns up everyone turns their heads in anticipated glee awaiting the new entry into the franchise which has lasted almost 38 years since Scott turned a spaceship into a terrifying claustrophobic nightmare pitting humans out of their depth, against an unstoppable killing machine. Since that first film the Alien has gone onto a superb sequel in James Cameron’s ALIENS, then followed by the underrated and superb dark misery of ALIEN 3 and the uneven and sub-standard ALIEN: RESURRECTION. Following that there were two heavyweights clashes with it’s rival extraterrestrial bad guy the Predator, ALIEN VS PREDATOR and ALIEN VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM, both as bad as each other. It took until 2012 for Scott to return to the franchise with PROMETHEUS a very flawed but technically stunning picture which has started a series of films to go about explaining the origins of the Xenomorph being and this brings us to ALIEN: COVENANT, the first film in this prequel series of films to feature the word ALIEN in it’s title.

Covenant is the name of the colonisation vessel on a seven year mission route to a new planet. On its journey the ship is hit by a solar flare storm which severally damages the vessel and causes loss of crew life including the main captain and husband to Daniels (Waterston) leaving Oram (Crudup) to reluctantly step up and take charge. The ship receives a distress signal from a nearby planet which Oram decides to send out a re-con mission to investigate and to see whether the new place could be a possible hospitable home for the colonists (you can see where this is going, right?). Naturally when they arrive some nasty spores causes some nasty reactions to their human hosts and the re-con crew find themselves under attack from an earlier version of the Xenomorph only also to find sanctuary from the synthetic David (Fassbender) from PROMETHEUS who has managed to survive on the planet. Yet David who sinister intentions in the previous film seem more apparent and this puts the crew in even more danger.

rsz_ac2It’s safe to say that this latter series of ALIEN films will not reach the tension and terror of Scott’s original, or the bombast and brutal action of Cameron’s sequel and not even the grim beauty of Fincher’s ALIEN 3 but in turn it’s trying to bring a fresh origin story to the franchise. Whilst PROMETHEUS felt uneven and quite overblown in it’s execution it seems to be a necessary forefront in establishing the beginnings of the origin. ALIEN: COVENANT does follow this in many way’s even with the dialogue which at times seems clunky and contrived and retains one of the main characters from that film, David. Though in the process it gets rid of the engineers from the previous film and only offers their absence with a flashback sequence that shows they where exterminated. Yet this is not fully explained or attributed and in its absence you would have liked to have known more of the background to the engineers especially since this is supposedly an origins story. Whilst it does attempt to follow a new path parts of the film almost seem like a greatest hits retread of the first two movies with a bit of ALIEN thrown in there and a bit of ALIENS dropped over here. It also does rely to heavily on the use of CGI effects for the Alien which seems a bit disappointing in retrospect when the original film used the classic man in a monster suit to great effect.

rsz_ac3Admittedly its necessary to use CGI for the Alien’s first beginnings and growth but at the same time the nostalgia and effect of prosthetic effects is greatly missed and the reliance on CGI ends up coming off as more lazy than necessary in parts. Despite the flaws the film is in the end visually and technically stunning. One thing that Scott is great at is world building and visual craft which has been one of the most important aspects of his career and will be a surely a hard act to follow in the forthcoming BLADE RUNNER sequel due out this year for that films particular director Denis Villenuve. Even with a flawed script Scott somehow manages to maintain a stunning visual presence in the film and design a fantastic outer space world which on the IMAX screen is brilliant to watch and thankfully in this films release they have dropped the gimmicky 3D effect which was utilised in PROMETHEUS. Credit should be given to the cast with Fassbender both in dual roles as the synthetic David and the Covenant’s ship own robot Walter and is again superb, Waterston is also confident and reliable in what is essentially the Ripley role as Daniels and also McBride as Tennessee the chief pilot. McBride has mainly been in comic roles but this time round he manages to shrug of the funny guy persona and deliver a decent likeable serious role as the brash Covenant pilot.

rsz_ac4In terms of being a return to the original nightmare of the first series of films COVENANT won’t reach those dizzying heights and whilst I can understand the negative feelings towards the film, I still like to recognise some of the impressive work within this particular outing and on the biggest screen you can see it, makes it all the more stunning. Given a stronger script Scott, who intends to carry on with another film in this series, could benefit even more. Though in the meantime he still manages to stage and orchestrate some fantastic visual and technical skill that at the core is one of the retaining and beneficial factors of COVENANT.

6.5/10

The Sacrament (2013) Review

thesacrament1The Sacrament (2013)

Directed by: Ti West
Written by: Ti West
Starring: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucky Audley, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones
95 mins.

A team of cynical journalists travel to an isolated commune, in an undisclosed location, to decipher whether the inhabitants are being kept against their will, or if they truly have found happiness thanks to their so-called ‘Father’.

Following the wonderfully creepy haunted house shocker The Innkeepers, Ti West returns with a cult-themed offering that will do absolutely nothing to silence detractors who argue his films are too slow-burning. Aside from a gut-busting third act, during which everything utterly goes to hell, The Sacrament continues in the same vein as its predecessor – though thankfully it’s not quite as slow as The House Of The Devil.

An exposition-heavy prologue explains that this “documentary” follows a news-team from Vice magazine, comprising of cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg, who starred in West’s V/H/S segment “Second Honeymoon”), cynical journo Sam (AJ Bowen, of West’s buddy Adam Wingard’s You’re Next) and Patrick (Kentucky Audley, another V/H/S alum, who featured in wraparound story “Tape 56”) whose recovering drug addict sister has fled the country to live in a commune in an undisclosed, out of the way location.

thesacrament2It’s an intriguing setup, even if the footage of the guys travelling to the commune recalls MTV’s Catfish more than anything else. At first, in spite of the heavily-guarded front gate, and the lone road in and out, Eden Parish seems, as its name would suggest, like paradise on earth and Patrick’s sister (Amy Seimetz, who also featured in You’re Next) appears to be happy, much like all of the other parishioners to whom they speak. However, events quickly take a turn following a bizarre interview with the parish’s overlord, the ambling, scripture-spouting Southern gent known only as Father (played by a pitch-perfect Gene Jones), during which it becomes clear that appearances may indeed be deceiving.

Considering The Sacrament is, rather ominously, presented by Eli Roth and would be considered a found footage flick in a lot of ways, it could quite easily have been another dull, uninspiring gore-fest, loaded with jump scares and light on anything substantial. However, for once, the protagonists are smart – they film mostly on the sly, refuse to give up their passports and, when they sense something is wrong, immediately try to leave. There are also two cameras in use throughout, both of which are put down on several occasions, which is a welcome change considering how many times we’ve been subjected to some idiot running away while still filming everything.

There are no jump scares whatsoever, in spite of the addition of a creepy, mute kid who turns up and runs away at inopportune moments. The film is played straight, with the final act providing most of the carnage and scares (the ending is ruined by the poster and the tag-line, so avoid both if possible). The Sacrament is a profoundly frightening film, rooted in the normal, everyday routine to which a certain group of people have so easily become accustomed. In fact, they’re so used to their new way of life that they see the so-called “outsiders” as the crazy ones. The film plays on the idea that faith can make otherwise normal people give up everything, and in one particularly disturbing sequence, compel them to make the ultimate sacrifice.

thesacrament3Comparisons to recent, similarly-themed movies are unavoidable, and where The Sacrament falls down slightly is with the depiction of the parish leader. Not as charismatically crazy as Red State’s Pastor Abin Cooper, nor as effortlessly manipulative as Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Patrick, Father occupies a space somewhere in between the two, as though he’s always just a few steps away from going full nutjob, but with the air of an out of work car salesman about him. The issue is not with Gene Jones’s skilled portrayal, but with West’s writing, which pitches the character as a tired, confused old man, instead of a powerhouse like Kevin Smith’s Cooper who, although affectionately referred to as Grampa, could still pack a punch when needed, and who pontificated at every given opportunity.

However, in a lot of ways, The Sacrament is much tougher than other films of its ilk, particularly in its depiction of how much the children witness. In Red State, especially, the younger converts were consciously sheltered from the cult’s darker dealings. West doesn’t shy away from showing how far the leaders of these kinds of groups will go to prove their worth, and the result is bleak, dark and very affecting. This is the kind of premise that feels almost too realistic, and it is in the depiction of the ordinary, and everyday, that West excels.

Although the denouement is a bit too neat, it at least explains how the footage came to be, instead of it simply being stumbled upon by passing hikers – the parish is, after all, located in the middle of nowhere. The protagonists are likeable enough, but they take a backseat once Father shows up, and rightly so. The brother-sister dynamic is an interesting spin on the usual love story angle, and it results in one of the most disturbing scenes of the film as Patrick is forcibly injected with an unknown substance by his sister, while the camera sits idly by, filming everything.

thesacrament4Continuing Ti West’s slew of slow-burning, atmospheric and quietly creepy horror films, The Sacrament will not convince naysayers that his work is worth a watch, but the tension is built effectively throughout, and the resulting carnage is brutal, gory and bleak. It may take its time getting there, but it is definitely worth the wait.

Rating: 8/10