Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Film review – Alien (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 1979)

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Alien. I’m sure I was far too young. I know this because I remember I was really sad I couldn’t see Alien 3 at the cinema. I’ve calculated that I was eight years old at the time. Why was I gutted? Because I’d already seen the first two films and didn’t want to wait.

Yes, that’s right. Somehow either my mum was supremely lenient or we pulled a fast one on her and managed to get a VHS copy of both films.

Looking back on the 1979 debut, it’s easy to see what the appeal was for a eight-year-old. Sure, the heart of the film lies in a character-driven plot and it’s powered by Scott’s unwavering ability to build suspense. At the time I wasn’t sat there thinking “Well, Parker and Brett have an agenda now because of this pay dispute, so this is going to get really interesting.” No. I was looking at the alien, the guns, the space travel and the explosions.

All of these things are, unquestionably, of great appeal to a child. Or, at least, they were to this child.


It was great, then, to finally see this masterpiece of cinema on the big screen as part of Alien Day. As an adult. And, completing the circle, with my mum as well. 

It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the big sceeen, away from disturbances that home viewing might detract from the experience. 

The film was originally released in 1979, in the midst of the wave of hysteria for space-based films created by Star Wars. However, it is very much the antethesis of the 1977 space opera. The distant past setting is replaced with a not-too-distant future. The bright and open planets are replaced with a singular, isolated spaceship. The droids played for light relief are dropped in favour of a malfunctioning synthetic human with a hidden agenda.

Indeed, whilst the film may have seemed like a lucrative prospect for 20th Century Fox after Star Wars, Alien owes a lot more to films like Jaws or Forbidden Planet in both tone and pacing.

It is a film about isolation, playing on the claustrophobia of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and allowing your survival instincts to take over. 


Jerry Goldsmith’s score, conducted by Lionel Newman and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, may be one of the most perfectly-suited film scores ever crafted. It starts off exactly where the audience do at the beginning of the film – somewhere between romanticism and intrigue. As the horror unfolds, the score increases in intensity and loses any sweetness it ever had, heightening every moment we see on screen.

The set design and the Alien itself was famously designed by surrealist artist H. R. Giger. It’s as iconic as the film itself, critical to the story and heightening the horror when we eventually see the creature fully formed in the final act of the film.

It was a hard act to follow and they’ve spent 38 years trying to reach the heights of the original film. James Cameron’s sequel may be preferred by some, but for me you simply can’t compare that to the original. They are in the same universe but are completely different genres, one wrapped in suspense and the other all-out action.

Secret Cinema February 2016 Preview

Secret Cinema is a company that puts together immersive film-based experiences, set around one film. You step into an alternative reality and live in the film for a few hours, somewhere along the line actually watching the film too. Having thoroughly enjoyed the Star Wars Secret Cinema earlier this year, my first Secret Cinema event, when Secret Cinema announced their next project was coming in February 2016 I instantly put my name down for tickets.

The biggest difference this time is that nobody knows what the film is. We’ll be stepping into a world of the unknown, much like the older Secret Cinema events. A lot of people have rushed to buy tickets but are now wondering what exactly they’ve signed up to.

So what clues have they given to us? Let’s break it down.

What films won’t it be?

I think we can safely rule out any film that Secret Cinema and Future Cinema have already performed. The following films have already been covered.

A Night at the Opera (2008)
Alien (2009)
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2009)
Back To The Future (2014)
The Battle of Algiers (2011)
Blade Runner (2010)
Brazil (2013)
Bugsy Malone (2009)
Dead Poets Society (2014)
Dirty Dancing (2013)
Funny Face (2008)
Ghostbusters (2008)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Harder They Come (2009)
if…. (2008)
The Interview (2014)
Lawrence of Arabia (2010)
Paranoid Park (2007)
Prometheus (2012)
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (2010)
The Red Shoes (2011)
Saturday Night Fever (2013)
The Shawshank Redemption (2012)
Star Wars: A New Hope (2015)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (2015)
The Third Man (2012)
The Warriors (2009)
Wings of Desire (2010)

Quite an extensive list there. It’s a shame some of them have already been done and may never be repeated. The videos of some of them have been reported recently on the Secret Cinema Facebook page. The Third Man looked particularly immersive.

What clues have we got?

Perhaps the biggest clue as to the content of the film is the fact it is simultaneously being played out in London and Moscow. Secret Cinema regularly performs in London, but Moscow seems to be significant.

There are a number of popular English-language films wholly or partly set in Moscow that could be relevant:

The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Ultimatum
Cast Away
Iron Man 2
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Rocky IV
Rocky V
X-Men: The Days of Future Past
X-Men: First Class

These films are all fine, but the Moscow connection is tenuous at best. The Bourne series could be the best option. However, they simply don’t fit the cult film status that you could categorise all the previous films as.

Surveillance seems to be key

Throughout all the visuals about the event have been suggestions of spying and surveillance. Going to the official page on the website, you are greeted by audio that sounds like a submarine sonar blip, with someone typing on and old-fashioned typewriter overlaid. These also feature on some of the visuals.

Quotes 

Elsewhere there are quotes featured, which include the following:

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest)

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” – Anais Nin

“Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.” – Leon Trotsky (The Revolution Betrayed)

“Take a walk on the wild side.” – Lou Reed (Take A Walk On The Wild Side)

“Hence a commander who advances without any thought of winning personal fame and withdraws in spite of certain punishment, whose only concern is to protect his people and promote the interests of his ruler, is the nation’s treasure. Because he fusses over his men as if they were infants, they will accompany him into the deepest valleys; because he fusses over his men as if they were his own beloved sons, they will die by his side. If he is generous with them and yet they do not do as he tells them, if he loves them and yet they do not obey his commands, if he is so undisciplined with them that he cannot bring them into proper order, they will be like spoiled children who can be put to no good use at all.” – Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

“Wild honey smells of freedom
The dust — of sunlight
The mouth of a young girl, like a violet
But gold — smells of nothing”
– Anna Akhmatova (The Smell of Gold)
Note: This was a quote provided in Russian

These quotes imply some kind of war theme, or perhaps people being oppressed or under over-zealous surveillance. There are also hints of revolution against it.

So what are the best bets?

Possibility 1

It is unlikely that the film won’t be English-language, but not impossible. What if the film wasn’t language-dependent at all? Silent films would be a bold move but one that could pay off if it was the right film.

1924 film Aelita from director Yakov Protazanov is an early silent film and is often cited as an influence on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy, it features heavily topics of sci-fi but its setting in 1920s Russia allows themes of political and social commentary that meant it was banned from cinemas in the Soviet Union.

You can watch the whole thing for free here.

I also found an excellent article on the film by Andrew J Horton at this location. A fascinating read.

I’d love to see this but in all honesty it seems highly unlikely.

Possibility 2

  

One film that seems to be cropping up in discussions across the Internet is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The satirical comedy from 1964 certainly has the surveillance and war themes running throughout and is also considered a cult film by many. Its 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes shows it would be a popular choice.

The opportunity to witness a live recreation of the war room scenes would be hilarious. However, how they would skip between the war room and the B-52 bombers is a mystery to me so I’m not convinced this is the best option.

Possibility 3

Before George Lucas took on the universe with Star Wars, he had an extremely popular cult film called THX 1138. A little thought makes this a real possibility. 

The tickets on offer come in two categories: Operative (standard) and Operative X. The latter comes at twice the price, but the use of the word Operative brings the suggestion of a dystopian reality where names are gone and people are just a number. 

The lead characters in THX 1138 included the titular character played by Robert Duvall, an operator in a factory building android police officers, and SEN 5241 played by Donald Pleasance, a CCTV operator in charge of surveillance. Both are operatives but one has a distinct superiority over the other.

The world would be immersive if done properly. Imagine plentiful android police wandering around and telling us to not do certain things. White rooms with seemingly no walls with everyone wandering around aimlessly. 

Whether enough people know of the film to really enjoy it is another matter. For me, this is a strong contender based on what we currently know.

Possibility 4

  

The final option considered is 1984 (Michael Radford, 1984). If you’re going for a surveillance-themed film then you can’t go wrong with this film. It is the quintessential film and book on the topic, so much so that the words “Big Brother” are used in common vocabulary to describe anything the public seems to be over-bearing on the surveillance front.

The totalitarian state rules the world in which it is set, and the main character Winston Smith (John Hurt) works for the Ministry of Truth rewriting history to suit the desired story. 

The settings would be much easier to achieve than THX 1138, and it is slightly more mainstream than that film. Imagine being sent into a huge office block to rewrite a scandalous news story into something far more saccharine. The dystopia on the outside of the buildings and attempting to avoid capture by the Thought Police… All very appealing!

The only downside is the similarity to the film Brazil, already featured in a previous Secret Cinema event.

Conclusion

Well, nothing is nailed on and their clues don’t really help too much, but there are some strong contenders I wouldn’t mind experiencing. Hopefully this article has got you a little more excited.

Tickets are almost gone but some nights have limited availability.

Update

I’ve written an update following the recent communications. Check it out here.

A preview for the next event, Secret Cinema Presents 28 Days Later, can be found here.