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.

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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 X event 2017 – What is it?

Note: Super sleuth Oliver Morris can have most of the credit for this article!

This morning all previous attendees of any Secret Cinema events were unexpectedly sent an email providing limited details on their next fully secret event.

Launching on Sunday 9th April and running until Friday 14th April, the email promised that they would be “presenting a yet unreleased secret film in a secret location”.

“Exploring vivid, enigmatic landscapes ripe with intrigue and coded messages, you will become part of a world that blossoms like a delicate flower to reveal a clandestine, unforgettable experience”.

The tickets for the event go on sale tomorrow (Wednesday 22nd March) at 13:00 (GMT).

You may be intrigued by the idea, but if you want to know the likely films that it could be, read on.

The facts

The email states that the event is strictly for people over the age of 18, which indicates that the film has been rated with an 18 certificate by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification).

We can also deduce that the film is probably going to be released in a short window between late April and the end of June. The film must be ready for viewing by the general public and it wouldn’t benefit from the extra press this will generate if its release date is too far in the future.

There is also a lot of allusions to plant life, flowers, growth and blossoming, which indicates that this is a strong theme in the film.

The quote “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming” is a quote from Pablo Neruda and is possibly a red herring, but could be a clue to the film’s country of origin. My hunch is the former.

The final clue provided in the email is the visual title, which features a sketched eye pouring into a waterfall, set amidst a backdrop of a Japanese-style sun that is reminiscent of their flag. It looks Dali-esque, but is certainly very much something that makes the viewers think of the country Japan.

So what films could it be?

This leaves not many option for films. Here are the best guesses.

The Handmaiden


Park Chan-wook’s latest film is an erotic mystery horror that lit up the end-of-year lists for many of the in-the-know critics last year. It is based on the Sarah Waters book Fingersmith, but is set in South Korea under Japanese colonial rule rather than Victorian Britain. The story revolves around a young woman who has been raised as a thief and working as a handmaiden undercover in a rich heiress’s house.

This might seem like quite a leftfield choice for Secret Cinema to tackle, but it certainly fits the bill. It’s essentially set in Japan and has already received a BBFC classification of 18.

It is set for general release on 14th April, which is the day the Secret Cinema run finishes.

Park Chan-wook’s previous work includes two films from 2013 – Stoker and Snowpiercer – along with 2009’s Thirst and 2003’s Oldboy. His films are certainly beautiful works of art and their quality belies the fact his wider work is largely unknown in the west. But perhaps that is the perfect reason for Secret Cinema to base a whole event around his new release.

Alien: Covenant

The only other feasible alternative to The Handmaiden in my eyes is Alien: Covenant. Set for release in May 2017, the film concerns a new crew visiting an uncharted planet that looks on arrival to be full of blooming flowers and plantlife – initially appearing to be a paradise planet.

It is a direct sequel to Prometheus, which itself was subject to a Secret Cinema event in June 2012 immediately prior to its release.

This sequel is set for general release on 19th May 2017, which would put it in the frame for being tackled.

It is probably going to receive a 15 rating (the trailers were rated 15), but that doesn’t mean the night can be so horrifically planned that they don’t want to admit people younger than 18. Plus there will probably be alcohol for sale, which would also need an age restriction.

Certainly the spending power of 20th Century Fox would lend itself to a last-minute decision to be subject to a huge Secret Cinema event, with increased cost as a result of running it in parallel with the Moulin Rouge event across London. Would the Secret Cinema team put so much pressue on themselves to run two concurrently unless they were set to make a lot of money on the back of it?

Conclusion

Honestly, it could be either of the above. Or neither. The beauty is in the guessing and the not knowing.

Either way, the nights will be a wonderful treat for fans of cinema and well worth the money.

Act fast tomorrow at 13:00 to avoid disappointment.

Note: This article proved to be spot on (2 for 2!). Check out the follow-up here and a quick haiku review here.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Ridley Scott, 1982/2007)

I think I’ve now seen the definitive version of Blade Runner. The Final Cut, which I’ve stupidly had in my possession for almost a decade, is now firmly in the number one spot. For the first time, Scott is firmly in charge and has been able to create the vision he had over 30 years ago. In beautiful HD transfer (4K, 6K or 8K depending on the scene) and 5.1 surround sound, it provides the ultimate viewing experience even before you consider the content of the film is spot on.

There are, if you are unaware, five common versions of the film: Workprint (1982), Original Theatrical Cut (1982), International Cut (1982), Director’s Cut (1992) and Final Cut (2007). However, there are more detailed in an excellent article on Wikipedia. [1]

That there are so many versions clearly implies that the fans of the film are so enthusiastic that they keep coming back for more. Different people have their favourites but I’m on the Final Cut bandwagon.

The film is based in 2019 L.A. and centres around police officer Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, as he comes out of retirement to complete one final task as a “Blade Runner”. His job is to track down and kill four Tyrell Corporation Nexus-6 replicants (bioengineered humanoid robots) who have come to Earth illegally, possibly to extend their lives beyond their standard four year lifespan. As he tracks each down, he begins to question his own moral outlook and the nature of the replicants and his own humanity.

It's amazing what can be achieved when you eschew using digital effects.

It’s amazing what can be achieved when you eschew using digital effects.

Fans of sci-fi keep coming back to this film, and for good reason. Stylistically it was way ahead of its time and still looks stunning. It was a creation that predates CGI and the result is that there isn’t one set that doesn’t look like you could inhabit it. It’s a grim, dark look into a future which, at the time, seemed a long time away. Adjusted for inflation, the film cost just $70m, which is less than, for example, the entirely naff looking Dracula Untold.

A beautiful film with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time is all well and good, but it has to be driven by a gripping storyline. In my opinion, one of the enduring factors in the continued conversation is the many unanswered questions left after the original versions. The Final Cut does clear up at least one of the very critical questions. I imagine that advocates of previous versions would prefer to not have these questions answered but this is just the side of the fence I sit.

If you’ve not seen this film yet and have any inkling towards sci-fi of any kind, or indeed film noir, police dramas or classic cinema, then you need to put this right at the top of your “to watch” list. It simply needs to be seen and now that this definitive version is available there are no excuses.

I picked up this version of the film. It contains all five versions, heaps of bonus material, an artbook and a Syd Mead-designed collectible car model. There are other packages available but this, for me, is the ultimate package.

This 30th Anniversary Collector's Edition package is the ultimate version available in the UK.

This 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition package is the ultimate version available in the UK.

[1] The three additional versions are San Diego Sneak Preview version, the US Broadcast version and a four-hour version shown to studio execs by Ridley Scott early in the film’s edit.

[2] This beautiful poster was designed by Jeremy Romand otherwise known as Caparzofpc.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 2014)

Ridley Scott as director. An all-star cast including Sir Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and Christian Bale. A modern retelling of The Book of Exodus. An estimated $140m budget. Epic battles. The scale and subject matter of Exodus: Gods and Kings means it’s destined for success. But is it any good?

Before I start, it’s important to note that my experience of the film has been informed by the fact I’m an atheist. Not only that, to my shame I actually went into the film without a clear memory of the story of Moses. I’m probably in the minority on that. I mean, I remember the stuff with the frogs and the locusts and the parting of the sea and the burning tree. It’s all in there, for sure. I just couldn’t remember why any of those things happened or what order any of it came in. I was approaching it with an air of naivety that was perhaps self-inflicted, both in my youth and subsequent life choices, but also in a lack of effort to remind myself of the story before I went in to the première.

To cut a long story short, I can’t tell you whether or not this is a faithful representation of the Book of Exodus. What I can tell you is that it’s a pretty spectacular experience. The story itself is a gripping tale of two brothers battling for power, one of whom is struggling to understand his own place in a world ravaged by slavery, elitism, poverty and racism, a world where he has grown up believing he is something he is not.

IMG_9854.JPG

It is the kind of tale that has been brought to the big screen many times before, though rarely on such a grand scale. Scott probably had his work cut out to keep all parties happy. He has stated that he would have had difficulty getting financial backing for the film had he not cast a white A-list actor in the lead role, though this has caused dissatisfaction amongst those that want something more accurate to the story (or is that disgust…?). Clearly, deviating from the Book of Exodus would have been a terrible move too, so most of the time he plays it safe. The story doesn’t need to be embellished to keep it interesting, so there’s no cause for panic there.

One of the things that impressed me most – and it’s something that has caused a lot of debate after the previews – was the scientific explanations of the various aspects of the story. In particular, the parting of the Red Sea is apportioned to a tsunami. Actually this is a pretty robust explanation and I can see how this would work, though I do wonder how the 400000 Israelites about 10ft above the wave on a small rock survived en masse whilst the Egyptians were wiped out as they were at sea level (sorry, spoiler alert). I also question how Ramses managed to be the lone-survivor when he was the worst positioned of everyone. That said, the fact an explanation is offered, along with the hints at Moses having hallucinations rather than seeing a real-life messenger, anchors the story in the real world and makes it far more believable. Whether a devout Christian would see it the same way is another question.

On a side note, anyone attempting to boycott a film before it has been released will probably never enjoy anything in their life. So much media attention has focused on the casting of the leads, with accusations of “white-washing” being the main issue. I was on review lockdown ahead of watching the film so I wasn’t aware of it ahead of the screening, but it wasn’t something that jumped out at me whilst I was watching. Maybe I need to see it again to see if I missed it, but it seems disrespectful to suggest that Scott would choose such a late point in his career to intentionally start showing racial bias in his films. Also, if the popular imagery of Christianity is going to be criticised then a better starting point might be the generally accepted depiction of Jesus as a tall, white man with long brown hair, which I think humanity will eventually agree probably isn’t what he would have looked like at all.

Despite some pre-film trepidation, I was pleasantly surprised that I could enjoy a Biblical film so much. The way Scott has constructed this retelling makes it accessible to all cinema goers. Hopefully it isn’t at the expense of the Christian market.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is released in the UK on 26th December 2014.