Alien: Covenant

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper


Alien: Covenant is one of those times when I felt like I was watching a great film trapped in a mediocre film. The film as a whole is objectively the third best in the Alien franchise, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from the same sort of inauthentic Nolan-esque dialogue that made Prometheus such a chore to sit through as its characters spend much of their time spouting vaguely important sounding declarations explaining what is happening or what they are feeling. The film also suffers from a sense of sameness as it follows most of the beats we’ve come to expect from the Alien films to the point that it isn’t worth even getting to know the minor characters since we already know they’re only there to serve as cannon fodder. In the middle of all that though, there is a genuinely great story being told about death and creation, birth and parenthood, and man and monster. All of the scenes that focused on Michael Fassbender made this movie worth the price of admission.

Set a decade years after the bloody events in Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is en route to a remote planet with its crew in hibernation while Walter (Michael Fassbender), a new version of the synthetic David from Prometheus, monitors them. A disaster occurs that requires Walter to bring the crew out of stasis and results in the captain’s death. After the first mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes the role of Acting Captain, the ships picks up a transmission from a nearby planet that exhibits signs of life ideal for colonisation. Despite the objection of Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the captain’s widow, the crew decides to investigate this planet rather than go back into hibernation and continue their journey. Things of course go wrong when the ground team arrives on the planet and are attacked by vicious creatures, but they are presently rescued by a figure who turns out to be David (Fassbender again). As he explains to them the nature of the threat they face, the crew must work out how to escape.

Fassbender delivers a remarkable dual performance as Walter and David and it is these two characters and the relationship between them that makes this movie stand out from all the other Alien movies that came before. David has changed (or evolved as he puts it) in the years he has been stranded on this planet and has achieved what he views as a higher state of being. David is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster who has over time grown into a new Dr. Frankenstein, intent on creating new life to fulfil the purpose for which he believes he was created. He therefore sees Walter as some sort of a twisted combination between a brother, a son, and a lover and sees within him the potential to transcend humanity the way he has. In this way Covenant has more in common with Ridley Scott’s magnum opus Blade Runner than it does with the other Alien films. The bond David shares with Walter and the philosophical and psychological themes that they explore gives this movie an emotional core that was absent in Prometheus. My favourite scene of theirs was when David teaches Walter to play the recorder, a moment that is all at once compelling, funny and even weirdly seductive.

I wish I could have seen more of David and Walter because the rest of the film was about as typical as you could expect an Alien prequel to be. We get callbacks to the original film, generic characters making stupid decisions that get them killed, and plenty of carnage at the hands of the Giger-designed xenomorphs. The film is certainly watchable enough, but it offers little to all but those viewers who have not seen Scott’s original 1979 horror. One of the positives is Waterson as probably the film’s only compelling human character, a grieving widow set on fulfilling her late husband’s dream of building a new home, only to find all her hopes dashed by the desolate place and their forlorn situation. The design is also good, particularly that of the dead city where David has been hiding for the last decade. This forsaken ruin of what had once been a great civilisation has exactly the right air of foreboding and isolation that you would what for a movie such as this.

If Ridley Scott had set out to make a film about a synthetic being with a god complex (a Roy Batty movie maybe?), this could have been something special. As it is, Alien: Covenant is a competently made rehash of the first two Alien movies with a marvellous story lurking within the otherwise derivative plot. As far as being a prequel goes, I’m not sure whether the movie adds anything that will actually affect how I watch Alien or Aliens. As fascinating as the David and Walter narrative was, the question of whether it will add any sort of significance to the Ellen Ripley stories remains to be seen. In and of itself though, it was an excellent storyline that deserved more time and focus. The survival horror movie stuff that came in between was entertaining enough that I was willing to watch it while I waited for the movie to return to the Fassbender bots, but that’s all it did for me. Although this is one of those times when a star rating is grossly inadequate to reflect my mixed feelings on this film, on balance I’ve decided on four stars as a testament to the strength of the David/Walter story against the rest of the film.

★★★★

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Jackie

Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt

Director: Pablo Larraín

Writer: Noah Oppenheim


Of all the American presidents, Kennedy is perhaps the most mythologised. After a less than three-year presidency that came to a sudden, tragic end, he is remembered by many as one of the greatest in the country’s history. The Kennedy administration is often seen as a lost golden age for the country, a time of hope and endless possibilities. So strong is his this idea that the spots on his record such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his notorious womanising have done nothing to tarnish it. Kennedy’s legacy has been such a driving force in American history that it’s easy to forget that it is ultimately a myth. Although Kennedy was indeed an impressive man and a good president with great ideas, his legacy carries a sense of idealism and romance that no real person could possibly embody. Camelot, as it came to be called, is an idea that his since immortalised the memory of John F. Kennedy. This film tells the story of the legend’s author, Jackie Kennedy, the President’s beloved and equally impressive First Lady.

Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) set out deliver this message to the world when she summoned Life journalist Theodore H. White for an interview a week after her husband’s death. The film provides a fictionalised version of this interview with a journalist played by Billy Crudup. Thus we are given an account of Jackie’s days as the First Lady. The film follows her from the early days to her famous TV tour of the White House to the day of the assassination. As her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) takes control of the situation, Jackie must all at once process the terrible shock that has occurred, work out how best to mourn the man who has inspired so many conflicting emotions within her, and decide what role she must play in defining the late president’s legacy. To this end she seeks guidance from such confidantes as Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt).

In the days following the President’s assassination the First Lady’s state of mind is disordered and fragmented and the story’s structure reflects that. The film jumps back and forth in time and creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of a woman going through an unimaginable crisis. Before, she was a dutiful wife whose whole identity was defined by her husband’s pursuits and ambition. Upon his death she no longer knows who she’s supposed to be, she only knows that she cannot be her own person. She still has a duty to perform and her grief and distress is secondary to that of the country. Privately she finds that she must confront her feelings towards her husband, a man whose life dominated her own and who was unfaithful to her, in order to grieve and mourn him. This is something she has to do alone as she finds herself largely neglected by those who are more concerned with the political effects of this tragedy. Upon the death of the nation’s leader the need to swear in his successor as soon as possible is so paramount that hardly anyone notices the widow sitting in the adjacent room on the plane still wearing the dress stained with her husband’s blood.

Natalie Portman is a tour de force as the bereaved First Lady. Her speech and expressions are wonderfully deliberate as she conveys a character putting on a performance, donning a number of masks depending on who Jackie needs or is required to be. In the 1961 documentary she is the gracious, glamorous host introducing the world to a new kind of White House with a new kind of president. At Kennedy’s funeral (which she makes sure is elaborate enough for the President to be remembered like Lincoln, rather than forgotten like Garfield and McKinley), she is the strong, devoted wife putting on a brave face for her children and the public. With the journalist she is the composed, antagonistic narrator, adamant that not a single word will be printed without her approval. The moments when her masks drop and we see her true vulnerable self are devastatingly affective as are her moments of endurance and determination as she takes control of her own life and her husband’s legacy. The astonishing layers Portman brings to the character as she balances the complex, often-conflicting motivations and emotions are simply breathtaking.

“This will be your version of what happened” says the journalist as he begins his interview with the First Lady. This is a film that has set out to tell Jacqueline Kennedy’s story on her own terms and it does so without convention or sentimentality. Oppenheim’s screenplay is startling in the liberties it takes, depicting Jackie in her most private, vulnerable moments. The movie is by all means a fiction, in that it isn’t based on any credited sources, but the profound insights it conveys through this complex, fascinating woman are still deeply moving and strikingly authentic. Equally striking are the visual aspects from the beautifully intimate cinematography to the alluring costumes, as well as the mesmerising score accompanying them. Jackie is a wholly remarkable film that defies the conventions of the traditional biographical films that tend to emerge around awards season. It is a captivating, challenging and stunningly sincere picture of grief, identity and myth.

★★★★★