Monday, May 29, 2017

Reconsidering the franchise through the lens of Alien: Covenant

Q: Are we not men?
First, the spoiler-free stuff. I rewatched 'em all this past week. If asked to rank the Alien movies I'd say 1, 3, AC, AP, 4, 2. Prior to seeing Alien: Covenant I would have placed Aliens ahead of Alien 4, but Ridley Scott threw in a development that surprised me and forced me to reassess the entire narrative on his own particular terms.

I'm not going to spell it out explicitly, but if you're one of those people who refuses to watch trailers, from here to the post's conclusion there is a potential for spoilers.

I'm with Matt Zoller Seitz, who says of the Alien franchise, "The series’ repetitive structure is a feature, not a bug, as in the James Bond, 'Star Wars' and Marvel franchises. If you don’t like them, you can complain that they recycle the same images and situations. But if you like them, you can compare them to sonatas or sonnets or three-chord pop songs, where part of the fun lies in seeing what variations the artists can bring while satisfying a rigid structure." With that in mind, MZS and I both think Scott's late-in-life return to the franchise has yielded some of the most thought-provoking results in its history.

In Covenant, Scott adheres religiously to the template, right up until the conclusion. Enough foreshadowing occurs that I was not surprised by the finish, but I was surprised Scott chose the conclusion he did. Leaving the theatre, I said to my friend, "Scott broke the ending." And when I considered it further, I realized he also "broke" the ending to Prometheus -- and in so doing he added emotional and spiritual weight to the earlier narrative of Ripley as Christ figure.

That is the deeper surprise, for me -- Scott has not always struck me as being well-attuned to his own themes, never mind those of others. But AC demonstrates he has in fact paid close attention to the thematic through-line that Aliens 1, 3 and 4 developed and exploited before Scott returned to "his" franchise. His latest chapter adds nuance and emotional value to those earlier movies, two of which were made by other people.

Getting back to my ranking, generally this is a series that defies the attempt, as each movie contributes to the others. By placing 2 at the bottom tier, I'm not calling it out as inferior -- it is arguably a more streamlined entertainment than, say, 4. But Cameron's movie is an action flick, while the others are horror movies. In order to work, horror requires moral ambiguity, while action movies do not. And even if Cameron wanted to explore moral ambiguity I'm not sure he has the capacity for it (unlike, say, his ex-girlfriend Katheryn Bigelow).

In any case, good and evil are clearly demarcated in Aliens. And, given how xenomorph designer H.R. Giger was either shown the door or willingly absented himself from the scene, the overall aesthetic to Aliens dates the movie directly to its particular era in ways the other movies managed to avoid.
1986: only 119 more years to go!
Further spoiler-laden reading: Alien: Covenant sneakily explores the horrors of directing blockbusters in 2017 by Todd VanDerWerff.


Joel Swagman said...

In defense of Aliens: Although the creatures are purely evil, most of the human characters are complex.

Or rather, your view of them changes as you watch the movie. Even if they are one dimensional, you find out your initial impression of them is different than what they turn out to be in the final evaluation. Bill Paxton character starts out as cocky, and then completely loses his nerve. Bishop at first resembles the sinister android from the previous film, but then turns out to be good.

Paul Reiser at first appears as Ridley's advocate, and then turns out to be the villian

Hicks is largely just in the background for the whole first half of the movie, and then turns out to be the hero.

Admittedly, my judgement may be weakened by nostalgia. (I was 16 or so when I first saw it, and I may have been more easily impressed at that age, and thought the character shifts were more clever than they were.)

Whisky Prajer said...

Yeah, this is where ranking creates problems. I'm tempted to protest that this is not a value judgment, but I'd be lying. My larger point, though, is Cameron attempts something markedly different from the other three directors. There are people who would rank Aliens at the top, above the original. They might assert that Scott was onto something, but that it took Cameron to fully realize that something -- I don't know, I'm just speculating. But it is remarkable to me that Cameron stands out as baldly as he does.

Regardless, had someone besides Cameron taken hold of the second movie the odds of the franchise extending this far would have been reduced considerably. It was a standout movie for Cameron and for the Alien franchise.

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm curious: when's the last time you watched Aliens, Joel?

Joel Swagman said...

Actually it was on TV recently. I tuned in late, so I didn't see it all the way through, but I saw at least some of it.

The thought did occur to me, while I watched it, that perhaps this film wasn't quite as awesome as I remembered it. I mean it was good, but was it really that great? Nostalgia might be coloring my judgment.

But then, if you want to open that can of worms, nostalgia is probably coloring my judgment for all of the movies on my favorite movie list.

At the very least, though, you've got to admit that those special effects were pretty good for their time.
Nowadays all the aliens would be CGI, but back then I think it was all gymnasts in suits. And yet, when I watch this movie, i'm always so absorbed in it that they seem like real aliens.

Whisky Prajer said...

I saw it the summer of. I was 21, and working in the shipping bay of a furniture factory. My boss was this really big guy a few years older than me, and he was blown away by Cameron's movie. He saw it on a Friday night, then went back Saturday. I don't know how many viewings he finally clocked in that summer, but to his mind things didn't get any better than Aliens.

I saw it at least twice that summer. It played at my favourite theatre, the last of the movie palaces in Winnipeg. The first time I sat in the balcony, and there's really no way to communicate the effect of an audience that size reacting to the waves of shock emanating from the silver screen -- absolutely marvelous.

So yeah, no small nostalgia hangover for me, either. The SFX hold up really well. Gymnasts for sure, but I'm thinking they also relied a fair bit on puppetry.

Whisky Prajer said...

You've got me thinking about nostalgia now, Joel. I tried to come up with other movies from 1986 that I felt nostalgic for and the only title that came to mind was Something Wild. But 1986 was not a good year for movies, and 21 is not a good age for nostalgia -- the shine is coming off all the stuff you thought would be cool about being adult.