Alien: Covenant (2017)

MAY 21, 2017


I don't know what it is about Prometheus that gets people so worked up on both sides of the argument, but I hope we don't have to listen to the same online shouting matches for another five years about Alien: Covenant, because despite the title it's really just "Prometheus 2", following up that film's themes and, once he's reintroduced, main character. Additionally, it suffers from a number of the exact same problems (dumb characters! Too much ret-conning about where the aliens came from!), so it's possible some of these folks can just copy paste their old critiques into new Facebook posts. My only hope is that Ridley Scott makes the next film quicker, and then it finally connects up to the first Alien, so people can stop theorizing and go on with their damn lives. Until then, please stop arguing - both films have strong points and weak points, like most movies ever made (including Alien and Aliens, sorry to burst your bubble), and like EVERY movie ever made, there will be people who saw it differently than you, and their minds won't be changed by your tweetstorm.

As for me, if I was ranking the series, I'd put this one about in the middle, same as Prometheus, in that both are not up to the original "Ripley Trilogy" but better than Resurrection and the two AVPs, though I guess those films no longer count (if they ever did?) thanks to the reveals in this new branch of the series, which makes AVP's plot seemingly impossible. I'll let you discover the specifics yourself, but I don't think I'm spoiling too much when I say David (from Prometheus) is back and has seemingly doubled down on his "villainous by curiosity" nature, as he is once again doing things just to kind of see what happens even though he seemingly knows it will spell doom for his human colleagues. But this time there is another android, Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender, with a different accent) who is a later model than David, designed to be less human i.e. potentially evil. It's this dynamic that Scott was clearly interested in (the film opens with a lengthy conversation between David and his creator, Guy Pearce - this time without old man makeup), and thus it's no surprise that it's also where the film really shines - the two androids conversing about whether saving someone's life is programming or a "soul" is fascinating, and I could have easily watched another half hour or so of their debate.

But alas, people who bought tickets for Prometheus wanted more alien action than they got, so this time they get it, even if Scott's heart doesn't seem into it. People will argue about the gestation periods and all that because they have nothing better to do with their lives, but everyone else can enjoy the fact that we get not one but two aliens bursting out of bodies in the film's first half, along with the accompanying body count. The plot, such as it is, concerns the titular Covenant, a pioneer ship with fifteen active crew and a couple thousand frozen colonists ready to build a new world on a distant planet that was found inhabitable. But as this is an Alien film, a mysterious transmission from none other than Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace's character from Prometheus) has them detouring to another planet (no, not LV-426, but not the one from Prometheus either) and looking for the person who sent it, and that's where the trouble begins as two people get infected (with a new method - inhaling xeno-spores!) while they hunt for Shaw on this strange planet.

One interesting thing I noticed is that the movie has very few "nighttime" scenes - most of the alien action occurs outside during daytime (albeit overcast, it's not a "sunny" entry), which allows us a better look at the various creatures. The full sized ones are practical and used sparingly but well, so all of that stuff is fine - the problem is that the action/horror beats themselves are rather uninspired. Again, these people are rather dumb, or at least overly prone to panic, as one blows up themselves AND their transport by firing wildly in a room filled with gas tanks, and later one shoots his squadmate in the same circumstances. Two of them even go off for some shower sex at one point; to be fair they thought the alien was dead at that point, but were you REALLY in the mood after ten of your friends were killed? If Scott and his writers (four are credited) put as much effort into these sequences as they did the more thought-provoking, big idea ones, this could be a minor classic instead of just a pretty good entry in a very erratic series. Hell, even Life offered more inspired "killer monster on a spaceship" action, even though on a base level it was just Alien - why can't an actual Alien movie measure up to the damn knockoffs?

As far as the humans go, they're the usual mixed bag of recognizable character actors (Demian Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Billy Crudup) and borderline anonymous grunts, giving a mix between the first Alien's blue collar paycheck collectors and Aliens' tight squad of buddies. Character development is fleeting to the point that I didn't realize two characters were married until one cradled the other (dead one) in his arms, and probably will have better material on the Blu-ray (as did Prometheus, for the record). The nicest surprise was Danny McBride, playing the ship's pilot who only makes I think two jokes throughout the movie, shedding most if not all of his usual persona for a change (I find him to be one of those guys that always plays variations of the same character). I was also happy to see Callie Hernandez from Blair Witch as the co-pilot; she doesn't get to do much beyond challenge McBride's decisions (they're all on the ship above the storm-ravaged planet; he wants to go help the others, she wants to keep the ship safe) but it's still fun to see her go from low-budget found footage to a megabudget flick like this.

But they're led by Katherine Waterston, who the script lets down more than anyone else. Her husband is killed early on (not alien related) so she's sad, fine, but that's pretty much her one note throughout the film. And they give her Ripley-esque hair, which does her no favors as you're constantly reminded of what a better character Sigourney Weaver got to play. She barely even gets to do anything badass; Walter saves her in one action scene, McBride's character is backing her up throughout another... for a series that is iconic for its female protagonist (an Oscar nominee for Aliens, in fact - incredibly rare for genre movies at all let alone sequels) they really should have delivered more on this front. I had to double check her character name, for Christ's sake (Daniels), and I actually like Waterston from her other movies, so I can't imagine how blank she'll be to viewers who have no prior connection to her.

That said, it's really Fassbender's show, and he is terrific (as he always is). They don't interact too much, but when he's playing David and Walter in the same scene, it's electric, and it also provides the film with its most suspenseful moment as David does the fingering on a flute as he tries to teach Walter to play. I spent the entire scene sure that David was going to ram the thing through Walter's skull (or chip, I guess) to kill him, and tensed up more than I did for any of the uninspired alien scenes. But even when David is talking to other characters, he is riveting - I love how casual he is about how evil he is, and the glee he seemingly takes at taking advantage of how stupid some of these people are. There's a minor "faith vs. science" thing going on between him and Billy Crudup's character (a man of religion) that also shines, but it also seems like it got whittled to the bone, either by rewrites or a nervous studio, unsure if they were willing to allow more of these heady conversations in a summer movie about aliens. God forbid anything be interesting nowadays.

Long story short, if you want more alien action than Prometheus offered, you'll get it - but it's still very much a Prometheus movie, far more concerned with ideas about creation and man's place in the world than xenomorphs scurrying around and melting faces with its acid blood. You get those things, but even a child can probably sense the filmmaker was in a rush to get them over with so he could get back to what actually interested him. Like Prometheus, the film would probably be a lot better if it was completely disconnected from a long-running franchise; Ridley may have started it, but it became another thing, and now he's forced to serve two masters (in a time when impatient audiences won't allow him to really dig deep with the things he wants to explore). I actually liked how the Alien series always offered another filmmaker's unique approach to the material (even Paul WS Anderson), but now it's seemingly a Ridley Scott series - it's a tough thing to shake off when you're watching the movie for the first time, especially when they're seemingly promising more Alien than Prometheus by changing the title. I luck out a bit in that I've never held the original series up to as much scrutiny or obsession as say, the Halloween movies, so I can't get angry at these things like some die-hards do (AVP:R is the only one I flat out dislike, but Alien - my favorite - isn't in my top 25 movies or anything). Again, they have their weak points and their strong points, and this is no exception - it's just weird that the weaker things are the parts we ostensibly bought tickets to see.

What say you?


For A Few Zombies More (2015)

MAY 12, 2017


Considering how much I dislike watching sequels when I haven't seen the originals, AND how I try to balance out my sub-genres, I find it amusing that this and the previous HMAD review are for sequels to zombie movies I never saw. But unlike Dead Rising, I didn't even realize For A Few Zombies More was a sequel until a character had a rather blase reaction to the appearance of aliens, and got suspicious that I had missed something, i.e. an entire movie. That film, 2004's Hide and Creep, is one of the ones I had on my DVD queue back in the "every day" days of the site, but never got around to seeing it - now I pay the price! Oddly enough, the Blu-ray case doesn't even mention the first film, so perhaps they're purposely trying to play down the connection anyway.

Luckily, besides that quick bit, I never felt at a loss here, and a quick read of the first film's wiki page shows that apart from a few characters there wasn't much of a tie between the two films, as most of this focuses on a character that doesn't seem to have been in that one. Her name is Natalie, and she's on a rescue mission that ropes in the returning characters (including Chuck, played by co-director/co-writer Chuck Hartsell), but if I'm understanding correctly that film had an anthology type structure (like Pulp Fiction or Trick r Treat) as opposed to this one's straightforward narrative. Long story short, if you too haven't seen the first film and have an opportunity to watch this one, don't let your "ignorance" sway you - I'm super picky about these things and I barely even noticed, let alone let it bother me.

Besides I was too impressed with how many zombies they had and the amount of shootout action the film offered. The budget for the first one was only 20k, and while this one was not reported on its IMDb I doubt it was much higher since funding for these sorts of movies has gotten harder, not easier, in the past 10-12 years. So while that means some of the locations ring a little fake and not every actor will be going on to bigger and better things, you get a lot more of what you came for than you're usually liable to find in such things. There's a bit around the halfway point or so where zombies swarm a car, and I was legitimately impressed with how many they had - a wide shot shows several dozen coming from both directions as they close in on the car, keeping it from driving off to safety. Not every scene is that populated, of course, but even Dead Rising I don't think ever offered 50ish of the damn things onscreen at once.

As for the shootouts, they get a bit repetitive (there's even a joke about their frequency that made me chuckle), but since the zombie action was probably harder to pull off and more expensive, I found it to be a pretty nice consolation prize. So even though there's not a lot of undead action, there's still plenty of GENERAL action, as opposed to people just talking or driving around backroads hoping that other cars don't pass them by in this supposed post-apocalyptic wasteland (or dystopia, if you will). Imagine if Day of the Dead had the same amount of zombie action, but instead of Joe Pilato yelling at everyone the characters all just kept shooting at each other - that's kind of what the pacing is like here. That said, I would have been thrilled if maybe ONE shootout had been chucked in favor of another zombie scene, even a simple one like one or two zombies trying to get into a room where our heroes were trapped with no other exit or something - it felt like there were long stretches without any real zombie appearances at all, which minimizes their threat.

Then again, more zombie action would mean less dialogue, and that's there the film shines. Again, not all of the acting is great, but a number of the characters are dryly sarcastic and kind of world-weary about their predicament, which I found amusing - even when they took a shot at Armageddon out of nowhere (*shakes fist*). Hero Chuck is a film buff, and he apparently just wanted to sit around and watch movies until the whole thing blew over, which is pretty much what I'd want to do if the real world got overrun by the undead. But thankfully he doesn't drop too many obvious references, and a number of them are even inspired - mentioning Starship Troopers at one point turns out to be a setup for a later punchline about that film's Dina Meyer (whom young BC was quite smitten with back in the day). And I like that Dawn of the Dead is a movie that exists in this world, without it becoming a big thing - the character has more to say about Star Wars (it's in the same pile) as he's currently faced with a "look out for yourself, or help your friends" decision as Han Solo was in the first film. Plus, when they're talking we're less likely to be pummeled by the faux Carpenter score - we really need to give this brand of homage a rest for a while I think. Same goes for the signature Carpenter font, though here they actually go with the Halloween credit font specifically, instead of the Albertus "Carpenter" one, so I have to give them a pass on that out of loyalty to my favorite movie.

I also really loved a rather inessential bit where our heroine stumbles across a band who is recording a double album. She's incredulous that they're bothering considering the zombie issue, but the band explains that when all the zombies are gone and normal civilization occurs, folks will want new music and there won't be any - just the old stuff they had before everything went to hell. I always wondered, particularly in the Romero films, when exactly these kind of things stopped happening - like in Night of the Living Dead, it's just started and kind of a localized problem, so I'm sure people in Hollywood kept on making movies for a while. But when did they finally decide enough was enough? Ditto for pretty much everything - were the folks who make microwaves still going to work, or did they figure it was pointless and stay home? I would love to see a zombie movie where everything had a specific frame of reference for when the world "stopped" in a general sense; it fascinates me for some reason. Indeed, a lot of the references here were from 1997-1998 (there's even one about The Postman!), so I wonder if that was intentional or just coincidence. Probably have my answer if I saw the first film.

The Blu-ray I was sent came with a novelization, which made me very happy and I instantly put it with all my others, which I really need to organize someday. It's a fitting "gimmick" for the film's 90s worship (the hero is an ex-video clerk, in fact), as it seems every movie that came out in that decade had a novelization (if you want proof I'll let you borrow my copy of Stepmom). I'd like to read it, but I feel I should put more energy into finally watching the first film, because these are the kinds of indie horror films I want to see more often. I may not love them, but I can see that they actually care about what they're doing and have a "let's put on a show" attitude that I am unable to detect in the average found footage flick (hell, they even hand-painted the poster instead of doing some shitty Photoshop thing - see below!). As I find less and less time to watch and review something just for the sake of doing so, I don't want to waste more of my life on cynical "Let's join the party" junk. I want to feel like the people behind it were less concerned with finding distribution in the current market than they were with simply making something they could be proud of down the road.

What say you?


Dead Rising: Endgame (2016)

APRIL 30, 2017


Not counting things like Final Fantasy, I can't skip entries in video game series any easier than I can skip movie sequels. I remember when Halo 3 came out and my friend wanted to play the campaign with me, but I refused because I hadn't finished Halo 2 yet and didn't want to spoil anything for myself (the irony being that I couldn't tell you a damn thing about any of the Halo games' narratives beyond "kill those things"), and when I got an Xbox One it came with two Assassin's Creed games that I still haven't played because I haven't finished all of the Xbox 360 era entries. So it's kind of funny that I watched Dead Rising: Endgame without seeing the first film (Watchtower), which not only had reveals that meant nothing to me since I hadn't watched the first film, but also included game characters I haven't met yet as I've only played the first game.

(If you're wondering why I broke my "rule" - I had to watch the movie for work and didn't feel like tracking down the original as it wouldn't have any bearing on what I needed to do as I watched the sequel.)

Long story short, I am probably in the minority of people watching Endgame who were neither fans of the original film or die hard fans of the game series. Don't get me wrong, I loved the first Dead Rising (it was the first game I got for the 360, in fact) and played the "Case Zero" mini prequel to the 2nd game, but just never got around to playing the others. I am cursed in that the kinds of games I love are very long, and I'm also a sucker for side missions and collectibles, but I also have about three hours a week max to play games more often than not. So I only get through maybe four or five games a year, and for every ten games that come out I want to play, I maybe get through one of them. Long story short, the DR sequels are (as of now) part of that unfortunate group that just falls by the wayside. It bums me out, and I'm constantly having "Maybe if I beat traffic I can play..." kind of daydreams that never come to fruition; I just have to make sure my systems all still work in 2045 when I can retire and spend the rest of my days in blissful game-land.

That said, I enjoyed the movie more than I expected to. The "movie based on a video game" sub-genre is a fairly sorry lot, as you all know, and the film's low budget roots seemed ill-fitted to the game series (more on that soon). But despite the fact that it swiped a good chunk of its narrative from another game movie sequel (Resident Evil: Apocalypse), I found it rather engaging in a timekiller way, never boring me or making me angry or anything like that - my main gripe was that I was reminded that there are now four games in the series I haven't played (if you count the remake of Dead Rising 2 that told the story from Frank West's point of view). Jesse Metcalfe made for a decent everyman hero and proved to be capable of handling the action stuff, and he was backed by a good supporting cast including two Bates Motel vets: Keegan Connor Tracy (the hot teacher Norman offed in season 1) and Ian Tracey, who was Dylan's gunrunner boss. Oddly enough, his character, who hadn't been seen for a while, reappeared on the show's finale, reminding me of where I knew him from and saving me a trip to the IMDb while I was watching this. P.S. - Bates got real good during its last two seasons, so it's worth catching up on Netflix or whatever if you dropped it during its wheel-spinning third season.

Like I said Endgame borrows more than a bit from Apocalypse, as it focuses on a motley group of heroes making their way across the zombified city as a doomsday device counts down toward their certain doom. Hell they're even being aided by someone from the evil company who is exchanging his assistance in order to save his daughter (with Tracey in the Jared Harris role), which I found kind of amusing. See, the two game series are both from Capcom, but they're not much alike beyond "zombies", so it's strange that instead of following suit the movie would crib so heavily from the other series' sequel (especially one that tends to be the least liked among its fans, though I kind of enjoy Apocalypse for the most part). Luckily it's not just a standard "They're going to blow the city up!" countdown - it's something a bit more interesting, as the corporate assholes plan to activate an overload of the chip that people have implanted to keep them from turning into zombies.

This would be Zombrex, a "cure" from the games that the player must take after being bitten, used here sparingly outside of the chip subplot (the chip administers a small timed dose on the regular - an overload will have the opposite effect, I guess?). Since its existence would kill most of the film's suspense, the idea here is that the evil company has come up with a new strain of zombies that are faster and harder to kill, and standard Zombrex won't work (because they're also developing a cure for this new strain and will make billions selling it). It's one of the few things from the game that's used really; Fortune City is mentioned and one of the series' heroes shows up near the end (I'm not sure if he was in the first movie), but it also shows a character playing Dead Rising 3, so I'm not sure what plane of reality we're dealing with here. As with the RE series, it seems they didn't think copying the story from the game would be a wise option, but knew they needed these little shoutouts to make the hardcore fans happy.

But it's still an odd use of the license, in my opinion. For starters, the zombie numbers are very low, and I don't think you ever see more than ten or twelve on-screen at any given time. One of the game's big draws is how many hundreds of zombies it was able to render on-screen at once for your player to kill, and there's never any real break from them (at least, in the two I played, beyond a small safe zone where you save and such) as they swarm everywhere at all times. There are no human psychos to deal with either, just a few obligatory looter types, and the evil corporate guy played by Dennis Haysbert (who never interacts with the core cast), and it's also largely devoid of humor which is another thing that helped the game stick out from Resident Evil and the like. Apart from the Zombrex and a quick appearance from the hero of the second game, the only thing time it really feels like its namesake is when they find themselves without guns and have to fashion weapons out of the stuff they find laying around the room. For whatever faults most game movies have, they at least feel "at home" with the visual aesthetic and tone of their source material (save for a few Boll flicks and the abysmal Super Mario Bros), but here it's like they shoehorned in a few things at the last minute to justify a license they didn't initially have. I'm curious if the original film had the same problem?

Luckily, the zombie action is decent when it occurs. There's a lot of digital, but for some reason it didn't really bother me (maybe because it was offering a bit of the cartoonish feel a Dead Rising movie should offer in droves?), and Metcalfe gets to enjoy a pair of fun sequences. In one he's tumbling up and down an escalator as the zombies come at him from both floors, and then later we get a John Wick inspired "long shot" (it's got some obvious cuts "hidden" by Metcalfe backing right up on the lens) where he takes down a swarm of walkers in an operating room. He uses the medical equipment to fight them off as they keep coming, scrambling around like Jackie Chan or someone as he tries to stay alive but also find a way to get the hell out of there - it's not what I would have expected to see given what we saw in the first hour or so, and it put a big smile on my face. Again, there aren't a lot of zombies in the movie, no "hordes" or anything like that, so I'm glad that they balanced it out by making the action scenes stick out instead of offering generic run n' gun kinda stuff that would get real old by the end of the flick. There's one evil human too many in the film's climax, but otherwise the characters are largely likable and even fairly well developed for this kind of thing.

Apparently the last game didn't sell so well, so I don't know if that means the film series will come to an end as people are apparently moving on from the franchise. Someday I'll give the first film a look, and the cast/crew should be commended for taking what could have been sub-Syfy movie crap and turning it into something fairly enjoyable. I wish it felt more like the game, true, but if it was a direct adaptation of one of them (or indulged in some of the games' wonkier elements, like the cult in the first one) it'd make the changes even harder to ignore. No, ultimately they had the right idea to more or less tell an "original" story and let us get immersed in something new, and if they do get a third film (this one lays the groundwork for one) I hope they continue that path. It worked OK for Resident Evil (and, to a lesser extent, Assassin's Creed, which bombed but was at least its own thing set in that world, rather than a boring retelling of one of the games), and should be the approach for pretty much all game films. Any game with a story worth telling on the big screen will likely be too long for one, after all - trying to cram it into 90 or even 120 minutes would just piss off the gamers while leaving the non-players bewildered at a "Cliff's Notes" version of a narrative. Then no one wins.

What say you?


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