Alien: Covenant is Fun, as Long as You Don’t Think Too Hard About it

For almost four decades, the Alien franchise has kept audiences intrigued through its combination of complex science-fiction ideas and intense action and horror sequences. But as later sequels put more emphasis on action and suspense, rather then high concepts and storytelling, a noticeable drop in quality began. 2012’s Prometheus was supposed to refocus the franchise back in the direction that made the first 2 films great, but the bad writing and trope-ladened plot combined to create one of the most intellectually inept blockbusters in recent memory. With so many problems to overcome,  that Alien: Covenant manages to feel fresh and enjoyable despite its many shortcomings is almost an accomplishment, however sad that may be.

Picking up where Prometheus left off, Covenant pulls double duty as both a prequel to the original Alien, as well as a continuation of the story Prometheus began. As such, the film tries to reflect this by calling upon the more scientific and inquisitive approach of its predecessor, while also delivering upon the expected gore and violence the series made its claim upon. It’s in these areas where the film tends to exceed expectations, presenting an interesting mystery that helps bring audiences in before the body count starts adding up. It’s clear that director Ridley Scott spent a great deal of time thinking of how the Xenomorphs came to be, and how to construct a story that both centers around this and simultaneously continues the themes and ideas introduced in Prometheus.

This combining of identities shines brightest when Covenant turns into a full-on creature feature. The classic Xenomorph returns, portrayed as a merciless killing machine, with a number of scenes during the third act showcasing the agility and ferocity that made this classic movie monster so scary the first time around. Brought to life through a combination of practical and digital effects, the Xenomorph is a more agile being when compared to previous incarnations, giving Covenant a more action-thriller tone, as opposed to the typical horror tone in previous films.

Covenant‘s main new addition to the franchise is the Neomorph, a new creature meant to highlight the evolutionary chain that led to the Xenomorphs inception. The primary antagonist for most of the film, the neomorph manages to be terrifying thanks in part to it’s more feral nature, lashing out uncontrollably at our protagonists, with numerous violent results. Several scenes that explore how the Neomorph thinks and acts help add depth to the creature, and grounds both it and the threat it poses in the film’s world in a tangible way. This doesn’t, however, forgive the blatantly identical birthing sequence and design comparisons to the Xenomorph that can’t help but come off a bit lazy.

On the non-alien side of things, Covenant is one of the best looking and sounding blockbusters in recent memory. Much like in Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s eye for cinematography hasn’t been lost, portraying even gorey and disturbing images with a strange semblance of beauty. The ship and equipment the crew of the Covenant Inhabbit feel appropriately dirty and lived in, and their designs fall close to that of the ships in the original film. Soundwise, composer Jed Kurzel’s score strikes a more subdued and Insidious tone, helping keep early scenes of exploring the mysterious planet tense. The inclusion of the Prometheus theme may periodically come in and clash with the rest of the scores sound, but it all comes together to form an interesting enhancement to (and extension of) the film as a whole.

Sadly, the attention given to these facets of the film were not paid to the characters, Covenant’s biggest problem. Much like Prometheus before it, we are presented with supposedly handpicked, experts in their field scientists, all of whom make idiotic decisions that get people Killed. These aren’t simple mistakes either, as several characters are more then willing to stick their faces in completely foreign and potentially hostile Objects, leading to deaths and events that are more frustrating then they are tragic. While the actors do their best with the material they are given, the characters are often written as stereotypes of the franchise (short haired femme fatal, captain in over his head, comedic relief, grunt cannon fodder, etc.). This is nothing to say of the plot device (directly begun because of the poorly written characters) which brings our crew to the film’s main setting, and the numerous gaps in logic that  hold back what could have been a spectacular return to form for the franchise.

The individual parts for Alien: Covenant could be combined to make something epic and grandiose, and it’s easy to see how it could have come together. But through the framework of forgettable/badly written characters, and a number of poorly thought out plot points, Covenant tends to be only a good sci-fi thriller, when it could have been a great Alien film. This distinction may not bother some, but when a film such as this comes so short of joining the likes of Alien and Aliens, it’s hard not to come down a little harder on it. Otherwise, Alien: Covenant goes all in when it’s shooting for the stars, even if it doesn’t quite break orbit.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8 Screams You Don’t Hear in Space out of 10

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is an Visually Stunning, Emotional Rollercoaster

Around the time the MCU began to grow tiresome for many, 2014 brought a number of welcome changes to the superhero formula, chief among them being the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Blending science fiction aesthetics with smart Huron and a surprisingly deep cast of characters, the first became a surprise hit of its summer, and created a formula that many films to this day have tried and failed to emulate. And while Volume 2 could easily have gotten away with repeating the tricks that made its predecessor popular, the biggest surprise is how much the film benefits from forgoing the expected super-hero tropes, instead offering a deeper and more emotional story that will stick with you long after the cuteness of baby Groot.

Taking place 4 months after the events of the previous film, Volume 2 serves more as a continuation of the previous film than a sequel, as the film focuses on the lingering questions of the first installment, while growing the characters from where we left them off. This time around, the guardians are already established, well renown for their actions and allowing the film to be less about how the team comes together, and instead is about how they manage to stay and grow together in the face of adversity.

This kind of material is often let down by average or otherwise uninspired writing, and thankfully the original returns to prove they are more then up to the task. For a film so frenetic and colorful, Guardians spends a lot of time giving characters quiet moments to talk and grow, with many of the best scenes being the interactions between characters like Yondu and Rocket, Gamora and Nebula, and Starlord and newcomer Ego. The arcs the characters go through also feel fresh, extending from where we left them and adding more layers that will leave audiences wanting to revisit the original film for comparison.

But even though there’s plenty of emotional weight on display, Volume 2 doesn’t fall short when it comes to action. Moreso then the first film, there’s a greater variety of action, from the comedic early encounter with a giant interdimensional monster, to a prison break sequence with Yondu, to the film’s large and spoiler-filled ending (trust me, it’s great). Despite plenty of drama near the end, most of the action is lighthearted and full of the film’s trademark comedy, clearly establishing the film’s focus on a fun, lighthearted affair that anyone can enjoy.

And yet, despite all of these things to praise about Volume 2, it’s really the acting on display that once again steals the show. Chris Pratt once again proves he’s leading man material, charming and likeable while able to switch to dramatic in a realistic manner. The other guardians hold their own as well, with the best scenes often going to side characters like Rocket and Baby Groot (whom the film thankfully doesn’t spend an exuberant amount of time with), with special mention needing to be made of Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who turns what was a charming foil  for the guardians into the emotional core of the film. Likewise, Kurt Russel shines as Ego, and is one of Marvel’s more nuanced and interesting characters, but in ways that unfortunately are hard to dissect without getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say Ego’s mystery and relationship Peter and the other characters manages to continually surprise and remains engaging, even after several late revelations.

When talking about the original films it’s hard not to bring up the ingenious handling, and general enjoyment, of the film soundtrack “Awesome Mix #1.” But while many are expecting an equally extravagant track listing, which it certainly offers through hits like ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, the film’s soundtrack actually gets more mileage out of obscure of one-hit-wonder songs of an important era in the film’s opening. The use of these songs is also improved, now called out for important character moments, such as Ego describing his relationship with Starlord’s mother through the Looking Glass hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”. This allows the songs to stand out less as a fun addition to the film, like in the first Guardians, and more as an extension of the emotional journey of the movie and its characters, and in turn the audience (for anyone who wasn’t already affected by Cat Stevens “Father and Son”, buckle up). Needless to say, it enhances the film in a meaningful and profound way, while still being an amazing soundtrack that you’ll likely go straight to iTunes for once the film’s over.
What flaws the film has don’t keep it from being a fantastic sequel, but they are unfortuately noticeable enough to be worth mentioning. For starters, the marketing for the film has done a great job of hiding a lot of the film’s plot and keeping everything a surprise, but certain elements like the villainous Sovereign and their leader Aesha feel half-baked, serving more as plot devices and set ups for future films, all be it fun ones. Additionally, while all of the relationships are well handled, some feel like they could have used more time and attention, specifically the scenes between Nebula and Gamora. To be clear, actresses Karen Gillian and Zoe Saldana are excellent togtether, and make the most of their scenes, it’s just a shame we didn’t get more time to explore their history.

Volume 2 surpasses its original film through a combination of understanding what made the first movie so great, while never serving to just repeat the original’s bag of tricks. What’s perhaps even more impressive is just how well the film manages fun and emotion, with their being just as many moments of calm and reflection to keep the frantic action and comedy that much more frantic and enjoyable. Those going in expecting another super hero film are in for a shock, as the many comendavle qualities of Guardians manages to put itself above and beyond even the best the genre has to offer. The summer couldn’t have started off stronger, with a film that even as a sequel is something we rarely see in films anymore: real, earned heart.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9.5 Hasslehoffs out of 10