Five years after Prometheus began the Alien prequel series, Ridley Scott returns with Alien: Covenant. The film picks up with an entirely new cast aboard the titular ship, this time a colonization vessel headed to a far-off target. It is operated by an android named Walter (Michael Fassbender; Shame) until an electrical storm requires him to wake the crew from stasis. As they work on repairs, the ship picks up a transmission from a nearby planet that appears to be a viable candidate for their new colony. The crew seize the opportunity to start their new lives early and dispatch a team to investigate. This leads them to David, the android from Prometheus (also played by Fassbender), curiously alone on the planet,
Fassbender is again the highlight of the film. His performance in the dual role is able to distinguish the two android iterations in very subtle ways. The differences in regard for others, self-preservation, and thinking process all convey the slight reduction in Walter’s humanity and the effect it has on his behavior. Furthermore, the androids provide the biggest source of thematic allegory in the film. There are several biblical allusions, both overt and subtle, throughout the story, but David and Walter as Cain and Abel is a fitting comparison, particularly given David’s own obsession with creation. As the two interact and David examines Walter’s consciousness, the film recalls Scott’s own Blade Runner. The line between independence and subservience becomes a compelling question but is unfortunately only barely touched upon.
The major problem with Alien: Covenant is that it devotes too much effort to not being Prometheus. The first Alien prequel had such a vitriolic backlash that it is understandable why Scott would prioritize placating franchise fans, but in doing so he prevents Covenant from having an identity of its own. As flawed as Prometheus was, with its characters acting in nonsensical ways, it had a distinct feel from the main Alien films. It was about big ideas, like the origin of life itself, and had huge set pieces as opposed to the narrow corridors of the early Alien films. The hook of the film, humanity meeting its creators, justified the expedition and the risks it required.
In contrast, Covenant feels like an unnecessary side story. The new cast checks the boxes of an Alien film, but isn’t relevant to the greater fiction. The film can’t compete with Prometheus in terms of its narrative thrust and gorgeous, sprawling sets but also can’t rival the high-strung horror tension of Alien. It even continues the problem of characters making obviously stupid mistakes. They take enormous risks with little caution and without the potential reward to rationalize their decisions which makes the consequences they suffer bring little sympathy. Even when their actions are valid, most of the cast is still inconsequential to the series which gives the audience little reason to invest in them. Without a distinctive personality or greater franchise implications, Alien: Covenant can’t help but feel like Scott is treading water until the next prequel which will hopefully bring the franchise into new, more inspired territory.
Continuing his rapid pace of releasing movies, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) sets his newest film in the music scene. It features a star-studded cast with Michael Fassbender (Shame) as a music producer, Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Rooney Mara (Lion) as performers, and Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as other women who get wrapped up in their series of short-lived affairs.
The film’s “plot” is barely present and the few discernable aspects are disappointing. Supposedly, Song to Song is a romance, but there is nothing remotely romantic shown. Malick is known for not using traditional scripts. He relies on actors to improvise scenes based on only the setup and never have the pitfalls of this approach been more apparent than the scenes of what I can only assume was intended to be romantic chemistry. The actors have big smiles on their faces as they attempt to have authentic, playful interactions. Instead, they come off as annoying or severely cringe-inducing, best exemplified in a scene where Fassbender hops around a beach screeching and scratching like a monkey. As painful as these scenes are to watch, I can only feel sorry for the actors that had to perform them.
There is also a worrying trend regarding the treatment of women. Malick has been known for infantilizing his female characters. They are often young, innocent girls or adult women who display a pure naivete, but this previously appeared to come from a good place. It seemed like a celebration of innocence rather than a restriction on what women could do, but his new films have revealed some disturbing ideas. As in his last film, the women here are treated as sexual objects to be used, cast off, then reused when needed. They may have their own motivations but Malick’s portrayal shows them as little more than ways for his hedonistic male characters to satisfy their own desires.
Visuals have always been Malick’s strong suit, but even that seems to be deteriorating. Using his regular cinematographer, the incredibly talented Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), he is again able to create some stunning natural-light footage. Yet, there are a few confusing choices that mar his normally perfect images. Several scenes were shot on location at the music festival Austin City Limits and some use GoPro-like cameras. This was likely done to get closer to the action of the mosh pits, but the lower-resolution fish-eye shots do not mesh with the rest of the film. Their low-quality is a glaring fault. There is also a strange overuse of oblique angles. Many scenes are off-kilter close-ups of an actor’s face. Perhaps this was done to convey the subjectivity of the character’s thoughts, but instead it is only distracting. These unfortunate choices detract what would otherwise be the film’s greatest strength.
One of the few changes to Malick’s style is his use of music. His usual ethereal, orchestral score is still present, but, due to the setting, more modern music is also included. These songs offer some desperately needed energy to the film. Their use helps add variety to the soundtrack and breaks up the overused strings. It was perhaps the only modernizing of Malick’s approach throughout the film.
Song to Song is almost a repeat of Knight of Cups but set in the music world instead of the film industry. Like that movie, there are people living in exorbitant wealth while pursuing their dreams that are inexplicably mopey. Characters go after their desires in selfish ways and, when the obvious consequences occur, Malick expects the audience to sympathize with them. But, why would we? He, like his characters, appears to be living in a bubble. There are no sympathetic or relatable characters here, only sketches of vague emotions. The frequent voiceovers are filled with pretentious, pseudo-philosophical thoughts that are often unrelated to anything onscreen and read like midnight scrawlings from the director’s bedside notebook. His narrative films after the flawed, but magnificent The Tree of Life, if you can call them narrative films, have been a continual letdown. Malick’s work has sunk further into incessant navel-gazing and his visual style is no longer enough to make up for it. Song to Song is another exercise in Malick’s recent string of insufferable self-indulgence.
Finally rounding out the year’s lineup of video game adaptations is Assassin’s Creed. The popular video game franchise launched in 2007 and sparked eight mainline sequels and several more spinoffs selling over 90 million copies across the games. Unlike many adaptations, the premise, while far-fetched, provides an intriguing setup for a blend of sci-fi and historical action. After he is executed by lethal injection, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender; Shame) wakes up in a strange research facility with Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard; Midnight in Paris), a scientist leading the Animus project. The Animus, a giant mechanical arm that connects to the spinal cord of the user, taps into data stored in DNA to relive the memories of ancestors. Sophia and her father want to use Callum to find the Apple of Eden, a mysterious object that can control humanity, through his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who is the last person they know to have had it.
The film spends far too much time on exposition. This is a common mistake in storytelling in interactive entertainment but ironically it was never an issue in the early Assassin’s Creed games. The games would have the player in the historical setting for at least 80% or more of the time, but the screenplay calls for the majority of the film to be in the present so they can explain the adversarial history of the Assassins and the Templars. The games threw you into the action and let the player, along with the main character, discover the greater story as they played, but the screenwriters here instead opted to stuff in as much setup as possible for the sequels that were clearly in mind at the film’s conception. The movie opens with an explanatory text crawl that is groan-worthy and further exposition is always just around the corner. Unfortunately, all this additional explanation only weakens the story. Each further detail creates plot holes rather than filling them. If the writers had been willing to leave more unanswered, the backstory would have been intriguing rather than perplexing or, in many cases, silly.
Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) is able to fluidly adapt the series’s action. Known for incorporating an acrobatic style based on using counter attacks, the fighting could have easily felt distant without the interactive element. This happened in 2010 with Ubisoft’s other major film production, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the signature parkour didn’t translate to the big screen. Combat is clearly sped up, but the increased speed isn’t overly disorienting. Kurzel also makes the unexpected decision to transition back and forth between Aguilar fighting in the past and Callum fighting through the same experiences in the present. Doing so adds an extra dimension to the action (literally) as we see how Callum is affected by his time in the Animus.
This is the second time this year we’ve had a talented indie director take on a large video game movie and the result is again a moderate success. Kurzel was able to maintain some of the harsh realism found in his previous work as he moved to this larger project. The historical scenes don’t try to emulate the lighthearted tone of Marvel films or the self-seriousness of the DC extended universe. The world feels dirty and unforgiving. He also has the benefit of an incredibly talented and, more importantly, committed cast. Even minor roles have their moments with actors like Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) stopping by to add gravitas to the screenplay. Kurzel isn’t able to escape the forced exposition typical of the genre, but the unique premise combined with his gritty staging of action scenes make the film stand out in the crowded blockbuster space.
Despite its similar naming structure, The Light Between Oceans, shares few similarities to its predecessor The Place Beyond the Pines. Set in Australia shortly after WWI, the film stars Michael Fassbender (Shame) as Tom Sherbourne, a veteran hired as a lightkeeper for a remote island. Soon, he meets and falls in love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander; Ex Machina). After their marriage, they have two miscarriages within three years leaving Isabel despondent until a rowboat washes ashore. Inside they find a dead man and the baby girl that will forever change their lives. Tom attempts to report the incident, but buckles under Isabel’s desire to have a child.
Once the little girl, Lucy, enters the picture, Tom and Isabel’s lives are filled with joy. They play with their new daughter and show her off to their family and friends. The hapiness lasts until her christening where Tom spots a tearful woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz; The Deep Blue Sea), praying in front of a grave for her husband and infant daughter who were lost at sea the same day he found Lucy. Racked with guilt and unable to persuade Isabel to confess their sins, Tom leaves a note for Hannah letting her know her baby is safe, but her husband is dead. What soon follows is a messy situation. Lucy taken from the parents she knows to the rightful mother she wants nothing to do with as Tom and Isabel face repercussions of their actions.
In its early parts, The Light Between Oceans resembles a Nicholas Sparks movie. The leads only require one picnic before Isabel brings up the idea of marriage so they can spend the next 10 minutes handwriting cliche-ridden professions of love a la Dear John. “I never knew I could talk about the way I feel”, writes Tom. Cianfrance’s films are known for their raw intensity of character interactions. He’s been called an “actor’s director” because he is able to create an original intimacy even in predictable situations, like the relationship in Blue Valentine. This makes the overly simplistic beginning to the central romance especially disappointing. Fassbender and Vikander are a real life couple, but their early scenes of courtship (or rather the single scene) feel forced. It’s like the director looked at the actors and said “Be perfect for each other” and started rolling. Isabel’s optimism doesn’t match with Tom’s taciturn demeanor and it’s unclear why either has developed affection. Fortunately, the romance becomes more believable as the two grow closer during the hardships they face.
The Sparks comparison extends to the setting and cinematography. The film is set by the ocean with an overabundance of landscape shots. Granted, the visuals are breathtaking. Ocean waves crashing against the shore and lonely sunsets dominate the first half of the movie. While aesthetically stunning, the focus on the backdrops unnecessarily slows down the film’s pace and has the unintended effect of distancing the viewer from the central conflict. The fading light of the sun seems to carry equal importance to Tom and Isabel’s relationship early on, but Cianfrance lacks the ability to imbue meaning into the natural imagery. He is not Terrence Malick.
In the final act the film, Cianfrance finally delivers on the emotional resonance he is known for. Actions have consequences, and the depth of Tom and Isabel’s relationship is shown, not told, as they take steps to protect each other. Here, the professions of love are earned. In some ways, The Light Between Oceans is Cianfrance’s version of a Merchant Ivory film. Romantic, but deliberately old-fashioned with his natural inclinations muted until the end. Still, not many filmmakers working today can match Cianfrance’s ability to draw out an emotional response. The feelings come like waves hitting the rocks of the island, overwhelming and powerful. While the The Light Between Oceans starts out slow, the scenery is enough to carry the film to its piercing final third.
At the end of last year, 2016 looked like it would be the year of the video game adaptation. Beloved franchises from PC to mobile to console were being brought to the big screen in ways that seemed like they could actually work. This year we have Angry Birds, Ratchet & Clank, Warcraft, and Assassin’s Creed. The first two are animated films, Warcraft is live action with significant motion capture, and AC is live action. Before we discuss this year’s lineup in detail, let’s revisit the history and background of these films.
Video game movies are bad. That’s not an opinion, until now it’s been an accepted fact. The track record of video game adaptations has become a running joke to the point that fans of either medium groan whenever news breaks that a franchise has been optioned. In theory, it shouldn’t be abnormal for a video game movie to be good. Games have great, imaginative settings and, like blockbuster movies, they’re often driven by spectacle. The problem behind this sub-genre can be answered with two simple questions: “Why?” and “Who?”.
Whenever a work is optioned, it is usually done for either love of the source material or potential for financial returns. In the case of video games, it has mostly been the latter. Instead of viewing a game as an individual piece of content, producers and executives have been making video game adaptations based on the built-in fan base. Everyone played Super Mario Bros. growing up so why not make a movie? If even a small percentage of people who played the video game buy a ticket, the movie will profit. But what they’re not thinking about is what makes these games popular. People don’t play Mario because they love bipedal mushrooms or a giant turtle-dragon thing. They’re fans because of the interactive element and how it makes them feel. In Mario, it’s the tension created by barely landing on a platform, but this doesn’t translate at all to a film. You can’t adapt gameplay.
Instead, producers use their regular toolkits. They take successful video games with outlandish premises and try to shoehorn in a generic script. Was there anything about the Need for Speed movie that reflected the actual game? No. It was a heist movie made because The Fast & the Furious is popular and Need for Speed is a recognizable brand. It didn’t matter that the franchise had almost no storyline or greater world development, because financiers were only looking at the large box office potential given the sales of the video games and the success of similar films. They took the existing name and forced in a basic plot so bland that no fan would have been able to guess that it was an adaptation without being told.
Video games don’t easily conform to standard storylines. This is true on multiple levels. On one hand, video games can be long. A retail game can sustain between 8 and 100 hours of playtime, depending on the title. Telling a story across this kind of timeframe not only allows for more plot points, but gives the player a chance to live in the setting and understand the characters in a way no regular film can. After spending 40+ hours playing Mass Effect 2, the side character Mordin Solus wasn’t just a character I liked, he was my friend. The mere constraints of the medium prevent single films from forging these kinds of relationships between the audience and the characters or settings.
Video games are not only story-based. If someone were to recommend a book and say “Just ignore the story” that would be a ridiculous suggestion. Unlike books, video games aren’t solely defined by their writing and unlike films, they have an additional layer beyond their visuals. The key to video games is interactivity. There is a tension created by the collision of prewritten narrative and player agency. As a character grows, the player is not just a viewer of the change but an active participant. They feel ownership over the events that have taken place.
It is the interactive element of video games that those adapting them to film most often miss. Anyone adapting a video game needs to look beyond the surface level a franchise’s features. Yes, the Prince of Persia series’s signature move is wallrunning, but shots of Jake Gyllenhaal scampering along a wall won’t have the same impact. It’s not just what a character does in a video game that matters, it’s how it makes the player feel. Wallrunning is about agility, power, and resourcefulness. You, the player, were able to outwit the precarious architecture and the feeling that results is one of nervous relief, satisfaction, and pride. These adaptations need to target the core feelings produced by playing, not watching, the video game.
Much of the issue stems from the types of people making these films. As stated earlier, there are some that look at a video game and only see the guaranteed fanbase, but there are also issues of familiarity, both with the particular franchise and with video games as a medium. A successful director would need to understand filmmaking techniques as well as the language of video games. In most adaptations so far this hasn’t been the case. Often times the director has failed on both accounts, neither being an accomplished filmmaker, nor having any understanding of video games.
The best examples of how to make a successful adaptation come from a different medium – comic books. Pre-2000s there were many comic book film adaptations that were unsuccessful. This happened for very similar reasons to video game adaptations. The people making the films did not have the understanding needed of both mediums. It wasn’t until this century that the comic book era we currently live in began. Unlike previous films, these were being directed by talented filmmakers who grew up with comic books giving them a deep understanding of the medium and how it was both similar to and different from film. Video games have not been around nearly as long as comic books. If we want to start counting with the Nintendo Entertainment System, it’s only been a bit over 30 years. Most higher ups in the film industry tend to be over 50, so the people in charge now likely didn’t grow up with the medium. They’re trying to understand something foreign to them and fumbling the adaptation in the process.
However, soon the kids that grew up on Zelda and Final Fantasy will be in charge of directing or producing feature films. Once that happens, I expect the abysmal results of video game adaptations to improve significantly. Will there be a Nintendo Cinematic Universe? Probably not, but as video games diversify and grow there are more franchises that are ripe for optioning and more people qualified to take full advantage of them. Each of this year’s adaptations showed promise. Angry Birds lacks any story as a video game, but as an animated feature, it wasn’t a hard sell to think that someone would be able to tell a decent story using those characters. The Ratchet & Clank franchise on the other hand has always felt like a playable animated movie so the adaptation seemed completely natural. Unfortunately, the film was unable to capture the charm of the games and by all accounts was generic and forgettable.
Warcraft represented the best chance at a good, perhaps great film. The lore of the franchise had been developed for over a decade and was expansive with many individual plotlines that would function well in a film. That combined with the rising star director, Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), should have created unprecedented enthusiasm, but it didn’t. Despite Jones’s filmography, the consensus prior to release never rose above cautious optimism. When it finally debuted after a long post-production, Warcraft was panned by most critics and bombed at the US box office (although it did well in China). In reality, it was an enjoyable, but flawed film. Jones is a fan of the video games and was able to bring the appeal of the large-scale battles. Sadly, the overall quality was undercut by the burden of establishing a Warcraft film franchise. It wasn’t a giant leap forward, but did move in the right direction.
The next shot at true vindication is Assassin’s Creed in December. Directed by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the film has a good pedigree. Furthermore, the franchise has an intriguing premise and plenty of opportunity to tell a contained story without requiring the greater world setup that Warcraft did. Whether or not the film succeeds, it is only a matter of time until the right team, with an understanding of both films and video games, gets behind the right franchise to produce the adaptation we have been waiting for. Until then, the unique style and presentation of video games will continue to seep into films, like Hardcore Henry, and fans of both mediums will patiently wait for the day we can watch Commander Shepard’s signature dance moves on the big screen.