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.
Coming off of the major success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney followed through with their plan to release spinoffs that would feature new characters and viewpoints within the Star Wars universe. The first of these films is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla). Set prior to the events of the original 1977 film, the plot centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones; The Theory of Everything), the daughter of the architect of the Death Star, who has been captured by rebel forces to help them find a way to destroy the superweapon.
A prequel always creates the urge to heavily reference the existing films, but Rogue One is able to avoid many of those mistakes. When developing the prequel trilogy, series creator George Lucas was unable to resist this temptation. He wrote characters that were either younger versions of existing characters or new ones that were basically stand-ins for those you already knew. The key difference here is that Rogue One answers one of the franchise’s lingering questions: why was there a spot on the Death Star that would immediately destroy it? This necessitates the film to focus on an entirely new cast in a very different situation.
Edwards deliberately separates his film from the mainline entries. Each production detail is selected to contrast with what we expect from the franchise. Camera movements are often shaky and focus on the perspective of the ground troops rather than sweeping shots of the greater battle area. The final action scene has moments that mimic the Normandy Invasion scene from Saving Private Ryan. The lighting also reflects the clandestine nature of the characters. Many rooms are poorly lit, implying these rebels don’t have the money or the time to stay in any location and build a base. Even the normally pristine Stormtroopers are speckled with debris. Everything feels grimy with an air of desperation.
The screenwriters are able break away from traditional formula of the franchise. Previous films focused on the Jedi which made morality simple. There was no question of who to root for when it was the monks versus space fascists, but Rogue One takes a different approach. The rebels fighting here are not waging a war of ideologies, they are the people that need to make the hard decisions to win battles. That means lying and killing if it moves their position forward. The added complexity is refreshing in the otherwise simplistic universe, but, perhaps fearing public reaction, this is relegated to the periphery. The film instead chooses to focus on the action rather than the choices behind it. Exploring this ambiguity would have further distinguished the film and balanced out the pacing that drags early on from the repeated action sequences.
The filmmakers take full advantage of the freedom that not needing the set up future installments affords them. The major downside to the franchises that dominate cinemas today is that they lack tension. Even as characters are shown in perilous situations, it doesn’t produce the intended effect. Why should we be worried when we know that sequels are already in the pipeline? Captain America and Iron Man can’t kill each other when the next Avengers movie is just around the corner, so their battles don’t have any meaning. That is not the case for this spinoff. Characters are expendable and the writers aren’t afraid to prove it. The new perspective and narrative turns make Rogue One an exciting change to the standard Star Wars tropes.
Embers takes place in a near future where a virus that causes memory loss has spread to the entire population. When people go to sleep or even after only waiting a few minutes, they forget who they are and what they are doing. The world as we know it has collapsed and the remaining survivors wander aimlessly through the destroyed homes, picking up and losing companions along the way. We are presented a few different stories. A man (Jason Ritter; Freddy vs. Jason) and a woman (Iva Gocheva; Sneakers) wake up next to each other in a dilapidated home. Neither recalls their names or their relationship to each other. The only clue they have is a blue piece of cloth each has tied around their wrists, indicating some type of connection. They decide that they must have been a couple, settle on names for each other, and explore the area, searching for supplies. A parallel story involves a man and his young adult daughter who have been living in an underground bunker for the past decade. While cutoff from society, the two are also disease free and can recall their past. Their zoned days and nights are a point of contention for the daughter who wants to experience more than their routine existence.
The setting reflects the lives of the characters. Without the memory of having a home, nothing has been maintained. Buildings are crumbling, rooms are in disarray, and everything seems to be abandoned. Even the cinematography feels blank. The colors are desaturated with the palette emphasizing shades of gray above all else. The world feels deliberately empty and drained of life.
Interactions between characters are unfortunately as cold and stilted as the environment. The initial conversation between Ritter and Gocheva feels unprofessional, like first time actors attempting a dry run at a scene. The dialogue itself is weighed down by the exposition clumsily woven in to explain the background of the world. Each time the characters try to connect verbally, it only shows how poorly written the film is. As the father and daughter argue over the value of a dull, repetitive life with memory versus a uncertain but varied life without it, the gravity of their discussion never hits home. It just feels like a whiny, immature child arguing with a controlling parent. Even when it gestures at deeper emotions, the combination of amateur acting and underdeveloped dialogue undercut the film’s ambitions.
There are only a few moments when the film is able to successfully explore the implications of its premise. The rapid memory loss means that even the strongest emotions and events in a life, good or bad, will soon be forgotten. This has effects beyond simply forgetting one’s own name. A severe, life-changing emotional trauma can simply evaporate. People stop in the middle of crying because they have forgotten why they started in the first place. A short separation from a loved one can lead to forgetting their existence. How does a child develop without the ability to form memories? First time director Claire Carré clearly wants to explore these scenarios but loses sight of her goals in favor of explaining the setup. Instead of fully examining the consequences or benefits of life without memory, Embers squanders its interesting premise with wooden acting and exposition heavy dialogue.
Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature and his first attempt at a (comparatively) big budget film that might have some mainstream appeal. His previous films were small character dramas and that DNA is still present here. Like Take Shelter, the movie stars Michael Shannon dealing with a supernatural problem. This time however, the question isn’t “Is it real?” but rather “What does this mean?” and “How do we prevent others from destroying it?”. Shannon plays a dad hiding from the police with Joel Edgerton (The Gift) as he takes his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a special location. We soon learn that Alton has supernatural powers evidenced by the beams of blue light that shoot out of his eyes. He is able to tap into radio frequencies, pull down satellites, and cause earthquakes. Their mission is to get him to Florida before something happens and before the government, believing him to be a weapon, finds them.
The clear influence here is John Carpenter’s Starman. Like that movie, this is a chase that is more interested in sentiment than science. The film manages to convey the love Alton’s parents have for him by contrasting them with others who only view him as a messiah or future destruction. They care for Alton the boy, not the supernatural being. This also serves to increase the stakes and the tension throughout. Lieberher is particularly believable as Alton. He shows the unnaturally calm confidence of someone who fully understands the situation which makes his simple lines seem profound. Yet, he still betrays his youth in the way he needs his parents for support. The music also recalls Carpenter’s signature scores and a slow piano melody transitions the mood from frantic chase to solemn duty. Even the special effects are homage. The blue beams of light mimic the glows of the sliver spheres in Starman. This along with other flourishes are deliberately old fashioned but never become garish or distracting.
Nichols wisely chooses to obscure many details of the plot. Background information including how Alton was born, how he grew up, and the full scope of what his powers can do are either only hinted at or largely ignored. The audience, as well as the characters, are left wondering what led to his current state. The time period is muddled too. Shots prominently feature CRT televisions and few modern gadgets are shown to prevent dating the film. In doing so, Nichols has edited out the exposition that bogs down many other science fiction films (see Interstellar) and focuses on the heart of the story – a family trying to save their son. That is, until the ending.
How the film closes may leave viewers unsatisfied. Up to that point, the cryptic details heightened the intensity, but as the film reveals itself the suspense is quickly deflated. The ending may prove too literal for some wanting something closer to 2001 and noticeably undermines the mystery that preceded it. Still, the sense of wonder and hidden potential present in the film create ample tension and intrigue to entice.
What matters most in life? What can we truly not live without? These are the questions Love, made in 2011 by director, cinematographer, and production designer William Eubank and produced by music supergroup Angels & Airwaves, attempts to answer. The movie follows both a civil war soldier searching for an unidentified object found in the west and Lee Miller (Gunner Wright), an astronaut in the International Space Station. How they connect is revealed much later. Miller is by himself in the ISS with the intent to return to Earth soon until his mission control informs him that they do not have the resources needed to bring him back. He later sees explosions on the surface of Earth as all communication ceases. Alone with no idea what happened or why, Miller spends the next years coping with his solitude. Intercut between these storylines are what appear as interviews with regular people sharing their perspectives on life. These short interludes offer simple, but insightful comments on the human condition from varying perspectives.
Shockingly, the movie was made for only $500,000 with most of the sets built in the backyard of Eubank’s parent’s home. Despite what that would imply, the cinematography, particularly the lighting, is exceptional. Eubank uses the blinding light of the sun along with the colored switches of control panels to great effect, at times coating his lead in extreme shadow and contrast.
Love makes overt references to both Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The structure reflects parts of 2001, but the themes, thankfully, draw more from Solaris. Love can even be viewed as a spiritual successor to Solaris. I say thankfully because I am not a fan of 2001. While I can’t give it enough compliments for it’s visual design and special effects, like many of Kubrick’s films, it’s emotionally empty. Solaris and Love instead focus on longing for a human connection. As the isolation continues, Miller starts hallucinating and imagining others to reduce his solitude. Eubank uses this longing—the need to connect with another—and applies it to all of us. This is what makes Love resonate. It’s setting is extraterrestrial, but it’s interests, as evidenced by the ending, are human.
Even though it will leave many confused or unsatisfied, the ending is true to Eubank’s goal. He is not interested in the details of a single story, he’s interested in the feelings that drive every story. The emotions that make people continue in life. Viewers that can focus on his goal rather than their own plot resolution needs will leave the movie smiling. Combined with a pulsing electric score, also provided by Angels & Airwaves, the ending carries Love to an inspiring, thematically-appropriate conclusion and makes a firm statement on the value of human connection.