Alien Covenant: Ridley Scott gives moviegoers sci-fi Rorschach test

Alien trailer

Question: How much do you want to bet that somewhere in Hollywood there is a producer who is thinking up schemes to make Wonder Woman vs. Alien happen?

The past weekend was rightly dominated Gal Gadot’s solid handing of Diana Prince, but if you’re like me and had to deal with sold-out shows, then you faced the “Do-I-stay-for-the-later-viewing-or-go-home?” predicament.  There was  a third option — seeing Alien Covenant — but I shirked my writerly duties and got you this review late. I hope you can forgive your humble (I try) blogger and consider the analysis below as similar situations unfold in the weeks ahead.

Here is an except from my latest review for Conservative Book Club, with a link to the full text once I’ve pushed fair-use content to its outer limits:

Director Ridley Scott’s latest foray into the universe he made famous roughly 40 years ago is a bit like a Rorschach test. Is it primarily a Prometheus (2012) sequel or an Alien (1979) prequel? Is it a highbrow science-fiction flick about the origins and meaning of life, or is it just another opportunity to show seemingly smart people make stupid decisions that lead to gruesome deaths? Alien: Covenant, like a quickly scurrying “xenomorph,” is hard to nail down.

One of the big challenges with bringing a film like Alien: Covenant to the big screen is making it fresh. Die-hard fans of any beloved franchise (e.g., Star Wars) understand that on some level they’re paying for the same roller coaster ride, but that doesn’t absolve creators from supplying a few new twists and turns. Luckily for Alien fans they have a 79-year-old Scott, whose lifetime of experience brings forth a gorgeous film that demands respect despite its flaws.

Alien: Covenant’s plot revolves around a crew of would-be planetary colonists who are wakened from hypersleep due to an emergency. Their captain dies, and a pensive man of faith named Oram (Billy Crudup) takes his place. Newly widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston), an android named Walter (David Fassbender), and a small band of explorers decide to investigate a radio signal from a nearby planet instead of reentering hypersleep and risking another calamity. The chaos that follows serves as the bridge between Prometheus and Alien.

As expected, Oram and much of his crew soon find themselves overwhelmed by a hostile planet filled with xenomorph-producing spores that burrow inside ears and noses. The team is saved by David (Fassbender), the older — but more problematically human — model of Walter from Prometheus. He hopes to hitch a ride on their orbiting spaceship once an electrical storm subsides, but for reasons he has no intention of disclosing to his innocent human visitors.

Without spoiling the movie, the key to understanding David’s motivations lie in Alien: Covenant’s prologue, in which he speaks with his inventor.

“If you created me, who created you?” asks David.

His “father” (Guy Pearce) calls it the “question of the ages.”

“Allow me then a moment to consider — you seek your creator; I am looking at mine,” replies David. “I will serve you, yet you are human. You will die, I will not.”

A further window into David’s digital mind comes later in the movie during a conversation with “brother” Walter. He references fallen angel Satan from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

Check out the full review over at CBC here.

Alien trailer Walter

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‘Passengers’ review: Chris Pratt saves director from lackluster script

chris-pratt-passengers

Imagine a science fiction film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s directed by Morten Tyldum (Intimidation Game) and written by Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange). That sounds like a winner, right? Not necessarily, because that’s exactly what moviegoers got with “Passengers” with uninspiring results.

If you’re thinking about seeing Passengers, then here is what you need to know:

  • Chris Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanical engineer who is on a spaceship called Avalon. Its destination: a colony planet called Homestead II.
  • A meteor shows damages the Avalon, which causes Jim to wake from a state of suspended animation roughly 90 years too early.
  • Jim desperately tries to figure out a way to reenter a sleeping state while also dealing with extreme isolation. He has an AI robot named Arthur (Michael Sheen) to keep him company.
  • Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane, also is awakened midway through the film.
  • The Avalon begins to malfunction, which forces the two passengers (along with Laurence Fishburne — very briefly — as Captain Gus Mancuso) to work together to avoid a catastrophe.

This is a spoiler-free review, so I won’t go into many more details other than to say that Passengers is most intriguing for the number of missed opportunities racked up by Jon Spaihts. With a few tweaks of the script, Passengers could have turned into an instant classic. Over and over again the stage is set for a stunning reveal, only to inform theatergoers, “Nope. This is just a by-the-numbers sci-fi flick that will hit embarrassingly predictable beats by the time the end credits roll.”

If you decide to see Passengers, then ask yourself the following questions before the curtains open:

  • Will A.I. ever reach the point where it can become lonely and yearn for human interaction?
  • Would a company accused of treating customers like cattle ever engineer a disaster to see how the “animals” respond — perhaps as a way of garnering larger profits down the road?
  • If a character puts the proverbial “smoking gun” in a place where an individual would obviously find it over the course of a relationship, then that needs to happen — right?

Again, I note that this is a spoiler-free review, which means that asking the above questions only draws attention to the fact that Passengers explored … none of them. There are more, but for the purposes of this blog post we’ll stick to three.

passengers-trailer

In short, if you’re a science fiction junkie who needs a fix, then see on Sunday matinee of Passengers. It’s passable, but in many ways that is only attributable to Mr. Pratt’s likability and professionalism. He did the most with what he was given, but he wasn’t given much.

 

NBC’s ‘Timeless’: Time-travel drama is standard fare, adds nothing new to genre

Because my daughter is such a fan of “The Voice,” I almost accidentally began watching the new NBC time-travel series “Timeless” since it immediately follows the “American Idol” knock-off.

Scientist Rufus Carlin has invented the world’s first time machine, but unfortunately for us all, unscrupulous former NSA agent Garcia Flynn and some henchmen steal it. Flynn’s goal is to alter history by preventing the United States from becoming a (super)power.

But unfortunately for Flynn, he forgot to take into account Carlin’s prototype time device (see below) which, although it looks much clunkier than the stolen model, works perfectly well. And even worse for Flynn — it can be used to track the stolen, newer machine’s movements through the timestream..

The first adventure takes place at the Hindenburg disaster — which still does occur, just not how we remember it thanks to our protagonists. After Carlin confirms that this point in time indeed is where Flynn has journeyed, he is joined by historian Lucy Preston and Delta Force member Wyatt Logan in an attempt to capture the renegades and the stolen timeship. Flynn’s plan in this case was to destroy the famous dirigible on its way back to Europe — as it was carrying numerous prominent Americans to the coronation of King George and Queen Elizabeth.

Carlin and co. believe that since the Hindenburg still burst into flames and fell into ruins (just not the way it was supposed to) that they prevented any serious alteration of the timeline. But this is not the case: Preston discovers, once back in the present, that her mother is no longer on chronically ill, and worse, her sister no longer exists.

The best of the four episodes to air thus far was the second, where the team tracks Flynn back to the date of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. And it’s really here that the show really misses the opportunity to be radically different.

Scientist Carlin, who’s black, asks historian Preston why the team simply can’t save Lincoln from John Wilkes Booth’s bullet … in an attempt to make the future (much) better for African-Americans. It’s a rather compelling argument, but Preston adamantly refuses on the premise that they have no idea what the overall effects of such a drastic altering of events would entail.

Logically, it’s hard not to disagree with that. But wouldn’t saving our 16th president be a lot more interesting than Preston trying to figure out what happened to her sister? Or Logan trying to resurrect his dead wife? Why not examine how black Americans would have fared under a continuing Lincoln administration (and policies)?

Carlin (played by Malcolm Barrett) does a great job conveying the emotional angst over this issue — I was hoping his argument would prevail, or, at least he’d act unilaterally. Let’s face it — the stakes aren’t (weren’t) exactly small.

The problem is that “Timeless” operates under the premise of a “closed loop” time geometry — the actions of changing events in the past will affect that same timeline’s future. If saving Lincoln created an alternate timeline — the other theory dealing with the consequences of altering past events — Carlin and co. might have been more inclined to act.

By not taking big risks like saving Lincoln, sadly, “Timeless” ends up being yet another formulaic, offers-no-surprises assembly line drama.

For yours truly, it has become exceedingly difficult over the last decade or so to find a new network/cable TV offering worth sticking with. “The Walking Dead,” the most recent show I regularly watched, lasted only three and a half seasons for me, and that was stretching it. It essentially became the same thing week after week after week.

Of the three other fairly recent faves of mine — “Nip/Tuck,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and “Fringe” — only the last remained true enough to its origins to stick with until the end.

“Nip/Tuck” took its adult theme warning to the limit each and every week and was so outrageously different in its  first two seasons as to be must-viewing. I liken its fall to that of “Friends” — the character entanglements became so convoluted and silly that the show became an eye-roller and yawn-inducer.

“Battlestar” started out similarly; however, as I chronicled at the time at The Colossus of Rhodey, the political lecturing started seeping in. The posturing initially didn’t make much sense (the few remaining humans refuse to take advantage of a means to wipe out their killers), and later became outrageous as the writers appeared to possess no sense of moral certitude (not to mention, they seemed to wing it, plot-wise, the last season-season and a half).

‘Stranger Things’: Netflix series nails it for 80s kids

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Netflix has announced that a second season of Stranger Things is on its way, which means that if you have not checked out Matt and Ross Duffer’s creation then you should — now. Why? Because it’s absolutely amazing, especially for anyone who grew up in the 1980s.

If you ever wanted to know what would happen if a writer was able to successfully mash together the 1980s essence of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King into one project, then Stranger Things is it.

Stranger Things title

If you loved The Goonies, then watch it. If you know what it’s like not to have helicopter parents, owned a slingshot, and went on countless adventures with your friends growing up (like I did), then check it out. The series is amazing, and everyone involved should be proud of what they accomplished.

Check out my YouTube review, and if you’ve followed the disappearance of Will Byers then make sure to let me know what you thought in the comments section below.

‘Edge of Tomorrow’: ‘Through readiness and discipline,’ Tom Cruise has made a solid sci-fi movie

Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise may be getting older, but that hasn’t stopped him from giving 110% in every role. With ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ it’s paid off.  Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) makes use of a solid screenplay (based on “All You Need is Kill,” by Hiroshi Sikurazaka), in addition to Cruise’s and Emily Blunt’s acting chops to create a product worth checking out. It’s impossible to ignore the ‘Groundhog Day’ jokes, but ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is no joke.

Edge of Tomorrow Rita Emily Blunt

One element of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ that makes it so good is Cruise’s ability to sell his transformation from self-absorbed public relations officer Major William Cage into a legitimate hero. Minutes into the movie Maj. Cage is informed that he’ll participating in a D-Day-type invasion that he helped sell to the world — and he isn’t happy.  His response to the direct order given General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) is to try his hand at blackmail:

“I appreciate the confidence, general. I do this to avoid doing that. I was in ROTC in college, the war broke out, I lost my advertising firm — here I am. I do what I do — you do what you do, but I’m not a soldier, really. … General, I just inspired millions of people to join your army, and when the body bags come home and they’re looking for someone to blame, how hard to you think it would be for me to convince people to blame you? I imagine the general would prefer to avoid that. … I would prefer not to be filming acts of heroism and valor on that beach tomorrow.”

The general responds by having Cage arrested. As Cruise’s character tries to flee he is knocked out, only to wake up at a staging area for the next day’s big battle. Each time Cruise’s character dies throughout the movie, he is jolted into consciousness at that location; there he meets Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton). The no-nonsense NCO puts Cage in his place:

“You’re a coward and a liar putting your life above theirs. The good news is there’s hope for you, private. Hope in the form of glorious combat. Battle is the great redeemer. The fire and crucible in which the only true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum their were going in. … I envy you, Cage. Tomorrow morning you will be baptized — born again.”

Farell’s words are prescient — Cage is born again many times, and the sergeant’s assertion “through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate,” becomes one of the major themes running throughout the movie. “You might call that notion ironic, but trust me…you’ll come around,” he tells Cage. It takes countless “deaths” for him to realize the wisdom embedded within the quote, but eventually it takes hold.

Edge of Tomorrow To Victory

Cage needs help if he’s going to save the world from invading aliens, and Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), also known as the “Angel of Verdun,” fills the role. At one point in time Rita shared Cage’s ability to “reset” with each death, but lost the power. Between the two of them, they slowly and methodically go about figuring out how to save humanity from the alien “Mimics.” Overall, Blunt delivers — she is believable as a woman who could slice and dice her way through deadly tentacled aliens.

What made her character even more interesting was that as Cage began to learn more about her (and become more attached) with each death, she still managed to keep her guard up. No matter how many intimate details Cage knew about Rita, he would never truly know her until she decided that she knew him enough to relax and present him with her “real” self — the one behind the tough-talk soldier exterior.

Tom Cruise Edge of Tomorrow

Like ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ Cruise’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ wants us to know that people can change. It is possible to turn a cowardly liar into a courageous hero. It is possible to overcome seemingly impossible odds. “Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate.”

There is a treasure trove of positive messages in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ that, coupled with Cruise’s ability to carry a film, make it worthy of your time. Movie money used on seeing ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ in theaters is money well spent. If you like science fiction movies, give it a chance. You’ll be glad you did.