Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat May 20, 2017 3:57 pm 
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Many monsters, and the two sides of Michael Fassbender

The new "Alien" movie is good, but nothing can match the early ones. And Sigourney Weaver, whose Ripley was their guiding spirit, and one of the strongest, most soulful female characters in the movies, is long gone from "Alien" now. Her replacement: Katherine Waterston as the plucky new captain. The novelty feature: Michael Fassbender as both Walter and David, two synthetics, a good one and an evil one. Fassbender is a marvelous actor, and the startling ambiguity of his nature was first wonderfully displayed in Andrea Arnold's powerful and disturbing kitchen sink-realist film, Fish Tank. (Fassbender's career exploded because of Tarantino and Steve McQueen, but my favorite performance is Fish Tank.) This new "Alien" movie is quality stuff, and features some awesome and magnificent spectacle. The plot has interesting twists.

But it starts out with something extraordinarily far-fetched even for blockbuster sci-fi. The crew has been traveling far out in space for years. They're sidetracked - and choose to land on a planet they come upon unexpectedly. Really? And because it looks like earth, they explore it unprotected. How dumb and unscientific can you get? Later the captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) admits he's made a mistake. I'd say!

The main point, I guess, is that there are plenty of aliens - whose spidery legs, mouthfuls of sharp teeth, and ability to grow from a speck in an orifice to a full-fledged bloody gooey destroyer in minutes follows the look and design of the original creator, German artist H.R. Giger. Gradually we, if not the spaceship crew members, find out the backstory of this Edenic-looking, actually horrible place. That and the double Fassbender characters are the features that keep you watching, other than the monster-multiplying.

"Alien" in titles is a sci-fi/horror franchise that goes back to 1979. The director, then as now, was Ridley Scott. It's acknowledged that the first one, with creatures designed by Giger, set a new monster standard for the genre. Giger's design, Scott's direction, and the presence of Sigourney Weaver in the cast are deemed the essential elements in what has been repeated with success (well, varying success) ever since. For me it was Sigourney as the tough, resilient Ripley - one of the really badass ladies of movies - particularly in no. 2, Aliens (how efficient just to add an "s"!), dated 1986, that made a genre I might otherwise have avoided begin to matter. The hideous spider-reptile critter exploding out of a hapless victim's chest in Aliens marked my movie memory.

There are fans of Meryl Streep and there are those like myself who prefer the gutsier less technically dazzling Sigourney Weaver. I say this because I'm one of them, and because of a story Weaver told on "Charlie Rose" once. It seems she and Meryl were in the same class at Yale Drama School, and people mocked Sigourney as a little rich girl - though her mother was a British actress, she came from money. Her father was NBC television executive and television pioneer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver. At Yale Drama, Meryl got all the accolades. Sigourney went on to be known as "the sci-fi movie queen," starring in numerous examples of the genre besides the "Alien"' ones. So be it. I root for Sigourney. Meryl's spot-on imitations of famous ladies like Julia Child, Maggie Thatcher, or Florence Foster Jenkins haven't made me care like Ripley.

After the second film came Alien 3 (1992), then Alien: Resurrection (1997); much later prequels beginning with Prometheus (2012) and now Covenant, which seeks to correct errors in its immediate predecessor. Ridley Scott has said Prometheus was a mistake. He also says he has three more "Alien" movies up his sleeve yet. I guess I'll go. But I'll continue to miss Sigourney.

And I'll remember that three years after the first "Alien" Ridley Scott directed the sci-fi noir classic, Blade Runner, which is more distinctive and matters more than all of these. Outside the franchise but indebted to it, I also personally enjoyed the recent sci-fi movie, Daniel Espinosa's Life, an "alien" story, more than Alien: Covenant. Life, which was not a critical success, has been described (by AV Club's AA Dowd) as "a B movie on an A budget, an old-fashioned creature feature that delivers its cheap thrills expensively." It also delivers them well; and because it delivers them simply, with economy of space and time, its alien story held my attention better than Alien: Covenant's - and stayed closer to the realm of possibility.

Alien: Covenant, 122 mins., debuted London 4 May 2017 (Lodon) (premiere). US theatrical wide release 19 May 2017. Metacritic: 65%; AlloCiné: 3.3.

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