by Jonathan Schumann
(This week, Jonathan Schumann returns to Arts and Leisure to review Alien: Covenant. Jonathan shared this column with his dad, Mark Schumann, from 1999 to 2006. He lives in New York City.)
The latest unnecessary chapter in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant is both a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and a prequel to the 1979 original film.
Like Prometheus, the film focuses on building the mythology and origin story behind the monsters that have been terrifying Sigourney Weaver and audiences for so many years. While origin stories and world-building are all the rage thanks largely to the comic book franchises that dominate U.S. movie-going, this isn’t a series that needed any of this. Just because I find the gnarly-fanged monsters scary doesn’t mean I care where they came from and why. As excited as I was for a new alien story, this film left that desire unsatisfied and left me scratching my head.
Set 10 years after the action in Prometheus, the film follows a group of space colonists who — and this is what always happens in an Alien film — make an unexpected detour to explore a new planet. At the outset, everything seems fine on this new world — great mountains and streams — but all isn’t well on this potential utopia. They soon come across Michael Fassbender’s android from Prometheus, who has made a home here after escaping the mayhem from that film. Though he initially helps the colonists out, it soon becomes clear that he has a bigger agenda, and is just a bit too cozy with the monsters that are killing everyone off. Fassbender relishes his role — few people could do sociopath robots with the same gusto.
I won’t get too much more into the plot, but suffice to say that similar to Prometheus, the film’s storytelling is a bit over-stuffed. The filmmakers seem to have forgotten what made the original 1979 film — the best in the series — so powerful. That film was all simplicity and efficiency, and oozed with style and tension. Sure, there are some great gotcha moments here, but the proceedings are weighed down by too many ponderous plot elements.
That said, the film effectively continues the tradition of placing a strong female heroine in the center of the action. In the tradition of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus, Katherine Waterson (Inherent Vice, Queen of Earth) serves that purpose here and proves a worthy predecessor. The remaining cast is populated with better actors than the film deserves (Billy Crudup, Carmen Ejogo, Demian Bechir, Amy Seimetz), who unfortunately don’t have much to do beyond waiting to get killed off.
Streaming Pick: Alien (1979)
All the films in the series that have followed this original film have attempted to capture its scares, but all have fallen short. Basically a “Jaws in space” pitch with the members of an industrial spacecraft getting killed off one by one by a mysterious creature. With a lower budget and a leaner approach than the James Cameron sequel that would follow (and the less said about David Fincher’s Alien 3 the better), no other film in the series has been able to replicate its success.
(Alien: Covenant, running 2 hours, 2 minutes, is Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity. 2 Popcorn Buckets. Read more about monsters at the movies in the Reel Dad, Arts and Leisure online, at hersamacorn.com.)
Film Nutritional Value:
- Content: Medium. This unnecessary chapter focuses on the mythology and origin story behind the monsters that have terrified audiences for years.
- Entertainment: Medium. The filmmakers seem to have forgotten what made the original 1979 film so powerful with its simplicity and efficiency, style and tension.
- Message: Medium. The film effectively continues the tradition of placing a strong female heroine in the center of the action.
- Relevance: Medium. As excited as I was for a new alien story, this film left that desire unsatisfied and left me scratching my head.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The movie offers some great “gotcha” moments but the proceedings are weighed down by ponderous plot elements.
We love monsters at the movies
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
As Alien: Covenant reminds us, there’s nothing like a movie about a monster.
Since films started to talk, in fact, filmmakers have craved every opportunity to scare audiences with their exaggerated creatures.
Here are some of my favorites from over the years.
Did these monsters frighten you?
Yes, we don’t see the man-eating shark until we are well into the second hour of Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller. And, yes, when Spielberg made the film, he couldn’t always get the mechanical shark to work. But the movie works because the director brilliantly plays with our imaginations. And fears. Yes, the film is a tease.
King Kong (1933)
Yes, the special effects look a bit tacky after all these years. And, yes, the movie has been remade a couple of times with state-of-the-art computer technology. But those films can’t compare to the exaggerated theatrics of the original, especially the connection Fay Wray makes with a creature who likes to climb tall buildings.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Yes, other movies about monsters may be more complicated. And, yes, this is a monster movie that makes you think. And, for thrills per minute, few films compare to this frightening tale from director John Landis. When two young Americans, traveling in England, are attacked by a werewolf, we know nothing good will happen. And that the movie will frighten.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Yes, the film was originally made in 3-D that, today, looks quite primitive. And, yes, the creature looks rather crude compared to today’s movie monsters. But the fundamental thrills of this tale of the unknown still work on screen thanks to the credible performances from Julia Adams and Richard Carlson. They make us believe their fear.
The Fly (1958)
Yes, the film is almost laughable today, especially with its rendition of the larger-than-life flying object in the leading role. But this classic tale of a scientist who gets carried away with his experiments captures the imagination with its unusual take on how life can evolve. The ever-so-sinister Vincent Prince commands in one of his most subtle performances.
Independence Day (1996)
Yes, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye in this overblown epic about aliens who attack the world. But who cares? Writer/director Roland Emmerich plays on what people fear about the unknown and what people hope about the power a government has to protect. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman star in a movie that still chills.
Jurassic Park (1996)
Yes, the computer-generated dinosaurs look somewhat primitive compared to what technicians accomplish today. And, yes, the live-action actors can be less animated than the computer-generated creatures. But Steven Spielberg’s ability to create tension and orchestrate thrills is as strong as ever in this classic tale of how people fear what they do not understand.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Yes, the movie has been remade a few times. And, yes, the later versions may be less obvious than this first adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. But the original still wins for its faithful attention to the human dimension of this extraordinary story. Frederic March won the first of his two Oscars as a man who has a lot going on inside.
Mysterious Island (1960)
Yes, the creatures look a bit unrealistic more than 50 years later. And, yes, Jules Verne’s tale could be confusing to the unfamiliar. But the human elements work well in this story of Civil War prisoners who find themselves stranded on a most unusual island filled with amazing creatures. The great Bernard Hermann wrote the classic music score.
Yes, films love monsters, and probably always will. See you at the movies!