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Non-Review Review: Alien – Covenant

Alien: Covenant feels as though somebody facehuggered Prometheus and ended up with Alien.

It is a very messy, very awkward, very clever piece of film. It is a genre movie that understands both what it wants to be, and also the reasons why it cannot be what it wants to be. It is a film aware of its own grotesque attributes, of the way that it has been warped and deformed in its journey from original idea to concept to screen. It is a movie very much aware of what it wants to be, but it is also cognisant of the fact that it cannot be that film. Alien: Covenant is the result of any number of compromises, but it is very pointed on the subject of those compromises.

Alien DNA.

Most likely driven by the critical and audience reaction to Prometheus, the sequel is a decidedly more conservative affair. For all intents and purposes, Covenant is wed more tightly to the Alien franchise than to its direct predecessor. Although one main character (and performer) carries over from Prometheus to Covenant, most of the major characters from Prometheus are relegated to small supporting roles and cameos. Even the Engineers, the alien race at the centre of Prometheus, are primarily relegated to an extended flashback sequence.

In contrast, Covenant embraces the trappings of the familiar Alien franchise. The soundtrack repeatedly samples Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score from the original Alien. The climax devolves into a hybrid of the most iconic action beats from the first two Alien films. The film lingers on the dramatic reveals of familiar Alien iconography, only barely teasing audience expectations before fulfilling them. It seems fair to argue that Covenant is a movie more consciously designed to appeal to fans of the Alien franchise than Prometheus was. The clue is in the title.

Bursting at the seams.

However, Covenant is most interesting when it plays up the tension between what it clearly wants to be and what it actually is, when the script throws the concept of sequel to Prometheus into conflict with the demands of a prequel to Alien. There is a strong sense of disillusionment and frustration in Covenant, particularly as explored through the story of David. Michael Fassbender’s enigmatic android is the only major returning character from Prometheus, and in many ways the central character. He reappears after being lost in the wilderness, angry and resentful.

Covenant is a big ball of Oedipal rage. It’s clever, awkward, messy and disjointed, but also entirely in keeping with the themes of the larger series.

The wilderness years.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Valiant (Review)

Valiant is a very bitter and mean-spirited little episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and all the more effective for that fact.

Some of that bitterness is baked into the basic premise. Valiant is an episode about a bunch of plucky young cadets who get brutally murdered for daring to believe in themselves. The final act of Valiant is a brutal piece of television, the camera lingering over the death and destruction on familiar sets, panning across the dead bodies of these promising young recruits. No matter how arrogant or inexperienced Red Squad might be, no matter how eager their participation in an attempted fascist coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost, it is still an unsettling image.

A legend in his own mind.

However, there is something even nastier lurking beneath the surface of this episode. On a superficial level, Valiant suggests that the guest characters fail in their daring mission because they lack the self-awareness to recognise the folly of their plan, but this is disingenuous. Countless Star Trek episodes have been built around far more reckless and audacious schemes, generally paying off the heroes. Valiant does not punish these young cadets for doing something that the main characters would never have attempted, it punishes them for not being the main characters.

Valiant is in some ways a brutal deconstruction of the typical Star Trek storytelling framework, an episode built around a selection of guest characters whose biggest mistake is assuming that they are the stars of the show rather than simply bit players. Valiant comes down hard on these would-be heroes, a reminder that life does not always operate according to familiar storytelling structures.

Hard to pin it on just one person.

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Non-Review Review: Snatched

Snatched is a collection of comedy sketch pieces arranged around some of Amy Schumer’s favourite themes.

Some of these gags land very well. Indeed, Snatched works best as a genre spoof, riffing on the tropes and expectations of the standard “Americans have an adventure abroad” film as a mother and daughter team become embroiled in a heated pursuit across South America. There are individual characters, actors, and jokes that work very effectively within that framework. More to the point, Snatched offers a veritable smorgasbord of gags.

They haven’t a leg to stand on.

The problem is that many more of these jokes miss. They miss for a variety of reasons, but there are two big recurring problems. The most obvious issue is that many of the jokes are entirely predictable and follow the path of least resistance. In quite a few scenes, it is very easy to tell where the set-up is leading before the pay-off arrives. Snatched is a very conventional and very safe comedy adventure.

There is also the slight problem that Snatched is trying to have its cake and eat it with some of its central ideas. Schumer’s comedic targets tend to be white middle- and upper-class Americans, the joke being their reaction to the outside world; although Schumer is not credited on the script, Snatched is very clearly trying to play into that. However, Snatched repeatedly goes for the low-hanging fruit and often seems to be playing its more reactionary gags entirely straight.

Things went South fast.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Demon (Review)

Demon is an episode with some interesting ides that cannot make up for a lackluster execution.

The writing staff on Star Trek: Voyager had been playing with the idea at the heart of Demon for quite some time. It had been a candidate for the third season finale, before Brannon Braga settled upon the story that would become Scorpion, Part I. It was considered for a mid-season two-parter, but the writing staff could never come up with a way to make the story work; Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II were all written to fill gaps left by a story that refused to materialise.

Spaced out…

As such, there is a faint scent of desperation to Demon. The episode arrives in the final stretch the fourth season, at a point when the production team is very clearly fatigued and where writers are generally desperately grasping for anything resembling a workable story. The harsh production cycle of television means that the start of a twenty-six episode season can be planned over the summer hiatus, but that the tail end of the season is typically assembled on the fly. This is the stretch of the season where even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produces Profit and Lace or Time’s Orphan.

The problems with Demons are compounded by the fact that it is very obviously a budget-conscious show. While it features a number of elaborate computer-animated sequences, it also films primary on standing sets and features no credited guest stars. The result is a curiously plodding show, one full of extended dialogue scenes that inform neither plot nor character, and which feel like a conscious attempt to sideline the more ambitious elements of the story. The result is the waste of an interesting idea on a forgettable episode.

Something’s wrong here, though Torres can’t quite put her finger on it.

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Non-Review Review: King Arthur – Legend of the Sword

The most striking aspect of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is how little interest it has in being a “King Arthur” film.

King Arthur is the latest blockbuster from Guy Ritchie, and contains much of the director’s signature style. Indeed, King Arthur works best when it indulges these stylistic quirks, as cockney characters construct winding non-linear narratives that double back upon (and trip over) one another in a decidedly playful manner. The best and most enjoyable segments in King Arthur feel almost throwaway, as if they might easily have been lifted from (or perhaps even dropped into) a completely different feature film without causing any significant problems.

Set in stone.

King Arthur runs into trouble when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes business of constructing a blockbuster franchise-starter. To be fair, the formula has been relatively well established to this point, with audiences very familiar with the expected plot beats. Even still, King Arthur has little enthusiasm for hitting or expanding these beats. Many of the bigger moments in King Arthur feel like an exercise in box-ticking, elements that exist largely because they are expected in a film like this and with a minimum amount of set-up or panache.

The result is a deeply uneven film that feels very much at odds with itself and no real engagement with the movie’s central driving narrative. King Arthur works best as a series of engaging diversions, but underwhelms as a functional narrative in its own right.

Going out in a blade of glory.

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Doctor Who: Oxygen (Review)

Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.

– the Doctor about sums it up

In space, EVERYONE can hear you scream…

Oxygen plays very much like a companion piece to Thin Ice earlier in the season. Both are essentially stories about monstrous capitalism, from nineteenth century London through to the depths of outer space.

Indeed, Oxygen pitches itself as something akin to a late seventies or early eighties science-fiction film, in terms of aesthetic and politics. The episode’s production design recalls the “used future” of films like Star Wars, while the heavy criticism of capitalism invites comparison to films like Alien or Outland. Indeed, Oxygen even borrows from a similar strain of horror movies, tapping into the fear of zombies as the monstrous face of capitalism that can be traced back to Dawn of the Dead.

Station keeping.

Jamie Mathiesen has been one of the most consistently impressive writers of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, turning in impressive scripts for both Mummy on the Orient Express and The Girl Who Died, along with a genuine masterpiece in Flatline. Indeed, Oxygen is the most impressive episode in the stretch of the season, a bold and ambitious piece of allegorical science-fiction, wedded to a genuinely scary concept, top-notch production design, and any number of clever ideas.

Oxygen is a brilliant piece of work, and a reminder of just how effectively Doctor Who can blend its disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

Give him space to work.

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The 250, This Just In, Episode #10 – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (#211)

Obviously…

Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney are joined by special guest Tony Black for This Just In, a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

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