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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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Millennium – Antipas (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Antipas is the second of three scripts written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz over the third season of Millennium. It is also the first of Lucy Butler’s two appearances during the third season, although she has little more than a cameo in Saturn Dreaming of Mercury. This is actually the second time that Chris Carter has written for the character of Lucy Butler, having scripted her début back in Lamentation towards the end of the first season. Antipas feels like a conscious effort to connect back to that first appearance.

To be fair, Lucy Butler has been radically different in each appearance. It is difficult to get a read on the character or to suggest a “definitive” take. Finding the “real” Lucy Butler is as difficult as identifying the “real” Millennium Group or as arbitrary as naming the “real” version of Millennium. That said, there are thematic throughlines. Four of her five appearances are tied into children, for example; the show fairly consistently portrays Lucy as a demonic mother figure in contrast to Frank as a loving father.

Here's Lucy!

Here’s Lucy!

While the idea of Lucy as a creepy mother ties Antipas into A Room With No View just as much as Lamentation, the script seems to hark more firmly back to Lucy’s character motivation in Lamentation than to her scheming in A Room With No View. In Antipas, Lucy is once again obsessed with biological motherhood, trying desperately to conceive – and even to claim another child as her own. In Lamentation, she sought to mother a child with Doctor Ephraim Fabricant; in Antipas, she seems to aspire towards Frank Black.

Along the way, Antipas is packed with fevered dream imagery and uncanny visuals. As with a lot of the episodes around it, Antipas feels like a very odd piece of television. When Carter wrote Lamentation, this oddness was enough of a break from the norm to power an entire episode. Antipas lacks the sort of strong centre that a piece of television like this needs to ground it. The result is an intriguing and unsettling, if not quite compelling and engrossing, episode of television.

A-mazing nanny...

A-mazing nanny…

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The X-Files – Chinga (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Chinga is the episode of The X-Files that was written by Stephen King.

That is a pretty big deal. Stephen King is one of the most influential American writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He is a writer who has enjoyed tremendous commercial success, but who has also balanced that popularity with considerable respect of critics and academics. His work has permeated popular cultured, and sparked all sorts of analysis and exploration. While no creator of that calibre works without at least some small level of backlash, King is one of the most successful American writers by any measure.

Play time!

Play time!

Writing about King in A Century of Great Suspense Stories, Jeffery Deaver argued that the author “helped free the popular name from the shackles of simple genre writing. He is a master of masters.” As such, he should be quite a comfortable fit for The X-Files. Even aside from any stylistic sensibilities that he might share with the series, King is a creator who manages to consistently producer work that might be dismissed as “genre”, but manages to compete with more prestigious and high-profiler literature.

The X-Files did something similar in the nineties. It was a show that frequently dabbled in cult genres – it was a show that dealt with horror and science-fiction themes on a regular basis. However, thanks to the craftsmanship of those involved, The X-Files was frequently able to compete with more “serious” fare at the major awards ceremonies. Chris Carter worked very hard to prevent the show from being relegated to the horror or science-fiction “ghetto.” It was a show that could slide to high-brow to low-brow over a single act; that was part of what made it so fun.

A bloody disaster...

A bloody disaster…

So landing King was very much a coup for The X-Files. He was one of the best-selling and most prolific American writers of the nineties, with his name all over a wealth of media. All that Chinga really needs to do is exist. It would be next to impossible for Chinga to be anything but “that episode of The X-Files written by Stephen King.” Indeed, it seems almost unreasonable to expect anything more from it. The hype on Chinga was unbelievable – as one might expect from a television show that had bagged one of the most popular fiction writers around.

Chinga is a very flawed piece of television, an episode that feels too much like an early draft than a fully-developed concept. The styles of Chris Carter and Stephen King blend reasonably well, but there is a sense that neither is pushing the other out of their comfort zone. Chinga is a pretty average piece of television, a pretty average Stephen King story, and a pretty average episode of The X-Files. While not necessarily a catastrophic failure, it is hardly a fantastic success.

"Yeah, I'm sure this vacation will be completely uneventful!"

“Yeah, I’m sure this vacation will be completely uneventful!”

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The X-Files – Firewalker (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Firewalker is a perfectly solid episode of The X-Files.

The problem is that Firewalker needs to be so much more than “solid.” It’s the first show of the season that has Mulder and Scully working together on an X-file. Nine episodes into the season, the show has finally put the two characters together and dropped them into a regular episodic adventure plot. Scully is back. There is no Cigarette-Smoking Man, no Skinner, no Krycek. The show had waited more than two months to get back to the familiar formula, so there was a palpable sense of anticipation.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

To be fair to Firewalker, there’s a lot to like here. It’s a nice paranoia thriller, one that could easily serve as a text book example of a stand-alone X-Files episode. As you might expect from a script by Howard Gordon, Firewalker is also a nice character study for Mulder. It has a phenomenal guest cast – featuring actors like Bradley Whitford, Leland Orser and Shawnee Smith. On paper, Firewalker is a great episode of The X-Files. Divorced from context, it holds up rather well.

Unfortunately, Firewalker can’t be divorced from context. The episode has quite a few glaring problems. It seems a little disappointing that the first episode after Gillian Anderson’s return to full-time work on the show is a character study of Mulder. The plot is just a little too archetypal, feeling like a retread of Ice from the first season. The episode tries to get back to business as usual without bother to unpack everything that has happened since The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

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Non-Review Review: Devil’s Due

The single biggest problem with Devil’s Due is that it’s boring.

There are a lot of other flaws. It’s really creepily xenophobic. It has little interest in the female character carrying this baby. It is completely uninterested in the “found footage” thing, but still commits to using it. It is really just a bunch of clichés that we’ve seen done much better elsewhere. Its protagonists rank incredibly low on the intelligence scale for horror movies, which sets a pretty low baseline to begin with.

However, the most frustrating flaw with this reproductive horror is the fact that it’s just deathly dull.

The belly of the beast...

The belly of the beast…

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