Chuck Koplinski: Toothless plot maroons 'Alien: Covenant'

Chuck Koplinski: Toothless plot maroons 'Alien: Covenant'

What began as a simple haunted-house story set in outer space has become a enigmatic, existential treatise on man's place in the universe and his origins.

Eager to fill their coffers once more with one of their most popular franchises, 20th Century-Fox approached director Ridley Scott to revive the "Alien" series he helped birth in 1979 and the result was 2012's frustrating "Prometheus," a prequel that went out its way to provide a backstory and theme where one wasn't needed.

An air of pretentiousness hung over that film, as it does its sequel "Alien: Covenant," yet another good-looking exercise in frustration that takes the viewer right to the edge, before pulling back and failing to deliver the sort of horror fans have come to expect from these movies or answers to those willing to give Scott's metaphysical mumbo jumbo a chance.

Picking up 10 years after the events of "Prometheus," we find ourselves aboard yet another massive spaceship heading deep into the cosmos to find a habitable planet to colonize. The Covenant is run by a crew of 15 and has a cargo of 2,000 colonists as well as more than 1,100 embryos, set to be grown to maturity when they land. (If you think, "Wow, that's a lot of alien food on board," you're forgiven.)

An accident causes the crew to be rousted prematurely from their sleep chambers, and in the confusion, their captain (James Franco) is tragically killed. The burden of command falls to Oram (Billy Crudup), who makes the call to investigate a signal that has been picked up from a nearby, Earth-like planet.

Obviously not having seen any of the previous movies in this series, he and his crew set down to explore this new Eden, soon finding that its too-good-to-be true appearance is just that.

The first alien appearance occurs at about the 45-minute mark after the crew has traipsed around and futzed with this virgin ecosystem, releasing spores that infect them and grow inside. Carnage ensues as characters start being chomped on one by one. And while the method of infection may have changed, the grisly nature of the aliens' births is executed with a sense of showmanship that negates the shock and horror these scenes produced in previous entries.

The one interesting plot point is the appearance of the cyborg David (Michael Fassbender) from "Prometheus," the only human-like creature on the planet, who gives the few survivors shelter. That another cyborg, named Walter, is among them and is also played by Fassbender, leads to some intriguing conversations between them regarding the nature of humans and those they create and if they should not, in fact, be in charge of such decisions.

The film's best moment occurs when one is teaching the other how to play a flute, a scene so engaging in its acting and technique we forget that there's only one actor playing both parts. What we learn of the fate of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) from "Prometheus" through their interactions provides the most horrific moment in the film.

The members of the Covenant's crew fail to make an impression and seem to have been drawn from central casting. Danny McBride as the pilot Tennessee is the sort of good old boy who would naturally be a space pilot, Demian Bichir is Lope, head of the military unit and is given little in the way to do except point and shoot. As for Katherine Waterston as the plucky Daniels well, let's just say she's no Sigourney Weaver. Fassbender, one of most intriguing and daring actors, is a delight to watch in his dual role, finding a surprising number of emotional gradations in characters that are supposedly devoid of feelings.

The film buckles under the weight of its trying to say something important when it should be delivering thrills. The aliens appear sporadically and when they do, move so quickly it's hard to determine what they're up to. The fact that digital effects are used to create the monster here as opposed to the practical effects used in the early entries makes a huge difference in the believability of the creature and the way in which its action scenes are rendered. The first two features required costumed actors that moved in a slower manner, meaning their scenes had to be shot in a more deliberate and suspenseful way. Here, these creatures are simply a blur, a flash of fanged light and clawed fury that confuses rather than frightens.

I suppose we should be grateful that Scott is trying to provide a deeper experience with these entries in the series rather than giving us a simple reboot in which old ideas are simply repackaged and 21st-century actors are brought in to appeal to a younger demographic.

However, there's something missing from "Covenant," a film that seems satisfied to simply start heady conversations and ask profound questions without providing any concrete direction as to how to answer them. There's a lack of thrills as well as a lack of resolution, which may ultimately lead to a lack of interest in the franchise's fans.

'Alien: Covenant' (★★1/2 out of four)

Cast: Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, James Franco, Guy Pearce and Noomi Rapace.

Directed by Ridley Scott; produced by David Giler, Walter Hiller, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer and Scott; screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper.

A 20th Century Fox release. 122 minutes. Rated R (sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity). At AMC Champaign, AMC Village Mall & Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Comediennes' talents can't save bland "Snatched." (★★ out of four). A sense of "almost, not quite" hangs over Jonathan Levine's "Snatched," a lackluster comedy that brings Goldie Hawn back to the screen after a 15-year hiatus, pairing her with Amy Schumer, a comedienne whose 2015 "Trainwreck" was a surprisingly intelligent look at arrested development. Many similar themes from that feature crop up here, though they're hardly mined for the same sort of laughs or prompt a similar sense of introspection.

Emily (Schumer) is yet another millennial drifting about, a young woman with no direction who loses her low-paying retail job and on-the-rise musician boyfriend (Randall Park) all in one day. Like those of her generation, she laments her woes on Facebook, and before you know it, her mother Linda (Hawn) responds to her, insisting she come home to lick her wounds.

While suffering with her mom's overbearing ways, Emily decides to invite her on a trip to Ecuador — seeing as how she was going to go with her ex and the tickets are nonrefundable — and before you know it, the pair have set out to this South American plot device.

Moments of mother-daughter bonding alternate between scenes of the women in peril as they are soon kidnapped after their arrival and spend the rest of the film trying to evade their captors. Some of it works, some of it doesn't as they encounter a myriad of characters on their jungle hike, each bringing their own set of problems to the table.

Among the few highlights is Roger Simmons (Christopher Meloni), a self-proclaimed adventurer who is absolutely clueless in terms of his surroundings and the dangers it holds. (At one point, he says, "Drink from any puddle you see. The water is completely safe here.") Needless to say, their time with Simmons ends up being rather short.

Ironically, the most effective scenes in the movie are anchored by Ike Barinholtz ("Sisters") as Emily's agoraphobic brother Jeffrey, a paranoid man-child who must overcome his irrational fears in order to save his mother and sister. Credit actor Bashir Salahuddin as well as the FBI agent who gets increasingly aggravated with Jefferey's frequent phone calls. His ever-mounting sense of anger is almost worth the price of admission.

As for Hawn and Schumer, they certainly try to inject a bit of life into the proceedings, but as gifted as they are, they can't salvage the tepid script they're laboring under. Their most effective moments are the quiet ones when mother and daughter are coming to terms with past grievances.

There's an honesty here that's absent from the rest of the movie, which gives some indication what they might have achieved with a better script. Whether "Snatched" proves successful enough for them to give it another go remains to be seen.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

Topics (1):Film

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