Stomach-bursting, face-sucking Fassbender fabulousness

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is the eighth movie in the 38-year-old sci-fi horror Alien franchise. Following 2012’s Prometheus, the financially successful but fan-loathed prequel, Covenant tries to walk a fine line: The film throws enough red meat to ravenous Alien fanboys with stomach-bursting, face-sucking, don’t-go-in-the-basement grotesquery to get away with continuing Prometheus’ much-maligned, but wildly ambitious origin story of both the aliens and the human race. But while I appreciate the bloody legacy of Alien, I’ve seen those monsters be monstrous in the same manner, seen the humans make the same dumb fateful mistakes, now eight times. The only thing new is the mythology, and thankfully the great actor Michael Fassbender is the one making those myths.

Covenant starts 10 years after the end of Prometheus, when Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of a research vessel, and her team’s android David (Fassbender) fly off into space in the spaceship belonging to giant human-looking beings dubbed the Engineers. The Engineers had both created life on Earth and created an alien-incubating virus that, it seems, they wanted to use to destroy humanity, and Shaw and David were traveling to find the Engineer’s home world and ask them why.

The new film begins with a totally unrelated ship named Covenant in the middle of a many-year trip to colonize a distant planet. Walter, an android that looks exactly like David, is watching over 15 sleeping crew members, 2,000 sleeping colonists and dozens of drawers of frozen human embryos. A random neutrino burst damages the ship and wakes the crew (killing the captain played by James Franco). While they’re repairing the ship, they hear a bizarre radio transmission, which they determine comes from a planet even more hospitable to life than their original destination, as well as seven years closer. Over the objections of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) changes course.

This is the first of many, many mistakes this crew makes over the next hour and forty-five minutes. You can’t have a horror movie without careless or dumb characters doing something death-wishy, but the crew of Covenant seemed to have lost a substantial number of brain cells while they were asleep. Only Daniels and Walter have a healthy suspicion of the planet, but that’s not enough to prevent the snowballing doom when they arrive and we discover they’re on the planet Shaw and David had been looking for.

Fassbender was the best thing about Prometheus; David is one of the creepiest androids in science fiction, resourceful like Star Trek’s Data but also wily and unhinged like Westworld’s Maeve. As both the less problematic later model Walter and as David, Fassbender gets to act with one of the best actors in the world, himself. And he has a lot of fun, particularly as the effete David slowly reveals himself to the crew of Covenant and to the audience to be more than just a little over-programmed.

The rest of the cast, which includes Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo and Jussie Smollett, does a good job being fierce, scared or determined. Aside from Fassbender, only Crudup and Waterston have complex emotional and intellectual lives, which is a shame. McBride and Bichir are too talented to be wasted as simple cogs in the narrative machine. But to make a sci-fi epic, director Ridley Scott needs those cogs, the mandated conventions, and overdone tropes. Still, Scott makes genre films that are gorgeously shot, art directed with inspiration and never boring. But whether the Alien fanboys will give credit where it’s due is less predictable.

Alien: Covenant
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Chris Pratt. That’s all.

I must admit that the biggest reason I was so excited to see Guardians of the Galaxy was Chris Pratt. I’ve been a fan since he guested as trustafarian college student on The OC in 2006, and I developed a silly school boy crush on him in Parks & Recreation, on which he’s played adorable dimwitted man-child Andy Dwyer for seven years. For much of his career, he’s carried some chunk, earning more than a few bear fans. After he was cast as a Navy Seal in Zero Dark Thirty, he started working out, and suddenly he went from dopey comedic sidekick to leading man, getting cast as the lead in the next Jurassic Park film and as Peter Quill, or Star-Lord, in Marvel’s massively budgeted space opera Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’d probably pay to see Pratt eat cupcakes for two hours, but I was quite happy when Guardians turned out to be hugely entertaining. It is not, however, deserving of the extreme adulation it has been receiving. Three days after its release, the voters on IMDb have declared it the 32nd greatest film of all time. This is, of course, absurd. Fanboys can get overexcited, and they can also develop blinders, not noticing the flaws in their obsessions.

Perhaps one of the reasons so many people loved Guardians is that, unlike Spider-Man, the X-Men, or Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy are not a group of superheroes so well known that any filmed representation of them is bound to be sneered at by legions of comic readers whining, “That’s not right! Star-Lord’s mom didn’t die that way!” (I uttered that sort of whine in my review of the latest X-Men film a few months ago.) In fact, a lot of people were perplexed that Marvel would make a movie based on characters that weren’t already a worldwide brand. With the $200 million budgets, that’s a risk, especially without a superstar to carry the film, like Robert Downey, Jr. did for Ironman. The risk paid off, however.

The film opens with Peter as a young boy. He is sitting alone in a hospital waiting room, listening to a mixtape on his Walkman. He is ushered into a hospital room, where his mother is dying. Peter is confused and scared, and after she succumbs, he runs from the hospital in tears. Suddenly, a space ship appears and beams Peter up. Twenty-six years later, Peter is played by Pratt, and he is on a strange, barren planet. In a scene more than a little reminiscent of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Peter is searching ancient ruins for an artifact: a mysterious metal orb. So are a bunch of other mercenaries and evildoers (played by Michael Rooker and two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou), and Peter barely escapes with his life.

While he tries to sell the orb on the planet Xandar, two bounty hunters, the furry Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and hilariously taciturn and wooden Groot (Vin Diesel), and green Gamora (Zoe Saldana), one of the henchmen of the evil Ronan (Lee Pace), attack Peter to get the orb. Instead, they all end up on a prison planet, where criminals and enemies become allies and heroes. Along with the super-literal muscle man Drax (Dave Bautista), they break out and try to prevent Ronan from using the orb to destroy Xandar.

From the moment young Peter runs out the hospital, the action barely pauses for more than the amount of time for needed for a brief plot explanation, a quick joke, or a testament to revenge, honor, or friendship. The pacing is breathless, and the cosmic, superheroic action – impressively directed by James Gunn almost entirely in CGI beautifully designed by Charles Wood and photographed by Ben Davis – is as thrilling as what Joss Whedon did in The Avengers or George Lucas did in the first Star Wars. But the nonstop action prevents any of the characters from developing into more than just, well, cartoons. I could tell Rocket and Groot had a long and deep friendship and I knew Peter and Gamora were hot for each other, but the details, the explanations, and the emotions are left out. I loved watching Pratt become a movie star, but the movie sent me to the richer, more complicated comic books, where I could learn something about the character he was playing. The film provided only a hint.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper
Rated PG-13
In 3-D
At your local multiplex

Space isn’t safe

sandra-bullocks-new-movie-gravity-is-an-extreme-4-d-thrill-rideThere’s a sequence of scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity about half way through the film that starts tense, becomes nail-biting, and then explodes – literally and figuratively – into a mind-boggling orchestra of space disaster action. I was clenching my boyfriend’s thigh and clenching my jaw at the beginning of it, but when it reached its full throttle, I was slapping his leg and laughing and bouncing up and down in my chair. I wasn’t laughing at the movie; I was laughing the way I have when I am on a roller coaster and it is throwing me through the most absurdly improbable flips and loops. Cuarón’s use of CGI, 3-D, and IMAX photography is so skilled that I found myself nearly ducking the space shrapnel hurtling towards the audience. Such an enveloping, unnervingly real film, Gravity is an actually astonishing experience. Continue…