Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.

Star Wars day…

For Star Wars day…

Princess Leia by Murray Ewing

 

Princess Amidala by Murray Ewing

The Films That Time Forgot

Time for a Doug McClure triple bill! Once upon a time, it seemed you could always catch a Doug McClure, a Ray Harryhausen Sinbad, or George Pal’s The Time Machine on a Sunday afternoon. As a kid, I watched them all, religiously, each and every time they were repeated — to the extent that, once, my dad had to set up a black & white portable telly in the car so my brother and I could watch At the Earth’s Core as he drove us back from visiting our Gran & Grandad in Selsey.

Writing about Tom Baker in Nicholas and Alexandra a few mewsings ago led to me wanting to watch one such film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, again, and that urge led to me buying the whole Harryhausen Sinbad trio and watching the lot. (Golden Voyage remains my favourite, with Tom Baker the best Sinbad sorcerer-villain, and Kali the coolest Harryhausen monster.) That led to the even stranger urge of wanting to watch a Doug McClure film or two. I say “even stranger” because, well, at least with the Sinbads, I knew the monster sequences would stand up to a re-watch, but even as a kid I knew the monsters in those 70s Doug McClure films were not exactly convincing. Still, the urge was there, and The Doug McClure Fantasy Adventure Triple Bill box-set called…

The Land that Time Forgot was the first. Released in 1975, based on the 1918 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, it starts with a German U-Boat torpedoing a civilian vessel, from which only a handful of survivors escape. Among their number, of course, is the heroically-chinned Doug McClure, who immediately sets about organising a rowboat attack on the Germans. What I didn’t know about this film all those many times I watched it as a kid was that it was scripted by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn. And the script is one of two things that really stands out in this film — the story develops at a good, even pace, with it being a full half hour before there’s even a hint of the fantasy element to come. Before that, it’s all about the tension between the British and Germans as they struggle to gain or regain control of the U-Boat. And the good script goes hand in hand with the other plus point that makes this the best of the three films in this box-set: the actors. Like so many British films (such as the Harry Potter films nowadays), even the minor roles are taken by faces you know or half-know from British TV and films. Here, we have Anthony Ainley (later to play the Master in 80s Doctor Who) and Susan Penhaligon (who played Lucy in the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula — the best adaptation of the novel, in my opinion), to name just two.

It’s only after that half-hour of tussling for control of the U-Boat that we get a brief shock-glimpse of the first of the film’s monsters. This, the one element that got me watching these films as a kid, is the part that least stands up now, but it’s not the total disaster I was afraid it’d be. In The Land that Time Forgot, the monsters are mostly puppets, and when they’re on their own, while they wouldn’t ever be described as convincing, they’re at least not bad, as long as you enter into the spirit of things. It’s when they do what Harryhausen does so well — a battle between humans and monsters — that things don’t go so well. The dinosaurs of The Land that Time Forgot have a tendency, when fired upon, to just stand there roaring and waving their paws until, after a tedious back and forth between roaring monsters and firing humans, the monsters cave in and fall over (usually rather stiffly). It’s almost as if, as puppets, they know there’s a line they can’t cross, and their human prey are on the other side of it. There are a couple of examples of life-size props being used in human-monster fights (a pterodactyl taking a neanderthal in its jaws and gliding woodenly away, a bendy-necked lake dinosaur jabbing at Doug McClure), but the monsters are always at their most effective in short bursts. The trouble is, the film tends to milk them a little too long. (That first, very brief, appearance of a lake monster lunging at the U-Boat’s periscope is the best monster moment in the film, if not the entire box-set.)

At the Earth’s Core, another Burroughs adaptation, was released in 1976, and this, perhaps because it’s studio-bound, has much more of a period feel. Here, there’s barely ten minutes build-up before we’re in the lost world of Pellucidar, with its glaringly artificial pink light and its drastic step backwards in monster effects: for the puppets have been replaced by men in suits, complete with stiff but rubbery-flappy taloned feet and dry wobbly rubber tongues. But Earth’s Core is less of a serious affair, with Peter Cushing playing a stiff-backed professor almost like a reprise of his earlier take on Doctor Who (for the same studio, Hammer’s rival, Amicus). Meanwhile, there’s a lot more action, which means a lot of rather dull fights between square-chinned Doug and an array of thuggish men in varying degrees of masks & make-up.

This, really, is how Edgar Rice Burroughs should be adapted. I know there’s a big-budget version of A Princess of Mars in production at the moment, and I’m sure its CG Barsoom will look brilliant; all the same, there’ll always be a part of me that feels Burroughs is better served by this style of slightly naff effects, by-the-numbers acting, and general air of filmic pulpiness.

If The Land that Time Forgot worked pretty well as a film, At the Earth’s Core is at least fun. We’ve got Peter Cushing’s comic turn, Caroline Munroe giving us a twirl, and the malevolent Mahars… I don’t know what it is about these reptilian super-parrots with their stiffly blinking eyes and complete rubber-suited lack of grace, but they still have an air of menace about them. Plus, they explode when they die!

Between At the Earth’s Core and the next film in the box-set, Warlords of Atlantis, everything changed. Earth’s Core was 1976. Warlords was 1978. And in 1977, of course, there was Star Wars. As a result Warlords of Atlantis was not an Amicus film, nor was it predominately British in cast. It also had a proper budget behind it, which meant some pretty good sets and plenty of location work. What it didn’t mean, though, was better monsters. We’ve still got the men in suits. The suits are slightly better (with more reptilian warts, if nothing else), and they are, also, occasionally doused in water, which makes them a little bit more realistic, but some of them — particularly the four-legged ones — move with less grace and realism than a pantomime horse, and the humans-versus-monsters sequences are still a question of cutting between shots of the humans firing guns and the monsters standing back and roaring. If this is how the dinosaurs behaved, it’s no wonder they became extinct.

Ah well. But at least there was a surprise waiting for me in the credits. The screenplay was written by Brian Hayles, who provided some classic Doctor Who scripts, including The Celestial Toymaker, The Ice Warriors, and the two Peladon stories, as well as writing a number of Target novelisations. And the plot of Warlords could well be a repurposed Doctor Who submission, with Atlantis the remnant of a destroyed planet, hidden on Earth, kidnapping mariners (by use of a giant octopus) to use as slaves to repair and defend their crumbling, once-great cities. The Atlanteans themselves have mastered such mind-powers as levitation and being able to see into the future, but nothing, nothing, nothing can prepare them for the mighty chin and fist of Doug McClure. He socks them good, and they go down.

Warlords of Atlantis is the only original (non-Burroughs adaptation) of the three. It’s also, despite its bigger budget — or perhaps because of it — the most disappointing. Perhaps because the nice sets and glittering costumes hint at the better film that could have been made if only they hadn’t stuck to the men-in-rubber-suits philosophy, or perhaps it’s just that the pulpy man-fights-Empire-with-his-bare-fists storyline was so much better suited to a low-budget, creaky-effects approach than something that looked as though it had, at last, seen the light of Star Wars. (The monster sounds are a lot better, which helps. Perhaps that was a Star Wars influence.)

Overall, the films are enjoyable, pulpy, adventurous fare. Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching them, but I was more than happy to make allowance for the naffness of the effects as long as the storylines were working. In a way (and I want to write a mewsings on this at some point), I prefer effects that are obviously artificial — not necessarily creaky, but stylised, artful, like Ray Harryhausen’s Kali. They give an air of magic, of something other than reality, and call for an imaginative response from the viewer which super-dooper CG lets you all-too-easily opt out of.

There was another Amicus Doug McClure film, The People that Time Forgot, in 1977. I can’t say I’m quite inspired to track it down and actually pay to see it, but if it comes on TV again, some idle Sunday afternoon (not that I have many of those anymore), I’m certain to watch it.

The Future Goes Bleep

When the coldness of electronic music combines with futuristic imagery it can create something bleak, ominous, forbidding, but also beautiful, if some sort of human feeling manages to come through all those buzzes, twoops and bleeps. For a while I’ve been collecting soundtracks to science fiction films that use electronics in their score, but it’s turned out to be a surprisingly limited subgenre, no doubt thanks to the example of Star Wars, where, rather than spacey electronics, John Williams used an orchestra in full Romantic mode to humanise the film’s technological imagery. Star Wars is certainly a great score, and perfectly fits the type of film it was made for, but here I’m more interested in the music of dehumanising dystopias and isolating voyages into deep space, perhaps because finding the human element amidst so much visual and aural coldness is all the more rewarding.

barron_forbiddenplanetMother of all sf soundtracks is Bebe and Louis Barron’s score to Forbidden Planet (1956). It’s perhaps the most extreme, experimental soundtrack for a film of any era that’s meant for popular entertainment. Remade today, Forbidden Planet would certainly get the orchestral treatment. Its having an electronic score seems to be more down to the innocence of the times, and the idea that electronics would simply sound more spacey. In an era before even the most primitive of synths, the Barrons built their electronics from scratch, each track being played by a series of custom circuits. The result is something it’s difficult to sit down and listen to in one go — there’s no conventional music, but a soundscape of thuds, whines, swoops and alien growls — but when seen with the film, it provides a perfect destabilising influence on the 50s conventionalities of an otherwise rather mainstream horror-sf plot, making the final revelations about the dead Krel race and their technology that allows Morbius’s subconscious urges to come through all the more authentic and menacing.

vangelis_bladerunnerIf you have one electronic sf score in your collection, it’s most likely to be the one that started me off — Vangelis’ peerless Blade Runner (1982) soundtrack. Vangelis doesn’t use the harsh electronic sounds of the Barrons, but, while his score is often as lush and romantic as John Williams’, it doesn’t attempt to hide from the strangeness, and darkness, of the imagery it accompanies. Vangelis’ synths add an ethereal, fairy-tale magic to those spine-tingling opening sequences of a futuristic Los Angeles that would otherwise seem like nothing but Hell on Earth. His use of melody is exquisite. At times his music seems to be the lingering ghost of all that is essentially human but which Ridley Scott’s future-noir world has almost strangled from its characters. And who would ever have thought Demis Roussos could sound so lovely?

carlos_tronThere are two soundtracks that mix a traditional orchestra with electronic instruments to an equal degree. When recording the soundtrack to Tron (1982), Wendy Carlos (back then not Wendy but Walter) had the orchestra perform its part of the score on its own, not letting them know that an electronic part using some early synths would be added. Like the film, the Tron soundtrack is more about the action of the chase and the wonder of the weird digital otherworld it takes us through than the feelings of its characters, though there is of course that underlying quest for individual freedom that’s to be found in all dystopias, giving a triumphant note to its brassy synth fanfares. Jerry Goldsmith’s Logan’s Run (1976) score, on the other hand, uses its orchestral and electronic elements in somewhat the same way that black & white and colour film was used in The Wizard of Oz. Within the futuristic city where Logan is a Sandman gleefully despatching those poor Runners who try to live beyond the age of 30, Goldsmith uses unapologetically harsh electronics, particularly in the pulsing rhythm you hear when Logan is in the presence of the all-controlling city computer. As soon as we get out of the city, the music changes to orchestral, emphasising the difference between the two worlds.

goldsmith_logansrunGoldsmith is a prolific composer, and of course provided the score to many other sf films, though none as electronic as Logan’s Run. Alien (1979), wholly orchestral, nevertheless evokes a creepy weirdness with the skittering strings of its opening titles. (His score to Legend (1985) is one of my favourite film soundtracks, but it’s fantasy, not bleak sf.) He also provided the score for Outland (1981), that grimly futuristic remake of High Noon, which was again predominantly orchestral, apart from one notable musical cue. This piece, called “The Rec Room” on the CD, is a good way of introducing an obscure sub-subgenre within the already obscure subgenre of electronic science fiction soundtracks — the leisure zone sequence. Don’t ask me why, but there’s a scene in almost every sf film where the characters go into some sort of recreation room or centre — and the more dystopian the film, the more self-indulgent and sensual the recreation is likely to be. Quite often this provides the composer with an excuse to do something a bit more weird and futuristic, as with Jerry Goldsmith’s attempt at what future dance music might sound like in Outland‘s “The Rec Room”, or the distinctly Forbidden Planet-sounding whoops and tickles of his piece to accompany the “Love Shop” sequence in Logan’s Run. Of course, in Star Wars, John Williams takes this the other way, going completely retro with his aliens playing Big Time Swing Jazz, but mention also has to be made of the descent into funky sleaze in Soylent Green (1973) where Charlton Heston enters an apartment to find it full of lounging women. It seems to be a rule of late 60s/early 70s sf that, where there’s women, there’s wah wah. (Soylent Green‘s score is mostly orchestral, but gets some nasty electronics in for the sequence where Heston enters the Soylent Green factory and learns just what that foodstuff is really made of). Funky kitsch — sleazy or not — is another subgenre of sf soundtracks, mostly for films emerging from the groovy sixties, starting with Barbarella (1968), and including the soundtrack to La Planète Sauvage (1973), a film I reviewed in an earlier blog entry.

toto_duneSolaris (1972 & 2002) has managed to garner a weird soundtrack both times it was filmed, the first being electronic (composed by Eduard Artemiev, to be found on the CD Tarkovski par Artemiev), the second being orchestral but with enough glassy-sounding percussion to give it a haunting oddness. Rollerball (1975) uses Bach’s Toccata in D minor in such a way that the church organ it’s played on sounds like a futuristic instrument of oppression. By the time Toto did the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Dune (1984), synths were getting better, producing fuller, more lush sounds rather more like orchestral strings than the harsh early versions, but the Dune soundtrack is electronic enough to still sound weird in that spacey, futuristic way. (Some of the best examples of science fictional electronica, of course, aren’t to be found in the movies at all, but in the lower-budget world of TV, such as the BBCs Radiophonic Workshop’s music for such shows as The Tomorrow People and Doctor Who.)

Electronic music in sf films is sometimes used to simply accentuate the weirdness of the science fictional imagery — all those theremins in 50s alien invasion films trying to convince us that the wobbling plate on a string is, in fact, a menacing flying saucer (though the theremin was used to excellent effect to impart an unearthly grandeur to The Day The Earth Stood Still). But sf electronics are at their best, for me, when they evoke a sense of the numinous, the ethereal, the unearthly. I find myself wanting to include some non-electronic music which has the same effect. I’ve already mentioned a few (Cliff Martinez’s Solaris, Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien title sequence), but the ultimate example has to be György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna at the end of 2001. This is nothing but human voices, undulating in disturbing microtones, perhaps illustrating that, when it comes down to it, nothing sounds as strange or unearthly as the human voice doing what it isn’t normally heard to be doing. (See also the theme music for the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Day of the Triffids.)