By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic Print | Email
Director Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant," the sixth in the franchise with no relief in sight, has spawned a horror in and of itself. We now might press for escape to another planet not because good old Earth can no longer sustain human life, but because we simply don't want to live in a society that normalizes the mean-spiritedness epitomized by such so-called entertainment.
This gratuitous study in ugly presentiments provides us with a test of our tolerance, challenging us to rightfully recognize its deplorably regressive degeneracy as a 1st Amendment Right.
Like the similarly hostile, outer-space gambit, "Life" (2017), this tale of a colonizing ship, circa 2104, is pessimistic to a fault. For while the mission goes awry in standard fashion and we begin to handicap which of the crew members are expendable and which favorites will weather the cataclysm, the filmmaker has no intention of following the usual format. Instead, he has planned a heinous surprise. But while we can countenance the variation on a theme if for no better reason than artistic expression, we must ask, to what purpose all this pessimism?
If the raison d'etre for such a bleak vision was to stir the optimist in our national psyche into a resisting action, I might understand it. But that's the pie-in-the-sky, former hippie in me looking to see the bright side of something that is resolutely dark. It appears that rather than providing amusement or education, the increasing number of similarly ill-natured movies are designed to supply our lockstep types with some sort of near cultish affirmation of just how dark the future appears to them. You think maybe the Russians have also infiltrated our films?
But for those who couldn't care less about where goeth our civilization, or what some old dude who writes film criticism thinks of his popular culture, note that strewn throughout its nihilism, "Alien: Covenant" delivers that promised violence. So fear not, bloodthirsty brethren bemoaning the crackdown on cockfighting and the exit of bear-baiting from among our well-attended national pastimes. Finding loopholes in our moral code via the artificial and synthetic means made possible by celluloid and its digital heirs, such indecencies have found new expression.
While horror is in the eye of the beholder, this permutation of the genre is not mere slice-and-dice a la Jason, good old classic Frankenstein, or the handheld mayhem of the postmodern, "Blair Witch" mishegoss. Frightening as those may have been to generations of the "scare-me, scare-me" crowd, there has always been a tacit agreement between film and viewer. You might be catapulted from your seat, forced to hide under it, or just close your eyes. But afterwards, your senses restored, you could look forward to rainbows, puppies and butter pecan ice cream cones.
With this determinedly coldblooded variety, there is no such understanding ... only that you will be fed shovel after shovel of unredeeming bad news about the human condition. All that's missing is that welcoming sign Dante felt appropriate to hang at the gates of Hell: "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here." Which stirs me to suggest that if indeed there is such a place, forcing sinners to watch "Alien: Covenant" over and over again might be an apt punishment for whatever evil they perpetrated in life, such as making movies like this.
My preamble of disgruntlement completed, tradition and good form nevertheless require that I discuss the plot. But I do so begrudgingly, mostly for fear that it might unintentionally whet an innocent cinema appetite or two. Granted, the peek into the future of space exploration is enticing. And for a while the foray to distant galaxies, replete with smart techno-jargon and gads of neat, spaceship gizmos lighting the way to a great destiny, satisfies expectations. But then the boom drops. The nefariousness invades and you see this for the sci-fi fool's gold it is.
Not one but two examples of artificial intelligence doing a Brave New World version of dueling banjos amidst a typical cast of human adventurers illustrate the different sorts of brainpower that might be possessed by the android set. The "to be or not to be?" nub at the core of their ultimate, life and death (or, discontinuance, to be more exact) struggle turns into a whirling, lazy Susan of metaphors feigning to reflect the nature of humanity. But that's just an excuse for those signature, pterodactyl–looking monsters to pop out of people's stomachs and sicken yours.
Searching for a way to reconcile the bad taste all this revulsion left in my mouth, I thought about my big sister Ann, who has always advocated turning lemons into lemonade. And I came up with this: Got any worst enemies? Tell them how much you enjoyed this film. And in the event you have no such foes but sure wish you did, recommending "Alien: Covenant" should create them in droves.
"Alien: Covenant," rated R, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Ridley Scott and stars Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup. Running time: 122 minutes
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