Alien Covenant review

Alien Covenant review

Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride

Directed by Ridley Scott

Certificate 15

There was a time I would have been at the midnight premiere of a new Alien movie, I was so obsessed with the series. But in 2012 I sat through the inaugural IMAX 3-D screening of Prometheus, and still felt sick by the time I got to bed around 4AM.

During subsequent screenings, I realised what a weak film it was; an A-list cast and crew dealing with a Z-list script. Those hoping for answers to the xenomorphs’ origins were given more questions than answers.

So by the time Alien Covenant, the second prequel in Ridley Scott’s franchise came along, I gave it a week before watching.

The reviews have not been good. Savaged by most critics, and berated by many fans of the saga, I go in with low expectations.

Surprisingly, the first half hour is not that bad. The crew of the eponymous spacecraft, a colonisation ship on its way to land on an Earth-type planet seven years away, are awoken after a near-fatal incident with some galactic anomaly, and while repairing the ship, an electronic ghost from a nearby planet is recorded onto one of the crew’s helmets.

So it’s essentially a remake of Alien up to this point, only the crew are awoken for a different reason, and they intercept a different sort of SOS.

Landing on the neighbouring world in the hope it might be a better alternative to their original destination, they soon live to regret it.

Only Daniels (Katherine Waterston) seems to have a degree of intelligence. She wonders why they are endangering their mission by checking out a world that didn’t show up on any of their scans.

Their rubbish captain Oram (Billy Crudup) overrules her, launches an away team, and thanks to savage spores, soon ensures one of the crew is literally as spineless as him.

The second act plays like an old episode of a Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Data met evil brother Lore. In this case, robot Walter meets fellow synthetic David (survivor of Prometheus).

There’s a recorder lesson between the “brothers” that goes on so long, I had flashbacks to junior school music lessons.

Most of the time it looks great. This is a Ridley Scott film, so that’s a given, though some of the alien CG effects are a bit ropey.

Sadly the saga has become so obsessed with analysing its own history both on and off screen, we have reached the point where there are two robots named after the producers (David Giler and Walter Hill), and a heroine called Daniels, probably named after the original writer (Dan O’Bannon).

But the meta problem is not the biggest issue. It’s the intelligence, or the crew’s lack of it.

This is a crew so stupid, there’s no question of quarantine at a crucial moment or immediately wondering why wheat is on an alien planet.

There’s also a point where a couple are attacked in a shower. Not a spoiler, as that’s given away in the trailer.

And if you seen the trailer, chances are you’ve seen about as much as you need to regarding their back story, or lack of it.

The dipping toy bird, making a welcome return to the franchise for the first time since 1979’s original Alien, has more of a back story.

Thankfully the finale is as dark as Life, the year’s better alien-on-a-spaceship movie. Some clever editing and a Prestige-style plot device means there’s an ’is he or isn’t he?’ moment that keeps you guessing until the end.

Alien Covenant is not the disaster I’d feared. It’s slightly better than Prometheus, but a very poor cousin to Alien and Aliens. Newcomers to the saga may enjoy it, and given the finale I’m intrigued to see how things connect between the prequels and Alien. Let’s just hope a smarter script is green-lit for (the chronological) episode three.


My video review Alien Covenant


The Hitman’s Bodyguard – Film Review


My video review      The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman

Directed by Patrick Hughes

Certificate 15

From the trailer, everything about this movie yelled ’uninspired’. But with a couple of hours to kill, I settled in and expected the worst.

Ryan Reynolds is Michael Bryce, the “triple A-rated” bodyguard who does everything by the book, and during a prologue we see why he is so good at his job.

But when a VIP client is assassinated, our hero is suddenly downgraded.

Cut to scenes of Gary Oldman as an Eastern European dictator awaiting trial. The only man who can bring him down is hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson), and while being transported from Manchester under armed guard, the attack we know is inevitable arrives with such full-on force, it soon becomes clear this is not the knockabout comedy I’d expected. In fact it’s one of those rare things: an action comedy that is both thrilling and hilarious.

(Full marks to Tom O’Connor – not that one – for a great script).

Obviously Reynolds is called in to help Jackson when he winds up on the run, and the scene is set for a good 90 minutes of relentless action and comedy during the 118min running time.

It’s a mash up of Midnight Run and countless other buddy comedy thrillers, with the two leads sparking like a couple of faulty generators. It’s the sort of thing that could have been done 30 years ago with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, so there’s nothing new in the premise, but the execution is everything. It boasts some stunning action scenes, witty editing and great supporting characters. Richard E Grant as a pill-popping white collar type has a glorified cameo, while Salma Hayek chews every scene she’s in with the relish of a starving lioness.

And Gary Oldman gives a terrific performance as the obligatory bad guy, like an older version of his generic terrorist from Air Force One 20 years ago.

A strange thing happens half way through when Reynolds is abducted and tortured by bad guys. I actually started to feel something for the characters. Inevitably Sam rescues him, and in the midst of chaos and carnage in Amsterdam, that rare bromance magic many films aim for but rarely achieve actually kicks in.

Okay, there’s far too many Oedipal expletives from Sam as usual, playing his role like Pulp Fiction’s Julius with Tourette’s, but the banter between him and Reynolds is up there with classic offering such as White Men Can’t Jump or Grosse Pointe Blank.

And as a reminder, Sam is 68 and still able to carry off action scenes like a man half his age.

Though 20 minutes too long with one too many action scenes, this is one of those movies that guarantees value for money. Just when you think it’s all over, there’s an often hilarious brutal fight scene in A DIY store, and then another fight scene, and another.

I was exhausted by the closing titles but glad I made the effort. The advert promised little but for once all the best bits aren’t in the trailer.

Take a bow Patrick Hughes. You’ve directed one of the best action comedies of the year.


The Dark Tower – Film Review

The Dark Tower

Starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor

Certificate 12A

Directed by Nicolaj Arcel

In 1990 I remember listening to the first audiobook of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s much talked about epic. Part Western, part Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, it had caught the attention of Hollywood, like so many of his tomes do, and like many sprawling fantasies, it languished in development hell. For decades.

Fans of chilling movie masterpiece The Mist will have seen a nod to TDT at the start of that film. One cross reference in a movie that good is fine. It’s a sly nod and moves on fast.

In the first few minutes of The Dark Tower we have nods to Cujo, Christine, and later The Shining, It, 1408 and The Shawshank Redemption. Fans will no doubt spot a lot more. As a King addict who devoured many of his best works in the 1980s, I was pretty bored. ’Yes, we get it!’ I mentally yelled at the screen, wondering how long it would be until our young hero wound up with a girl called ’Carrie’, who lives in a ’dead zone’ and has trouble with her ’Cell’ phone after taking her cat ’Tommyknockers’ to the ’pet semetary’.

The plot is more The Dark Crystal than The Dark Tower as abducted kids from Earth are strapped into chairs on another world and used to power some laser in the hope of destroying the eponymous construct.

Said building is the thing that stops evil man in black Walter (Matthew McConaughey) from becoming all powerful. Or something.

My Dark Tower vlog

We don’t get much of a look at the Tower, which is a shame, as I’d be more fascinated by it than Jake (Tom Taylor), the generic kid who is haunted by bad dreams and sketches with perfect clarity everything that is going to happen in the next hour or so. It’s like Richard Dreyfuss making models of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters, only a lot less subtle.

The kids’ guardians are concerned about the lad when his obsessions become more intense. So when a couple of so-called experts turn up to carry him off for psychological examination, there’s no surprise that his folks (a soccer mom and a gruff stepdad) side with two creepy strangers rather than the troubled lad. They’re that stupid.

Thankfully our young hero has perfectly sketched an old house in New York that someone online recognises, so after a breathless chase, he winds up there, and is transported to the other world.

Jake crosses paths with Roland (Idris Elba), the Gunslinger whose skills with revolvers are the stuff of magic. He shoots with his mind and his heart rather than his eyes. I should know it verbatim the amount of times we have to sit through the same speech, first via Roland and his dad (24 veteran Dennis Haysbert) and then again and again before it’s reused in the third act.

Threading his way from world to world and scene to scene is McConaughey, who has the intensity of a man wondering whether to have chicken or fish for dinner. He’s a magnificent actor when the occasion demands in projects such as True Detective, but here his skills are sold short by the humdrum script.

“Stop breathing”, he tells random characters, and they do. They just drop dead. No tension. No reaction. Just lives snuffed out of existence. We care so little about them that there’s no sense of loss. If Elba weren’t so magnetic, McConaughey would have been the character I rooted for most.

The movie is part of an enormous universe with no doubt more complex characters and interesting locations. If so, just a shame so few of them made it into the first part of a multi-platform saga; a TV series is due next year.

One of the problems is the lack of humour. Even when Roland winds up in New York and there’s a chance to experience the sort of fish-out-of-water fun that made a ’Crocodile’ Dundee so enjoyable, the filmmakers stick to a path so earnest, there’s little wonder Idris looks so pained at times. All good movies need levity and there’s a Grand Canyon-sized hole where any gags could have been.

By the finale, things get more interesting with Elba proving why he can keep the most leaden project afloat. An epic shootout with humdrum bad guys is the film’s most interesting moment.

Eventually the movie reaches a conclusion and easily the dullest closing scene of any motion picture in recent years. It features a closed door and a suggestion of magical things beyond it. (The last five minutes feels like a TV movie pilot setting up a telly saga).

It’s as if producer (and original director) Ron Howard was so busy trying to salvage the young Han Solo movie, he signed off on the film, sight unseen. A shame as this could have been something special. Alas, the kid in it is pretty bland, the script annoyingly predictable and the tone is so by-the-numbers that there’s little wonder it’s such a let down.

A towering disappointment.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Cara Delevigne, Dane DeHaan, Clive Owen
Certificate 12A

Arguably the most expensive indie movie ever made, Luc Besson’s latest may as well be called The 10th Element; it’s twice as eye-popping as his 1997 Bruce Willis blockbuster, and twice as barking.
While America persists in strip-mining every Marvel and DC comic for the next big movie, France’s rich history of graphic novels has largely been untapped. The work of Metal Hurlant geniuses Moebius and Druillet would make a dozen stunning movies, but it seems only Besson has the financial clout to make it happen thanks to all those Transporter and Taken movies. And with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, we get a hint of what could have been.
It’s 137 minutes of stunning visuals, incredible ideas and a great cast wading through the treacle of an overly complex plot.
We open with a terrific prologue set to Space Oddity in which the international space station receives many upgrades over the years, transforming into the drifting planet. Some valuable exposition sets the scene for the glorious array of creatures and settings that follow.

Cut to an idyllic world where a race of androgynous Avatar-style pearl farmers exist in a state of bliss. And where there’s an idyllic race at the start of a fantasy film, you can bet it’s only a matter of minutes until disaster occurs.
Just before one of their race is killed, she sends out a message into the universe, which is picked up by Valerian, intergalactic agent.

He and sexy colleague/on-off girlfriend Laureline are soon off on a mission to an alien planet where a mysterious item has to be retrieved from a virtual market.

So we have one lot of alien landscapes to contend with before being plunged into a VR world. This gives Besson and his army of effects technicians a chance to show off their skills. Some of them impressive, others a bit Blake’s Seven on a budget.

My video review
It’s reminiscent of a dozen episodes of Doctor Who or Hellboy as our heroes retrieve item and stage a daring escape.
As the protagonists piece together fragments of the puzzle, the idyllic aliens invade the eponymous space station, kidnap VIP military type Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) and scarper.

What follows is an exhausting adventure which for the most part is a lot of fun.
Ethan Hawke outstays his glorified cameo as a seedy space cowboy/club owner, and shape-shifter Rihanna gets to show off with a Cabaret-inspired stage routine that goes on far too long. As does a segment involving an alien king and Laureline’s fitting for a new dress.

Anything goes in VATCOATP. It’s one of those movies where the Chuckle brothers could turn up breakdancing to the work of Plastic Bertrand and it wouldn’t seem out of place. Or music genius Herbie Hancock would have a cameo as an official. (The latter actually does happen).

Besson has packed his movie with so many cool, weird, extraordinary characters that it’s a tribute to Dane and Cara’s screen presence that they are not overshadowed by it all. Okay, they won’t win any Baftas for Best Actor/Actress, but they are far from the bland double act I’d feared. Cara’s eyebrows alone are as mesmerising as the spacesuit which makes her look like a walking action figure. And yes, I’ll quite happily buy one along with assorted others.

Slated by many critics and a costly flop at the box office, this is one of those movies that will attract a cult following on TV in the months and years to come. It’s too big a film to process in one sitting, and while not all of it works, Besson deserves full marks for delivering an often breathtaking spectacle.

As Marvel and Transformers fatigue set in a while ago, it’s good to see one of cinema’s most daring auteurs has the spaceballs to put his money where his mouth is and dare to fail on a galactic scale.
It’s an epic flop for now, and 20 minutes too long, but like Jupiter Ascending, it’s also one of those waking dream experiences best seen on the big screen at least once before most of its effect is lost forever on TV.

My video review