“Alien: Covenant”

There is some optimism in the gory nightmarish prequel “Alien: Covenant.” Since this takes place before “Alien” and has dumber characters, at least I know humanity gets smarter in the future.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON!

The Covenant is a ship searching for new life. Its crew includes the tough-minded Daniels (Katherine Waterson), wisecracking cowboy Tennesse (Danny McBride), an insecure man of faith Oram (Billy Crudup), and the android synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender). Along their way to inhabit a new planet, they discover a distress beacon at a closer planet.

Upon arrival, the place appears to be a heaven, but the crew learns it’s more of a hell when they encounter xenomorphs and the “Prometheus” synthetic David (Michael Fassbender).

The great Ridley Scott maintains the philosophical tone of “Prometheus” while paying homage to the original “Alien.” It’s a dark, gory space odyssey with intelligent androids and dimwitted humans. Scott directs each blood splatter and surreal image with beauty.

“Covenant” spends the first two acts exploring darker themes and building each character. We get a platonic friendship between the widowed Daniels and Tennessee, Daniels and Oram clashing over the mission, and Walter learning from everyone.

Fassbender delivers a brilliant dual-performance as Walter and David. Scott directs each of their interactions with long takes and tight frames to depict the androids’ homoerotic bond. David is more villainous than ever and acts as a demonic egomaniac.

The writers brilliantly address a thought on the “Alien” franchise I’ve had: why don’t the xenomorphs and androids interact with each other? We get scenes with the two together and the xenomorphs are indifferent. In one fascinating scene, David communicates with a new alien like its his own child. “You have to show respect,” he says.

Sadly, the horror sequences and characters are underwhelming, save for one terrifying lab scene halfway through. The aliens decapitate, chest burst, spine burst, impale, and rip apart the crew, but since each character thinks splitting up is smart, these sequences are predictable and boring.

The climax could have used a little more work because it feels too easy and convenient; its obvious twist briefly saves the ending due to atmosphere and the casts’ performance. And what’s with James Franco’s obscure cameo? Can we have smarter characters and more James Franco next time?

Grade: B+

 

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“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

So, “Star Wars” is now a yearly thing, huh? I can dig it.

“Rogue One” is a prequel to “A New Hope,” and without going into details, it’s about a rag tag group of rebels trying to uncover the Death Star’s weakness.

“Rogue One” is still a space opera like the previous films; however, this is the franchise’s most political and psychological installment. Our main characters are morally ambiguous and aren’t afraid to kill *anyone* that can compromise them. Even the high-ranking rebel leaders have their own agendas.

The new characters include Gyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young rebel with a grudge against the Imperial Military. We also have Rebel Alliance operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a sassy android K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (the great Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and Imperial traitor Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). They’re the Expendables of the “Star Wars” universe!

On the villains side, we have the great Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, a high-ranking Imperial Officer with a raging God Complex. There’s no lightsabers or Force. This is a espionage movie in space.

Each character has their own agenda or reason for participating in the war, and we see their weaknesses and flaws. Unlike the other “Star Wars” movies where we have traditional heroes, the heroes in “Rogue One” are all flawed and feel more like people.

Director Gareth Edwards knows how to photograph action sequences, and the battle scenes are frenetic and gorgeous. There are a lot of slow tension-filled moments, emphasizing the film’s espionage aesthetics.

Every cast member does a great job, but I was disappointed that a few of them didn’t get their moment, particularly Ahmed as Bodhi Rook. Ahmed is a talented, versatile actor, but he doesn’t have his moment like the other cast members.

The biggest flaw is at times, “Rogue One” keeps alternating between its own movie and being a traditional “Star Wars” movie. Edwards wanted to make this his own, so the traditional “Star Wars” credits are absent. But we still get the traditional closing credits and numerous callbacks?

Same time, I can’t bash on “Rogue One” too much since I loved “The Force Awakens” (it was on my top 10 of last year), and that’s one big homage to “A New Hope.” If this month’s artsy movies or holiday comedies aren’t for you, check out “Rogue One” instead.

Grade: A-

PS, in case you’re all wondering what my ranking of the series looks like:

  1. A New Hope
  2. Return of the Jedi (not the best, but my personal favorite)
  3. The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the best, but I have a stronger attachment to the other tw0)
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Rogue One
  6. Revenge of the Sith
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. Attack of the Clones