Tag Archives: popcorn

Baywatch

[3 stars]

Yes, I know, even I’m embarrassed to admit I made time to watch this. Why did I? Curiosity, mainly. I never watched the show and never wanted to. I guess I was looking for a bit of harmless distraction in the midst of trying times and a rather challenging week.

There is certainly no complexity in this story to force you to think. There are some pretty bodies, some light action, some gnashing of teeth, and a lot of broad humor. The humor is probably where it falls apart the most for me. It is all so cheap and obvious, aimed at teenage boys when their audience was older. It also made Dwayne Johnson’s (Moana) and Zac Efron’s (The Paperboy) characters come across as just, well, dumb. But, then again, I wasn’t looking for the next Seventh Seal when I put this on, so I shouldn’t complain; but neither was I looking for The Three Stooges.

Though this tale is very much dominated by the men, there are several women who are more than just pretty faces, though not much leverage in the plot. Ilfenesh Hadera (Chi-Raq), Alexandra Daddario (San Andreas), Kelly Rohrbach, and Priyanka Chopra (Quantico) are all strong and with brains and bods. It would have been better if they’d also been instrumental in the story rather than just connective tissue, but it really isn’t that kind of movie.

I’m not sure this trifle is even something I can recommend as a distraction you should seek out. If it came on unbidden in the schedule, it is probably not something you should run from, but even fans of the show were disappointed by the lack of actual Baywatch-ness to the flick. They had their nods (a couple actually amusing) but generally didn’t manage to be satire nor homage…it simply co-opted the title for marketing and tried to run with it. The result isn’t unwatchable, it is just not recommendable. So this is entirely up to you on whether to make a beach party of it or to choose a different distraction.

Baywatch

The Mummy (2017)

[2.5 stars]

This movie was clearly in trouble from the first few moments with the silly voice-over and set up. It then went on to try and recapture the 1999  sense of humor, but misses completely. The relationship between Tom Cruise (Eyes Wide Shut) and Annabelle Wallis (King Arthur) isn’t compelling and Jake Johnson (Jurassic World) doesn’t come across as either a soldier nor suitable side-kick for Cruise.

The original 1932 Mummy is kitschy, but also a wonderful classic. The 1999 remake is filled with action and humor. There have been many spin-off and sequels based on this Universal monster over the 80+ years of its life on screen. So if you’re going to do it yet again, especially to launch a new monster-universe franchise, you’d think the studio would spend some time on the script. I’m not sure how they went wrong, but having six writers involved couldn’t have helped no matter how successful most of them have been on their own in the past.

I have to admit, the ideas and intent were interesting, at least on aspects of the mummy part. But the script and story are simply put: crap. And I won’t even touch the Russel Crowe (The Nice Guys) Dr. Jekyll role, who apparently would be a bridging component between the planned movies. But let’s talk about some of the issues (and only some and a tad spoilery, but nothing that really matters since you’ll know it all going in):

  • Why, when you have an ultimate evil well imprisoned would you have a way to break them out of that prison already set up and ready to go
  • Crash victims are already in the morgue for identification while wreckage is still being discovered and burning
  • Consecrated warriors are taken over by “evil” without a struggle or even a nod to the power of the faith the movie tries to make into reality
  • And let’s talk about the Westernization of Egyptian myth. Set is neither evil nor the devil. He is the ruler of wild lands, the deserts, foreign lands, and the storm, and protects the Boat of Ra during the night journey when it is threatened by the serpent monster of chaos, Apep. (Thanks, Matt, for the detail and correction.) And he isn’t a monster, as stated in the script. To paraphrase one of the great moments in Buffy: he’s a god.
  • Then there was all the distracting nods to other horror films like An American Werewolf in London and Night of the Living Dead (pick a version)
  • The decisions around how to solve the main problem of the tale are a stretch at best and stupidly risky as worst. For the love of a god, just break the offending object of power and be done with it!

But it wasn’t just script choices, and there were so many more, the direction of the characters was often weak and ill conceived.  Annabelle Wallis is completely non-credible as an archaeologist. Sure, she has her secrets and such, but her actions and reactions are all in service to the story to come rather than realistic reactions in the moment of the action. That is on the director Kurtzman more than her, but it was very frustrating and weakened her character.

Generally, this movie was a weak mess that has some entertainment value, but a whole lot of meh (to quote some friends). I leave it entirely up to you if you want to watch it. I won’t be putting it on again, if that is any help in your decision making.

The Mummy

 

 

Fall TV 2017: The New Stuff

OK, I can’t (and don’t want to) watch everything. But here are my initial impressions of the new crop of stuff after the first episode (or so). I’ll likely post what survived my schedule later this fall.

In no particular order:

The Orville
I expected to really dislike this show, but it continues to surprise me. For all its weakness (usually around its broad humor moments), it is trying to ride the line of satire and homage and doing it well. In many ways it is more Star Trek than the latest Trek offering, which makes the timing of this drama especially interesting in contrast to Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Discovery
The franchise had a middling opening on the script and acting front, but no worse than Next Generation’s launch. It’s easy to forget just how bad the first season of TNG was, but it was really pretty bad. It survived due the vacuum of similar shows and went on to become something rather good.

Discovery is burdened by a future we know, so it really will be the characters that sell this, not the plots, per se. So far, the characters aren’t particularly compelling..so much so that even the first two hours didn’t elicit from me a gasp. And the technology and creature anachronisms are frustrating.

You can see the Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods) influence on the bones of this show, but his exit and subsequent rework by Paramount is leaving it in an uncomfortable place. The energy is odd and the sensibility feels at war with itself. It may find its feet over the season, but I can’t say the pilot filled me with curiosity to come back for more the way The Orville did. And by the end of the third episode I was left wondering if they were trying to remake themselves in the image of Babylon 5 (even more so than DS9 did).

There is a big universe for Discovery to play with, though it feels like a lot more of the same. That can be good and bad. TNG and DS9 both expanded the Star Trek universe in different ways to differing success with the same underlying issue. But is it worth a separate subscription fee to see every week? Right now, I’m thinking not, though if it were on free broadcast I’d probably give it more time. We shall see how it develops.

Good Doctor
Weak start but with some stuff to build on. Unless the writing picks up, however, the story alone isn’t enough to hold it together or keep me coming back. Just too many medical gaffs and overwrought moments. It was good to see Antonia Thomas (Lovesick/Scrotal Recall) in a larger production to get her broader exposure. And, writing issues aside, while Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) has created an interesting character in the lead, Graham Verchere as his younger self just isn’t up to the task which is weakening the story.

Young Sheldon
Surprisingly engaging for a spin-off tale. Keeping the Sheldon we know as a bridge definitely helps, but the solid relationships and struggles of the family are also well done. While the young Sheldon is good, Raegan Revord as his twin sister and Zoe Perry (No Pay, Nudity), as his mother are the real stars of this sitcom so far.

Me, Myself, & I
Had to see this for the cast and the conceit. As it turns out, it was better than I anticipated, though not brilliant. The 30 minute format is very tight for 3 characters across time every week. Very frenetic to follow. The potential is there. It is up to the writers to make it work. So far, they are not impressing me.

Will & Grace
Seriously it is like there wasn’t a 10 year gap, which is bloody impressive. From the opening moments through to the end, the show still has its original, ephemeral magic. You either love or hate, but you can’t fault it for maintaining the magic.

Inhumans
An incredibly weak launch to a show that had huge potential and one of the longest set-ups (via the Marvel movies and Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D) I can ever recall. Even the solid talent, like Iwan Rheon (Residue, Game of Thrones) and Ken Leung (Lost, Star Wars: Force Awakens) couldn’t overcome an obvious, plodding, and ill conceived story. The world is incompletely thought through, the rules nebulous at best, and with a depth measured in millimeters. While I will give it another episode or so to see if it finds its feet, after the end of the double-episode launch, I was gnashing my teeth at the ‘surprise’ ending. If it is emblematic of the kind of scripts, and it appears it is, that are to come, it isn’t going to keep me in attendance. And I thought Iron Fist was going to be the nadir with the hope that it would serve as the TV division’s Iron Man 2; I wish I’d been right.

The Gifted
Another incredibly weak start for an action/adventure in a crowded and over-worked field. I’ll give anything with Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing) a shot, but this only gets one more before a decision is made. Just too serious and too much of the same, even if it is spawned from one of my more favorite branches of the X-Men universe.

10 Days in the Valley
While intense, this is a slow burn of a train wreck and tragedy. It is good to have Kyra Sedgwick (The Edge of Seventeen) back on screen, but not sure I’m looking for this kind of a character and story at this time. I do have some police procedural frustrations with the show, but I could get over them. Really the issue is timing.

9JKL
Great concept and some talent in the cast, including Linda Lavin, David Walton, and Liza Lapira. But the writing and directing are just awful. This one died on my list in the first episode. I didn’t even see any hope for it.

Kevin (Probably) Saves the World
I have to admit this one pulled it out at the very end for me…at least enough to give it a shot. It has that Joan of Arcadia feel to it, amusingly given Jason Ritter’s (Carrie Pilby) presence. It could quickly get tiresome, but they avoided some initial pitfalls. And I have to admit I enjoyed the heavy Amy Adams/Arrival vibe they gave the first episode. Still, it isn’t like we haven’t seen this story in the past (usually as horror) and their rules are squishy at best…either he is the only one or the other 35 meteorites anointed the rest of the gang and the rest is just for comedy. Will give it another round to see where it goes, but it will need to step up its game to keep me.

Ghosted
So this is The Orville of X-Files. It was just good enough in its launch to get another shot, but it only made it the first 15 minutes of the second. It just isn’t written well enough nor are the main characters all that engaging for me. I imagine it will find an audience out there, but it may not be enough to survive.

Wisdom of the Crowd
Probably the most attuned to the sense of the day and with a great conceit. Admittedly, it is a bit forced and it dances around the law quite a bit. But for all its weaknesses in credibility, it is terrifyingly willing to tackle some real social issues and technology. In addition to Jeremy Piven (Mr Selfridge) we also get Natalia Tena (Game of Thrones) to help drive it forward and both have some good chops to do so.

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

[3.5 stars]

The first Kingsman was a delightfully unexpected and irreverent romp in spy-land. Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle) returns for this middle story of a planned trilogy and manages to grow the character and give us another, if much more violent, round of spy games. It may have lost some of the element of surprise, but the movie compensates with sheer audacity of spectacle and story. And everyone gets to show off a bit in this film.

On team England, Mark Strong (Miss Sloane), Sophie Cookson (Huntsman: Winters’ War), and Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Baby) all reprise roles adding to the mythology. But the surprise addition of Hanna Alström (Kingsman: The Secret Service) showed us that Eggsy wasn’t just a love ’em and leave ’em guy, he was capable of commitment. It is a nice flourish for his story.

Team America (1) is a bit more complex to pull apart. A great deal was made of Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), but their parts are relatively small. It is more Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Pedro Pascal (The Great Wall) that drive that team. To be truthful, I wish I had known a lot less about this section of the film as it is slowly revealed over the first third of the plot, but it is impossible to not know it given the advertising and the cast.

Team America (2) is the US Government officials led by Bruce Greenwood (Spectral) and Emily Watson (Everest). Greenwood provides an ugly version of the office that was a scarily good guess at the current tenor given that it was in production during the changeover of administrations here at the time. Watson’s is an important role, but a bit of a cipher as a character, which is a shame given her abilities.

In opposition to them all are Edward Holcroft (London Spy) and Julianne Moore (Vanya on 42nd Street). Holcroft isn’t much more than a prop to bridge the movies and make it personal for Eggsy and the Kingsmen. There just isn’t much there other than anger and a desire to succeed. Julianne Moore, however, has a bit more meat on her character bones. Her speech on the motivation and plan she has put into action is one of the more interesting, subtle pieces of the social commentary that underlies this story. While she delivers it all well, there isn’t all that much for her to work with. Still, she kept it from being a cookie-cutter villainess. She also has one amusing, surprise guest with a fun story-line, but I’m not going to spoil that here.

The most interesting returnee to this universe is director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn. This is his first ever sequel. After launching Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, he left the franchises to others. He does a credible job coming back for this round, but he did miss a few marks. First, despite its scope, the film doesn’t feel international. It feels like Hollywood. This is in large part due to the rather nasty portrayal of the US government as well as only showing us a view of the world events via a fictionalized Fox News. “Fictionalized” as it is Fox actually doing news (rather than misreporting or opining). But there are no feeds from the other affected countries. That was a mistake I’m sure was insisted on by Fox Studios, but it really rather hurt the credibility of the tale. And Vaughn really has to stop trying to recreate his amazing “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men. It just isn’t going to happen.

On a technical level, the film really excels. The script is constructed solidly to use everything as well as to redeem characters and even the golden circle symbol itself. And the editing, both between scenes and within fights, is pretty amazing. While there are moments it is very much obvious, which you don’t really want editing to be (like a couple of the cross-fades), they’re so beautifully executed that you can’t help but admire the choices. But the intra-fight editing is the real prize: is damn near seamless, which is astounding when you realize the complexity of the shots.

As a whole, this is just as entertaining as the first film in the series. It isn’t so much about discovery any longer, we’ve had our origin story after all. This round is about redemption and growth and finding a place in the world… and a whole lot of violence getting there, as adolescence often is. The film absolutely sets up a third installment, but fully resolves the story it starts in this outing. It has a ton of laughs, car chases worth of Fast & Furious or Bond, tons of flying lead and mashed bodes, and a social message that may or may not resonate for everyone, but that is certainly interesting to note. If you liked the first, you will like the second. If you haven’t found this series yet, start with The Secret Service and then return to this. While it may stand on its own, it will have a whole lot more depth with the background for you.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Mindgamers

[2 stars]

I have to admit, thanks to the inclusion of Sam Neill (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) in this cast, not to mention the design of Enoch, I couldn’t get Event Horizon out of my head. There are aspects that make the two somewhat brethren, though they are movies with very very different intentions. Mindgamers is much more sf/horror while Event Horizon was really just horror with sf trappings.

Admittedly, though Neill is at the core of this story, the movie is driven by Tom Payne (Luck) and his group of hapless geeks. That group is completed with some competent and committed actors: Dominique Tipper (Girl with All the Gifts), Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Split), Oliver Stark (Into the Badlands), Turlough Convery (Poldark). It isn’t really entirely their fault that the script is oblique and over-written.

Working against or with them (depending on the scene and your interpretation) is Melia Kreiling (Last Tycoon). She brings a cool creepiness to her character, though very little depth. 

Director Andrew Goth and writer Joanne Reay  are frequent collaborators. You can sense the simpatico from script and vision to screen. The trip, for there is no better way to describe the result, is fluid and done without apology and with little explanation. It is clear that reality is something that isn’t defined crisply from very near the beginning. I actually applaud the guts of that approach, but the result wasn’t particularly great. A Cure for Wellness, for all its faults, tackled the psychological part of that much more effectively.

Basically, no, I can’t recommend this flick. Despite its amusing launch in theaters (a la William Castle) offering a mind-linked experience, the story just isn’t there for all the visual and choreography cleverness. Their locations also became a distraction for me as they were more interesting than the movie and and some were recognizable from other films (in particular, Spectral). So, my recommendation is either watch this highly altered or simply pass it by. Someone will do the theme better justice at some point.

MindGamers

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

[3 stars]

This is a tough one. Any time you tackle a classic you risk annoying people or messing it up. Ghost in the Shell has close to biblical import in the manga and anime worlds, so it was even more fraught with peril.

But let’s tackle the story problem first. How do you make an exciting story about an emotionless cyborg looking for its humanity? It ain’t easy. We have lots of eye candy, enough to rival Blade Runner or even the more recent Valerian. The world is rich, incredibly designed to the smallest detail, and evocative of the roots of the material.

Scarlett Johansson (The Jungle Book) is solid as the female mercenary lead. Believable in action and cold in execution. But it is not much different from her turns in Lucy, Under the Skin, Her, or even as Black Widow, in many ways. It is a solid go-to for her and she shades each differently, but it is all getting a bit the same. Sometimes, that can be enough, but this is a complex tale of identity and horror…and the script leaves both her and us hanging on resolving and dealing with those aspects.

To get around her character’s lack of emtion, we do have some of her team to reflect on. Pilou Asbæk (Great Wall, or even better as Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) in particular and Juliet Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria) as well. Both have connections to Major that provide emotion by proxy.

But then there is the white washing problem. Why are all the cyborgs Western? And, while that could be a choice in order to distance the new entity from its past, it is something that could have been covered by commenting on it. We know she has a Japanese mother and was at least half-Japanese herself from this film. I’m not trying to be overly PC, but it can be as jarring as watching a cast of Englishmen playing Frenchmen without even bothering to try and change the accent (let alone language). Culture and race (even if only from a morphological point of view) are even more core and affect credibility.

Given this was director Rupert Sanders’s (Snow White and the Huntsman) second feature, it was at an impressive scale. But, ultimately, like Valerian, this is mostly an empty ride. Even the climax ends up missing the mark as the relationships aren’t really established to make it believable nor is the key phrase used to set it off quite how its been set up through the script (though I liked the idea). Truly a shame as it was almost a powerful finale.

Do you want to spend some time in this universe? If you want the eye candy (both CGI and the skin-tight clad Ms. Johansson), sure. It isn’t a brilliant script. It isn’t mindblowing acting. It isn’t more than a middling adaptation. Sometimes, that can all be enough for a bit of distraction. Can’t it?

Ghost in the Shell

Marvel’s The Defenders

[3 stars]

One of the biggest challenges coming into this collective mash-up was that each of the prequel/origin series had very distinctive styles. Daredevil was a sort of stylized, dark police/action series. Jessica Jones was a gritty, street detective show. Luke Cage was borderline black exploitation, but with a positive flare. Iron Fist was much closer to pure martial arts comic book than anything else, and with a weak lead to drive it.

This is is also the first time I’m aware of multiple shows feeding into a single new entity (and done so with intent, not a temporary cross-over or spin-off). Aspects and mysteries from each of the shows come up and are woven back into a single tapestry for a sixth season climax (Daredevil has had two seasons already). You just have to appreciate the audacity of it, if not always the execution.

The melding of the styles actually worked rather well; the first half of the season spent time mixing them together into a blend of something that absorbed aspects of each. They also didn’t immediately form the team, for which I was grateful. The Defenders are an uncomfortable alliance of, often, reluctant heroes. Fate and The Hand insist on throwing them together, but sometimes they’d rather be throwing each other. It makes for some nice moments of tension and humor, as well as the iconic Marvel “moments in the restaurant.”

In addition to our main heroes (and enemies), adding Sigourney Weaver (A Monster Calls) to this cast was a a coup. She plays one of the most quietly competent and confident leaders of the opposition I think I’ve seen. She never loses her cool or focus, though she  does manage to show some levels.

But as a series unto itself, as clever and fun as it is, the entire plot rests on the shoulders of the Iron Fist. Frankly, Finn Jones is just not up to the job. He comes across as immature and petulant rather than as broken and troubled while trying to find his way. It weakens the result and keeps you from emotionally committing to the effort. You just want to slap sense into the man-boy. It particularly makes the events leading to the climactic reveal feel silly. The ongoing reluctance of Daredevil’s sidekicks was a drag on the story as well, though it is handled significantly better.

Ultimately, the series goes where you’d expect, which is fine. This is a super-hero trope and the journey is as important as the results. The fact that clues to it are throughout the previous five series is really fun. I do want to see what comes next, but I’m hopeful/hoping that the focus will be on a different character, and that Danny Rand will finally grow into his long pants and be a bit more Tony Stark than Pee Wee Herman (and aren’t there golden fists jokes to be made there?). But you do have to see this if you’ve committed to any of the previous lead-ups just to see the other characters grow. It certainly isn’t wasted time, but I had hoped for something better given the strength of the other three leads.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Series 3)

[3 stars]

OK, I honestly didn’t see myself writing about this reboot again. The first series was wonderfully surprising, but still aimed a bit young for my taste. The second series was middling and felt like it was simply pushed out too quickly.

This third installment, however, has a bit more subtlety to it. Lotor, the new evil, is actually a bit more real, a bit smarter, and a lot more intriguing…especially given our world today. He conquers with kindness, stealth, and power. It is a great evolution in how cartoon enemies are drawn for this kind of story and this audience. Shades of grey are always more interesting than simple black & white.

Frustratingly, despite the interesting start, the end of this series was rushed. The final episode is just a huge flashback explanation on the origins of the war and, as it happens, Voltron. The explanations are clever and made me appreciate the writers. But then, well, let’s just say they fell back on what they knew rather than continuing to go someplace more interesting. I have a sense where series 4 will go, but I do hate missed chances.

At least we don’t have long to wait to see what happens next. Series 4 arrives in October.

votron

Alien: Covenant

[3 stars] The main question that was raised when this latest installment of the Alien universe was announced was, “Why?” The previous film, Blow-metheus, as it is lovingly referred to in my circles, had a horrible script, confused expectations, and answered next to nothing about the Xenomorph and the moments that led to the original Alien, even though we’d been promised that. In fact, Ridley Scott (The Martian) confused matters further by denying what little seemed obvious in the film (whether it was Earth at the beginning or not) and obfuscated the overall plan.

Now comes Covenant, which takes place 10 years after the end of the previous movie (though there are problems with that timeline based on Fassbender’s statements as David). But this time we’ve a crew that is, generally, more believable with some exceptions I’ll get to. As colonists I gave them some latitude as to their space worthiness. However it is a science fiction movie as well as horror, and there are some gaffs that really pulled me out of the tale on that aspect.

There will be some minor spoilers in this discussion, but nothing that really matters.

Let’s start near the top with the neutrino burst that sets it all in motion. Do suns have these? Yes. However, neutrinos also have little to no mass and so you wouldn’t be blasted by such an event. A gamma ray burst, maybe, but not neutrinos. And why would a multiyear, sleeper ship be so fragile as to lose all power when one sail is out of alignment? There were better ways to set up these events to get to the same ends.

Then we get to the Star Trek silliness of the entire senior staff of the crew going down to explore the new planet. They are responsible for four thousand colonists (so we’re told, though who lived and died there changes from beginning to end of the movie), but are willing to just take off and leave almost no one awake aboard. Now we get to signs of civilization, which are apparently surprising despite the following of a signal (a signal in English, mind you).

These folks may not be hardened space farers, but they are supposed to be scientists…and yet they go mucking about, touching things and being generally stupid on their arrival, and not taking objects that would make sense (like the photo they find).

And then, with the players positioned on the board, the fun begins…the second of three parts that is supposed to, eventually, close the loop with the original Alien. (Notice I’m not even calling out the scene replications from Alien, Aliens, and the rest of the series that you could take as either homage or laziness.)

Right off the bat we have familiar Alien-like attacks and expectations. Though there is a minimal, core group of actors for the story, there are really just two main crew members who drive the tensions. Billy Crudup (20th Century Women), as acting captain is ineffectual and weak…which was disappointing. Crudup is a good actor, but he was directed by Scott to be unsteady from the start and we never respect him nor believe his religious fervor. His deterioration should have been gradual. On the other hand, Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) starts off tough. She, alone in the crew, appears to understand how things should be done despite any personal pain and sacrifice that is going on. She is our Ripley analog and overcomes a lot of the script to show us a solid leader and warrior…if not an intelligent one at times.

The rest of our characters, though set up in the opening scenes as competent individuals, suddenly change. For instance, the pilot, Carmen Ejogo (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who had nerves of steel through the storm is suddenly a panicked, screaming mess causing mayhem. Callie Hernandez (La La Land) becomes a preening fool. The men fare no better, and the somewhat groundbreaking relationship of Demian Bichir (The Hateful Eight) and his lover is nice, but so glossed over as to be lost in the confused mess of the story and served no real purpose nor had any impact. In fact, if there is any constant in this film it is that the only lives that matter are the ones you, personally, care about. Everyone else’s lives are cheap…so, of course, it all falls apart.

The one steady element of all the Alien films has been the synthetics. Michael Fassbender (Song to Song) does a wonderful job as the semi-psychotic David and the even tempered Walter in this newest sequence. He also gets a great reference to Ozymandias, which is both amusing given Crudup’s turn in Watchmen, and probably far too arch for the type of film this really is.

But the reality is that, while there are the bones of an interesting story, the movie just isn’t that good. It is predictable, recognizable, thin on character and thinner on scares. The plot, the only reason to watch this prequel sequence, is getting stretched out over three films (assuming the next is ever made) and it will have to do backflips to get us to the ship with the Pilot in the original Alien. A place we already were in Prometheus, had Scott had the balls to just do one, simple film to close the series.

So why watch this uninspired, unsurprising sequel? Well, there are a couple reasons. It doesn’t really break new ground, but neither does it do it poorly. It just doesn’t entertain as much as it should because we’ve seen it all before and because we’re well ahead of the story regarding the “surprises.” There is also the dueling Fassbenders, which is great fun; watching him act is always a joy.

Is that enough to spend your time? Maybe. It is pure popcorn with a familiar refrain. It has good production values and some answers to burning questions. Fans of Alien wanted this to be so much more than it was, but it is what we’ve got to work with. The jury is still out as to whether any of it will ever make sense or be worth all the years of effort that have been pored into the endeavor.

Alien: Covenant