ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence, Bloody Images, Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: John Logan & Dante Harper

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo & Amy Seimetz

The ALIEN franchise has had ups and downs. Ridley Scott created 1979’s ALIEN as a creature feature that featured A-list talent and nightmarish scares. James Cameron took 1986’s ALIENS in an entirely different, more action-packed direction and wound up with one of the best sequels of all-time. Then Fox screwed up ALIEN 3 with endless meddling and ALIEN: RESURRECTION felt like goofy fan fiction on the big screen. Ridley Scott returned to the series that he created with PROMETHEUS, a prequel that was divisive among fans. Personally, I loved it. ALIEN: COVENANT falls marginally below PROMETHEUS and far above the third and fourth installments in the series. This is a good time that hits familiar beats, but contains enough originality to be compelling, creepy and entertaining!

Set between the events of PROMETHEUS and ALIEN, COVENANT follows the crew of the titular spaceship Covenant. Aboard this massive spacecraft are lots of hibernating colonists and a handful of crew members to ensure that the mission goes safely. However, the smooth sailing takes a dangerous turn when a power surge erupts and results in some casualties. Not exactly eager to jump back into possibly faulty sleep pods, the crew receives a signal from a nearby planet that seems perfect for colonization. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Soon enough, body-bursting aliens are running around, androids are pondering the meaning of their existence, and bloody horror ensues.

At certain points in its plot, COVENANT seems content to repeat familiar beats that worked in previous installments. There are visceral frights in the vein of the 1979 original, action-oriented scenes that echo excitement from 1986’s sequel, and ambition that was seen in PROMETHEUS. Though pieces of the plot are predictable, Ridley Scott effectively toys with the viewer’s expectations. For an ALIEN film, COVENANT takes a sweet amount of time giving explanations and touching on the dark mythology of the Xenomorphs. The serves as a direct sequel to PROMETHEUS (I won’t spoil any of the nasty specifics or surprises) and also had me wondering where the hell certain developments were heading (in a good way).

COVENANT falters when it comes to the victims, er, I mean characters. It’s clear that most of these people are only here so that more gory kills are included in the body count. While that was the case with earlier films in the franchise, those characters’ deaths meant something because we cared about them. The same cannot be said for many of the folks in COVENANT. Katherine Waterston gives the best performance as the strong female lead and her character seemed like a more vulnerable version of Ripley. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender shines as new android Walter and Prometheus survivor David.

The rest of the characters are either bland or stereotypes. Danny McBride seems to be giving his all in this film, but his character’s personality only seems to consist of a cowboy hat and love for country music. Meanwhile, Billy Crudup plays the self-centered mission captain as a one-dimensional scumbag. There are attempts to flesh him out as being religious and a scientist, but these points feel half-assed and underdeveloped. He also makes the single stupidest decision in the entire film. It’s eye-rollingly terrible. To make matters worse, certain lines of dialogue feel unnatural as characters frequently identify their relationships with each other. The words “my wife” are used to the point of annoyance and this keeps occurring in order to remind us that there are couples in the crew. It doesn’t elevate any emotional impact when heads literally roll and people have creatures bursting out of their bodies though.

Budgeted at a whopping 97 million (about 30 million less than PROMETHEUS), CONVENANT looks amazing. The settings are brought to life with real locations and fantastic special effects. There are many haunting images in this film that far surpass the material at points, kind of like PROMETHEUS did in many respects. The various Xenomorphs are all appropriately freaky and fun to watch, even when the final third of the film boils down to a condensed version of ALIEN. The money is clearly on the screen and the production values are spectacular!

Even though it repeats familiar beats from the series’ best moments and half of the characters seem worthless, ALIEN: COVENANT is still a solid film in the long-running science-fiction/horror franchise. This sequel/prequel answers questions that people were left when PROMETHEUS concluded and leaves enough mysteries for future installments (supposedly two more movies are in the works). The story and visuals combine bold ideas with ghoulish spectacle. I imagine that COVENANT won’t exactly win over people who despised PROMETHEUS. If (like me) you were a fan of that film and enjoy the ALIEN series (in spite of its weaker entries), COVENANT is a lot of fun and delivers the chills that we’ve come to crave from these films.

Grade: B+

ALIEN (1979)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm & Yaphet Kotto

ALIEN was one of the first science-fiction horror films to be taken seriously in film. This was basically a B-movie monster story executed with A-grade talent and scares. The film launched the career of a budding Ridley Scott into the mainstream, delivered one of the best female characters to ever grace the silver screen, and spawned a movie franchise that has lasted for decades. Though this film relies on a simple story and it’s not without a few flaws, ALIEN is essential viewing for anybody who loves movies!

The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are awakened from hypersleep by a distress signal on a nearby planet. According to a clause in their work contracts, the crew must investigate and rescue anybody in distress on their way home. What appears to be a rescue mission turns into something out of a nightmare because the planet is quiet, mist-covered, and downright spooky. When one of the crew encounters an odd-looking egg and, being an idiot, bends down to take a closer look, he winds up with a living organism hugging his face. The crew, being idiots, let the possibly contaminated crew member back on board and soon enough, there’s a full-fledged, blood-thirsty alien running around the ship. It’s up to warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to remedy the deadly blunders of her fellow crew members.

You might have noticed ALIEN’s single problem from my plot synopsis. The spaceship is populated by characters who do really stupid things and their dumb decisions further the story along. Don’t get me wrong. ALIEN is a fantastic movie, but there are eye-rolling lapses in judgment that seem to slide purely because the story needs them to. The whole film hinges on a dumbass looking into an egg and then another moron letting that dumbass back onto the spaceship. I can let both of those stupid decisions slide, but I can’t stand Harry Dean Stanton’s redneck wandering around by himself because the script demands it. Also, The film’s most egregious example of stupid decisions has one sobbing character refusing to get out of the alien’s way, thus resulting in two deaths. It’s been nearly 20 years since I first saw ALIEN and this moment still seems stupid to me.

With my complaints out of the way, let me dive into ALIEN’s great qualities and there are plenty to be praised! The first one is Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist Ripley. She’s a strong heroine who kicks ass and doesn’t take crap from any other crew member on the ship. She easily seems like the most sensible person of the bunch and we root for her to live from her first appearance. Weaver is basically playing a slasher final girl on a spaceship and does this with a bad-ass persona. Another performance worth praising is Ian Holm as creepy scientist Bishop. You know something isn’t right about him from his first interaction and though his most memorable scene has already been spoiled by plenty of people throughout the decades, Holm still remains unnerving in the role.

What’s most impressive about ALIEN is how much it accomplished with simple technology and effects capabilities of its time. Ridley Scott employed everyday appliances like rubber gloves (for the movement inside the egg), puppets (for the early born alien), milk (for Android’s blood), various animal guts (for pieces of the facehugger), and miniatures/models (for spaceships and planets). However, none of that is what appears on the screen. What we see is another world, freaky organisms, and visceral gore. ALIEN easily has the best effects to come out of the 1970s!

The spectacular effects come to a head when talking about the film’s titular monster. This is a creature feature after all and a lot of the scares hinge on the creature. Using an unforgettable design by H.R. Giger, the Xenomorph is easily one of the greatest monsters to be brought to life by a man in a suit. That man, Bolaji Badejo, was unnaturally skinny and very tall. This brought an eerie effect to the monster and Scott purposely picked Badejo because he didn’t want the eye to naturally think that a person could possibly be portraying the long-headed, two-mouthed Xenomorph. This monster still freaks me out in certain scenes, the biggest of which is easily Dallas (Tom Skeritt) hunting it in the ship’s air ducts. That entire sequence is masterfully executed and delivers one of the best jump scares in cinema history.

While later entries in the series would take a more action-based approach to the material, ALIEN is like a slasher film in space that features a monster and haunted house scares. It’s a nearly perfect combination of science fiction and horror, with a handful of stupid character decisions marking the film’s only flaws. The monster is iconic. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is one of the best heroines to ever hit the silver screen. The special effects still look amazing. The scares are effective. The filmmaking is masterful. Simply put, ALIEN is one of the best creature features ever!

Grade: A

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

BLADE RUNNER (1982)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples

(based on the novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Brian James, Daryl Hannah & M. Emmet Walsh

Besides bringing arguably the most terrifying alien movie to the screen, director Ridley Scott also made a significant mark in the science fiction genre with BLADE RUNNER! This film polarized critics upon its release and underperformed at the box office, but has since gone on to become a cult hit with a large fanbase and modern critics praising it to the heavens. Believe the hype. BLADE RUNNER is not only one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, it’s also one of the best films of all time. Combining noir and science fiction into one wholly original and unforgettable combination, BLADE RUNNER is absolutely phenomenal.

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In the distant future of 2019, earth has become an industrial dystopia with off-world colonies. These colonies employ replicants, bioengineered beings who function as superhuman slaves. When four dangerous replicants make their way back to Los Angeles and begin a bloody quest to find their maker, retired cop Rick Deckard is pushed back into duty. You see, Deckard specialized in being a Blade Runner (someone who tracks down and kills replicants), so he’s the perfect man for the job. However, these four replicants are more human and dangerous than he expected. Decker also begins to discover that not everything is black and white.

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BLADE RUNNER is a special movie in that on paper it sounds like an extremely simple story: a guy with a gun chases down four robots. That’s merely skimming the surface of how deep this movie goes though. The world that Ridley Scott introduces us to is simply amazing to behold. It has since been mimicked in plenty of other films, TV shows, and video games, but this is definitely where the neon-lit mechanical future first came into play. The movie doesn’t waste any screen time in filling us in on exposition about this future, but rather introduces pieces of technology and new information in a natural flow that never distracts from the story at hand. Though I watched “The Final Cut” of this movie (Ridley Scott’s full vision of the story), I have to imagine that not too much was digitally altered (after all, Scott is not George Lucas) as this movie utilized a lot of wild effects and screen tricks that still hold up perfectly to this day.

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Besides the amazing on-screen world, this movie has lots of suspense and borders on becoming an outright horror film during a number of sequences. Though it was mis-marketed as an action thrill-ride and has the basic set-up of a sci-fi flick, BLADE RUNNER cannot be fully classified under either of those genres. When you consider its use of noir elements and the probing questions it asks, the film becomes the cinematic masterpiece that has held up over the test of time. The villains in BLADE RUNNER aren’t simply killer robots piling bodies up every which way they go, but instead, come complete with emotions and interesting (as well as understandable) motivations behind their violent actions. They become outright tragic figures of sorts by the end and that makes them more than just one-dimensional baddies. Thus, these four replicants (the two biggest stand-outs being a frightening Rutger Hauer and victim-turned-villainess Daryl Hannah) become some of the most interesting and compelling antagonists in science-fiction film history.

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By praising these replicants, I’m not trying to take anything away from troubled protagonist Rick Decker. This man is ostensibly a noir protagonist placed in a futuristic, neon landscape. Harrison Ford plays Decker unlike any of the other roles that I’ve seen him play. Instead of being a wise-cracking rogue (ala Han Solo) or a charismatic action-hero (ala Indiana Jones), Decker comes off like a depressed cop who doesn’t necessarily like what he’s doing…but remains good at it nonetheless. Alongside Ford’s Decker is the smoking dame Rachael (Sean Young) who initially seems like a throwaway side character, but becomes a far more important player as the movie goes along. The connection between Decker and Rachael also makes for a perfect, poetic conclusion that left me wanting more (I mean that in the best possible way).

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BLADE RUNNER is a masterpiece of science-fiction, noir, and film in general. The special effects hold up decades later in bringing to life one of the most beautiful and well-designed futuristic landscapes to ever hit the big screen. The world this movie throws the viewer into is so fleshed-out and interesting that I would love to spend more time in it. The complex characters and smart writing make an otherwise simple-sounding story into something profound and emotionally moving. BLADE RUNNER is as perfect as cinema can be. This is one of my all-time favorite films!

Grade: A+

THE MARTIAN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Strong Language, Injury Images, and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Drew Goddard

(based on the novel THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir)

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor & Donald Glover

In recent years, space survival films have hit a resurgence on the big screen. In 2013, we had GRAVITY (which I loved). In 2014, we had INTERSTELLAR (which I thought was good, but far from great). It’s 2015 and now, we have THE MARTIAN. The key difference between THE MARTIAN and the other two aforementioned films is that this movie is an adaptation of a best-selling novel that happens to be directed by Ridley Scott. However, Scott hasn’t exactly been at the top of his game lately. In 2013, he disappointed with THE COUNSELOR. In 2014, he left audiences apathetic with EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Now, Scott has returned to his A-game. THE MARTIAN isn’t perfect, but it serves as a highly entertaining blockbuster.

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Astronaut Mark Watney is in the most dire situation imaginable. During a manned mission on mars, a freak storm causes his team to make an emergency evacuation. A piece of debris hits Mark and his captain makes the split-second decision to leave him for dead. However, Mark is not dead. In fact, he’s very much alive and now trapped on a uninhabitable planet, while his unaware crew members fly back home. All is not lost though as Mark has useful equipment left on the planet as well as a ground lab and a food/water supply. However, this won’t be enough to last four years (which is when the next possible NASA mission will arrive). Mark frantically does his best to (in his words) “science the shit out of this thing,”  all while NASA becomes very aware of the situation and scramble to rescue Watney.

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THE MARTIAN excels in making the viewer feel for Watney’s plight. Everything that can possibly go wrong does. You just can’t help but feel frustration at every hurdle the universe seems to be throwing Watney’s way. The atmosphere of desperation doesn’t exactly dampen any of the entertainment value to be had here. This is a really fun movie that’s meant to be taken more as an entertaining sci-fi flick rather than a realistic survival story. I say this because THE MARTIAN gets increasingly ridiculous during its third act. At this point, we’ve accepted that Mark can grow food in Martian soil and create his own water through a recipe, but there are definite moments that almost seem a little too over-the-top and far-fetched.

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Matt Damon is perfect as Mark Watney. He’s a likable presence and seems to have a constant sense of humor in the face of his dire predicament. For viewers who aren’t so science-savvy (including yours truly), there’s no need to worry about getting lost in the techno-babble of Mark’s actions, because he provides a constant commentary and explanation in his video logs. This also serves as an ingenious plot device to get dialogue out of a character who’s the only person on an entire planet. Jessica Chastain is usually solid in whatever role she takes on and there’s no change here. It almost felt like she was playing Murph from INTERSTELLAR as an astronaut, so that has to count for something. Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan all do well in the side parts of Mark’s other crew members. Meanwhile, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor serve as NASA agents trying to bring Watney home, while Jeff Daniels is the closest thing this film has to an antagonist. The only performance that comes out of left field is Donald Glover serving as comic relief combined with a plot device instead of an actual character.

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As far as spectacle goes, THE MARTIAN looks fantastic. Ridley Scott is no stranger to bringing other worlds to life on film, whether it be ALIEN or PROMETHEUS, and he does the same with the barren, crater-laden landscape of Mars in this film. None of the effects struck me as cheap or cheesy. Every piece of spectacle also serves a purpose and isn’t merely there to wow the audience. For a movie running at over two hours, the story feels very well paced and moves by quickly, save for a somewhat pointless epilogue.

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THE MARTIAN marks another thrilling space adventure in the world of cinema. It’s also a return to form for Ridley Scott (who’s been down and out for the past two years). The performances are all enjoyable. The spectacle is spectacular. The film provides a lot of entertainment combined with desperation. The story strays into a couple of silly areas during the final third, but remains an entertaining blast nonetheless. THE MARTIAN is a surefire crowd-pleaser!

Grade: A-

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