**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride
screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper
directed by Ridley Scott
by Bryant Frazer It's rare that a perfect film is also financially lucrative. Ridley Scott's Alien is one such title--a scary movie that really cuts across demographic boundaries. Think of it as a science-fiction slasher flick or a deep-space old-dark-house thriller with a crew of likeably blue-collar mopes facing off against a shape-changing menace that's part axe murderer, part wild grizzly, and part serial rapist. It works because it's non-specific. But in the space of its 117 minutes, it finds what frightens you. Alien stands as a singular achievement. Still, because it was released in the age of the sequel, studio 20th Century Fox eagerly founded a franchise on it, and the series immediately begin deconstructing itself. James Cameron's Aliens was downright reactionary, replacing the first film's working-class heroes with a bunch of Heinlein-esque space marines, transforming its boogeyman into an opposing army of boogeymen, and saddling Ripley with motherly duties, blithely undoing Alien's celebrated subversion of such tropes. In Alien3, the game was truly on: Director David Fincher straight-up murdered Ripley's new nuclear family before powering the film's narrative towards a climactic conflagration depicting a Christ-like sacrifice and unalloyed abortion metaphor. This was much more in keeping with the subtextually-rich original--but it was decidedly audience-unfriendly. It took another five years for Joss Whedon and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to stick a fork in the franchise; Alien: Resurrection was the first Alien movie that genuinely didn't seem to give a shit about Alien movies.
It would take another fifteen years for the real Alien resurrection to happen at the bidding of the proud papa of the whole series. Rather than grapple with forward continuity--by then a shambles--Scott opted to develop a backstory over which he could assert complete control. So we got Prometheus, which played like fan fiction striving to interpolate Blade Runner's thematic concerns about biological engineering and artificial intelligence with Alien's body horror. The resulting chin-stroker, about Man's relationship with Something Greater, was stupefyingly dull, though the colours were pretty and it was punctuated by a climax involving an auto-abortion machine that came close to making the whole thing worth the sit. Or was enough to generate a worldwide gross that guaranteed a follow-up in Alien: Covenant, anyway. In this newest sequel, Scott hasn't abandoned the previous film's wanky Big Question philosophizing, but Alien: Covenant is certainly feistier in the specifics than its predecessor. Key moments: James Franco's character is burned to a crisp before he has a chance to deliver a line; a nerve-shredding set-piece has a small group of astronauts ambushed by tiny, spring-loaded beasts in the tall alien grass; and Michael Fassbender plays opposite Michael Fassbender (two robots who look like dead ringers but run very different firmware) in an intimate, faintly ridiculous seduction of himself.
That business is all very stylish, but there's much more on screen that amounts to much, much less. The script is just an overdeveloped remake of the 1979 original, dutifully restaging signature scenes while striving to explain the details of how the killer organism from Alien was created. (I'm still not sure why the alien requires an origin story, but Scott insists it does, and so here we are.) Rather than attempt to brainstorm new squicky stuff, Scott falls back on the old reliable face-hugger and chestburster, this time with CG patina, and his idea of character development is stacking the crew of spaceship USCSS Covenant with married couples so that when one of them dies on screen it's not some rando but, OMG, someone's wife/husband. And then there's Covenant's long return-of-the-killer coda--that post-climactic section of a horror movie where the characters on screen believe that the threat has been vanquished but the audience knows that the killer still stalks his prey. I can only read Scott's inclusion of an honest-to-god shower scene, complete with screaming woman and naked tits spattered with blood, as a wink to those who have long tut-tutted at the idea that Ripley would strip to her underwear during the similar coda that closes out Alien. Surely Scott is aware of the long-standing controversy. And does any other interpretation of such a dopey gambit hold water?
Scott doesn't explain the shower scene on Alien: Covenant's audio commentary track--part of a deluxe Blu-ray package that harks back to the film-nerdy glory days of LaserDisc--though he does spend some time discussing the similar coda in the original Alien, which he says he wrote himself before convincing the reluctant studio to pay for an extra five days of principal photography to shoot it. "It was worth every penny," he claims, before noting pointedly that he gifted audiences for Covenant with more than just two endings: "An end on an end on an end on an end." Though Alien and even Blade Runner were good examples of straightforward storytelling with subtext to spare, Scott now gives the impression he feels that when it comes to narrative, more is better--more backstory, more laborious character motivations, more plastering a film's thematic concerns across its expository surface. And Scott's focus on explaining what's happening on screen and expanding upon the intended deeper meanings indicates he's concerned that gormless multiplex audiences will underestimate the fullness of his vision.
Still, he's a comfortable and lucid speaker, if not a top-tier commentator. Some high points? He reveals that the Danny McBride character, Tennessee, was inspired by Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, and that Michael Fassbender's wardrobe was based on a character from a British story paper called "The Hotspur". He speaks fondly of the first Alien (he calls the original creature "a rather beautiful cockroach, massive, with a brain") in a way that demonstrates he understands that the film's relative minimalism makes it special, but never regrets dashing off in the opposite direction this time around. (At one point, discussing the script development process, he actually marvels at the accomplishment: "Amazing what you can bullshit as you go along, innit?") Along the same lines, he has a harsh word for the test-screener who complained that Covenant's big last-minute twist was telegraphed in advance: "Duh." (Peevishly, he repeats it three times.) But by the time the shower scene rolls around, even Sir Ridley seems to have lost interest in the particulars of what he was thinking, opting instead to toss Statler-and-Waldorf jibes from the cheap seats. ("That's nasty," he remarks as the xenomorph's tail curls around the nude woman's thigh. Then, at the gory aftermath, "He made short work of that lot.") The moment the credits start to scroll, Sir Ridley tips his hat and makes for the exit. I wish Fox had pulled out the stops to get some of Scott's collaborators into the commentary mix; a more engaged yakker would make this an exemplary package.
Certainly Fox hasn't skimped on the video transfer, which is correctly letterboxed at 2.39:1 on both UHD and HD Blu-ray discs. Alien: Covenant was shot mainly with ARRI Alexa cameras at a maximum 3.4K resolution, then downsampled to 2K for release, yet the UHD upconversion smokes the already-excellent HD transfer in every way. (The UHD disc holds only the feature itself and Scott's audio commentary, preserving precious bandwidth for the high-resolution picture.) It's not just the increased brightness of the HDR colour space, although that certainly plays a role--for example, the opening scene featuring David (Fassbender) in conversation with Weyland (Guy Pearce) has an icy white brilliance that's only hinted at in the HD and theatrical versions of the film. Colour saturation is much improved, making it easier to track the figure of Daniels (Katherine Waterston) against the planetary backdrop as she swings from a red cable anchored to a wildly careening spaceship, trying to blast the alien with a machine gun.
Meanwhile, inside the spacecraft, DP Dariusz Wolski employs embedded practical LED fixtures that pop impressively (if distractingly) in HDR, along with brightly-coloured lights on the various consoles and displays. I can certainly imagine a viewer preferring the HD colour space--it has a flintier appearance that's well-suited to sci-fi horror and matches what most audiences saw in theatres--but the HDR transfer is definitely the you-are-there version. Both options are scrupulously clean and clear, with contrast leaning towards the darker end of the curve. While the palette favours a familiar selection of blues and oranges, it's generally monochromatic within any given scene. Film grain is obviously a non-factor, though the image twinkles with a touch of noise in some shots. Meanwhile, Dolby Atmos audio is robust and plenty bassy, precisely positioning ambient sound FX and instrumentation from Jed Kurzel's Jerry Goldsmith-inspired score around the soundfield. It more than adequately conveys the relative crispness of sound designer Oliver Traney's mix, which eschews horror and sci-fi gimmickry to operate more in the mold of a traditional action thriller or war movie.
Scott mentions in the audio commentary that his first cut of the 122-minute film ran between 135 and 140 minutes, meaning the raft of deleted and extended scenes on the attendant Blu-ray disc (totalling just under 18 minutes) must be pretty close to the whole megillah. They're all smart edits; though some feature nice performances, they offer unnecessary character embellishments. There is a flashback of Franco and Waterston together in an apartment with snow falling outside a window looking out over a futuristic city. It's an absolutely gorgeous shot--but it's a flashback, and we don't need it. More interesting, to my surprise, is the raft of short promos created to tout the film's theatrical bow. Three of them, collected here under the general heading "USCSS Covenant," are little standalone stories about the ill-fated spaceship's crew, including "Meet Walter" (2 mins.), a fake ad for your plastic pal who's fun to be with, and "Phobos" (9 mins.), a Toby Nye-directed short featuring much of the film's cast that imagines how psychological profiling might be used to select a crew of astronaut-scientist-colonists. Two more segments under the heading "Sector 87 - Planet 4" consider David's time on the alien homeworld. In a chilly voiceover, he discusses his biomorphic science project in much more detail than is permitted in Alien: Covenant itself. It's inessential, yet fairly compelling. Also in this section is "David's Illustrations," a step-frame showcase for occasionally horrific but beautifully-executed scientific drawings depicting local plant and animal life in addition to borderline-surrealist visions of David's biological experiments.
If you like that, you'll love the two still-image archives that are even larger. One presents script pages from the film alongside Scott's corresponding storyboards, known affectionately as Ridleygrams. Another collects conceptual art, including designs for the movie's creatures as well as (a Scott specialty) various company logos and patches adorning the sets and costumes. The user interface for these sections is unnecessarily clunky, requiring you to abandon the standard DVD/Blu-ray directional-button navigation and instead use the much less frequently accessed Next Chapter button to move through the image libraries. But the level of pre-production ephemera reproduced is impressive, reminding me specifically of the massive frame-by-frame supplementary sections on the old Alien LaserDisc boxed set, one of the high-water marks of the studio-LD era.
"Master Class: Ridley Scott" (55 mins.), despite its auteurist handle, is a more traditional making-of, with chapter markings for four sections considering story, characters, setting, and creatures. It starts off as a typical studio-sponsored doc, as writers, actors, producers and director all share stories about what a creatively edifying time was to be had on set, but eventually it digs deeper into the production process, providing a better picture of how certain on-screen effects were achieved than could be gleaned from Scott's commentary alone while offering a pretty good view of Scott's storyboards for those who are uninterested in opening the full archive. The bits from the film's creature shop are, unsurprisingly, the most uniquely engaging. Also, those folks seem most apt to pronounce H.R. Giger's last name correctly (rhymes with meagre). I thank the powers-that-be for resisting the temptation to break this documentary down into four separate featurettes. Fox closes down a pretty lively Alien: Covenant party with a pair of trailers (2 mins. apiece), then slips a digital download into the case for good measure. Boutique labels tend to set the standards for Blu-ray special editions, but this is a superior studio release.