Ridley Scott delivers horror sci-fi that, for better and worse, follows the blueprint of J.J. Abrams' 'Star Wars' installment
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If the original Star Wars opened in theaters for the first time tomorrow, it wouldn’t become Star Wars. It’s easy to idealize the all-time great films and think that everything annoying about movies today could be fixed if someone just made them like they used to. But by today’s standards, A New Hope is too slow, the structure too odd, the plot too light. And yet…it’s utterly perfect.
That’s part of the genius of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Director J.J. Abrams’ threaded needle of a film is both modern and retro. The Force Awakens translates the ’77 epic into the language of modern movies and whips up fresh excitement for old-school visuals, sound effects, and characters — even as it traces (sometimes too literally) the same thrills and rhythms of the original trilogy. In short, it’s a remake that is new where it counts, and it worked. The Force Awakens grossed $937 million. Director Ridley Scott has plotted a similar course for Alien: Covenant, his sequel to 2012’s Prometheus, which was itself a prequel to his 1979 classic, Alien. (Got all that?)
Covenant picks up some of the mythological threads that Prometheus puts down, but the setup is a throwback. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The ragtag crew of a space vessel — in this case Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, among others — detect a mysterious signal on their way to a much-less-deadly destination and divert course to check it out. Once there, one of the crew decides to examine a sinister egg by placing his face directly over it. (Yeesh. Has the dude never seen Alien?)
The result is something that certainly looks like Alien. Thanks to the confident direction of a filmmaker who is pushing 80, plus some strong, lived-in performances — including the two bravura ones that Michael Fassbender delivers as different models of the same android — all of the dread and helplessness of the original is there. What’s most remarkable, however, is that Covenant feels like Alien, much like The Force Awakens feels like Star Wars.
There are drawbacks, though. This isn’t the shockingly new blast of space-born terror that audiences discovered nearly four decades ago. It’s a rerun, but a damn good one. Besides, queuing up a bunch of victims to die at the bony hands of a deep-space monster doesn’t automatically make for an entertaining two hours, any more than, say, sticking a lonely kid on a desert planet always makes for a grand adventure. But Alien: Covenant is fun and builds a compelling case for venturing out to an actual theater. The audience laughs because it doesn’t know what else to do with its terror. Nervous giggles ripple through the crowd like whatever thing is crawling under that sick guy’s skin. We root for Waterston’s Daniels, the new tough-as-nails brunette, to kill that thing! You’re not just watching a movie next to strangers. You’re in this together.
So maybe Hollywood can’t really make them like they used to, but there’s a way to come close. Turns out the secret to creating a movie almost as exhilarating as Alien is both impossibly simple and at least a little disheartening: having already made Alien 38 years earlier.