Alien Canon – The definitive, yet ultimately subjective, countdown

After watching Alien Covenant quite recently, I decided to go back and revisit the rest of the films in the franchise, you know, for fun.. (yes, I do have that much time on my hands). In the process, I was surprised to find that some of the films were not quite as bad as I remembered, while others were much, much worse… So here it is, my definite but ultimately subjective countdown of the Alien franchise films. Just a warning, it’s pretty long, so bare with it….

Oh so so many spoilers

#6: Alien 3 (1992) – ★★★★

Pffffff….Where do I start with this one? Alien 3 has now become renowned for the myriad development issues that plagued both the production and shooting of the film. Placed in the hands of the then rookie director David Fincher, it is rumored that the script was still undergoing edits and alterations even whilst the movie was being filmed. Whatever the case, it is clear from the final product that Fincher faced an ongoing battle for creative control, one that he ultimately lost. Fincher is actually one of my favourite film makers, so I certainly don’t blame him for the somewhat tragic final product. To be fair, this project looked doomed to fail from the start. It’s weird, because I used to kind of like this movie. It’s only returning to it recently that I was struck rather viscerally by its shortcomings.

The worst thing about Alien 3 is not only its drastic failure to live up to the expectations of the previous movies, but also its utter disregard for the fans that wanted to see the film because of their investment in the characters so carefully constructed in Aliens. This ‘slap in the face to fans’, as James Cameron later put it, is evidenced in the opening few minutes of the film. After having escaped from a whole colony of bloodthirsty xenomorphs in the previous installment, Alien 3 picks up with our three heroes (Ripley, Newt and Hicks….oh and Bishop) flying peacefully through space in cryosleep. But hang on!! Before we have a chance to reminisce about how pleased we still are that they all escaped the previous movie relatively unscathed, the ship starts going crazy. Cue alarm sounds and flashing lights. That’s right…..there’s a facehugger on board….

Now, don’t ask me how this is logically possible based on the ending of Aliens. Lets just ignore that for now. I mean, we’re only 45 seconds in, come on, lets give the film a chance…… So, said compromised ship commences to crash land on a planet housing a penal colony of violent male criminals. Hicks and Newt die (rendering the previous film pointless), Ripley is rescued, then gets her head shaved. End of act one.

Ripley meets colony of rapists, murderers and pederasts. They’re bad news…..and almost exclusively British. Meanwhile, another facehugger (again, not sure where this came from) gets on a dog….somehow. Then, an Alien bursts out of the dog…. and it’s, well it’s like a kind of Alien…dog…..thing? A Dog Alien……A Doglien… Then uh, to be honest, i’m having trouble remembering what happens from this point. My resounding memory of Alien 3 is watching a number of indistinguishable British character actors with shaved heads screaming and running around a sewer… this is very rarely the formula for a great movie. I also remember very, very bad CGI. I mean like, the Mummy Returns bad. No matter how you look at it, Alien 3 is just a terrible disappointment. Yes, it may well return to the suspense of the first film, but it’s just not grand enough in intent or execution. Characterization is thin to non existent and any fan would feel extremely let down by the decision to kill off two central characters in the first two mins of the film.

For me, this is the worst of the Alien Films. If I were you, I would just try to pretend it didn’t happen (like brexit) and just dream about the original William Gibson script..

A 1/5…..

#5 – Alien Resurrection (1997) – ★★★

Ok, so Alien Resurrection. I mean, ostensibly this is a terrible film. It has all the hallmarks of a terrible film (a poor script, dodgy CGI, Winona Ryder). Yet, I have to say this is one of the movies that came out better for me a few years on. It’s a silly film with hyperbolic violence and a brimful of testosterone, but it also embraces its own ludicrousness. It’s kind of like if a 14 year old boy and his mates wrote and directed a film. It’s rubbish, but there is an unremitting element of juvenile fun. Some of the dialogue, for instance, is so corny that you cant help but like it. Things like this:

[General Perez offers Elgyn a drink]

General Perez: Drink, Elgyn?

Elgyn: Constantly.

How can you not like that? Ok….so  plot. It’s 200 hundred years after the events of Alien 3 and we are on a bio-medical military space vessel – Auriga – that has managed to clone the dead Ripley out of a combination of blood samples and alien DNA……yeah…..the future man….anything is possible. The fully functioning Ripley clone that we see in the movie is their eighth attempt at this process, the other seven ending in human/alien splices with all kinds of grotesque deformities. Now, I don’t really know why they did this…..because they could? Or weapons? It has got to be weapons. Yeah, lets say weapons.

MEANWHILE……a group of mercenaries, featuring Winona Ryder and Ron Perlman, arrive at Auriga on their ship Betty. The mercenaries are paid to capture humans and transport them back to the facility in stasis for medical experimentation. Although the mercenaries don’t know it, the military scientists plan to use the humans as hosts for aliens, raising several adults to study with the aim of transforming them into – you guessed it – weapons. As you are probably beginning to suspect, this is a recipe for disaster. Before our mercenary antiheroes can leave the ship, a couple of the adult aliens kill a third, using its blood to burn through the floor of their sealed compound. Ok – I don’t want to criticize here, but i’m surprised a biomedical facility built for the study of xenomorphs didn’t plan for this kind of eventuality. Look how shocked this guy is (below). And i’m just like, why?! One of the most distinctive things about xenomorphs  is that they have acid for blood. This shit for brains must have missed that class…

Either way, a whole load of aliens escape leading to a race against time to get off the ship…….That’s pretty much all there is in terms of story…….What follows is a lot of terrible dialogue, an endless barrage of ridiculous action sequences and some very, very wooden acting (again, sorry Winona). Yet, there is a charm to the movie. Sigourney Weaver is as dependable as ever and there are some really great moments. The underwater escape sequence, for instance, is fantastic – it’s almost worth watching the film just for this. I also think Resurrection has to be placed in context. In other words, after Alien 3, i really didn’t expect much from Resurrection. In this sense, it was a pleasant surprise. It’s still one of the weakest entries, lets not get carried away, but it is still possible to sit and enjoy this movie for what it is, which can’t be said about its predecessor.

A 2/5, but a fond 2/5.

#4: Prometheus (2012) – ★★★

Uuuuggghh, so I know I have placed this above Resurrection – for reasons I will get to – but in some ways this movie is more unsatisfying for me. Again, I think it all comes down to the anticipation/disappointment scale. With a film like Resurrection, it’s difficult to be too disappointed when you have absolutely no expectations. With Prometheus, it is fair to say that my hopes were probably unrealistically high. I was extremely excited that Ridley Scott had decided to return to the franchise and was also intrigued by his statement that it would be an ‘indirect prequel’. In other words, he suggested that the film would operate in the same universe as the others, but would not feature a traditional xenomorph. This sounded like a fresh approach, one that I was hoping would reinvigorate the franchise after some disappointing sequels and spin offs (i don’t even want to talk about the Alien v Predator movies). Once again, I was let down. Now, on first viewing I wondered whether this was because I invested too much hope in Scott’s prequel. But, having watched it a few times since, there is no getting past the fact that the film is just not very good.

So, at the opening of Prometheus, the viewer is confronted with the following scene:

FADE IN:
EXT. EARTH (i think) – DAY (12,000 B.C……or some point in the past, again, i think.)

Cascading waterfalls. A ship hovers above. A cloaked figure walks to the cliffside, looking up at the ship and looming over waterfall below.

CLOSE UP:

The cloaked figure is a weird, big, humanoid…. thing. Muscly man opens a futuristic looking (even though we are in the past) soup bowl, then drinks a vile of iridescent liquid inside. Incomprehensibly, the humanoid begins to dissolve and his remains fall in the waterfall. The alien’s DNA strands mix with the water.

oooooooh, cryptic huh?

So at this point everyone is thinking – well, this is confusing, but i’m sure it will become clear later…….. it doesn’t. So you might as well forget about it for now and the rest of the film. Zoom forward now to 2089. We are on-board the Prometheus, a research vessel headed by a couple of archaeologists who are looking to discover an unknown planet pointed to by an ancient star map they found in some caves in Scotland…….fine. So basically Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her husband (is it Charlie?) are hoping to find the origin of human existence. The trip is being funded by the malevolent Weyland cooperation, with the dying Weyland himself (Guy Pierce) intending to use the expedition to discover a cure for human mortality. His daughter is heading the mission (Charlize Theron), although you don’t find out they are related till later in the film. It’s a weird one this, because I sense this father/daughter thing is supposed to be some kind of big reveal, a “what?? No way!!! – they’re related??” kind of moment. But I was just like – who gives a shit? This sub plot adds nothing to the story and is indicative of the film’s generally incoherent and unsatisfying plotting.

Anyway, on board with the archaeologists are so many characters that it is impossible to give two shits about any of them. The only one that is really important is the synthetic, David (Michael Fassbender), and he is by far the best part of the movie. This isn’t much of a compliment though – it’s basically like saying that the bread is the best part of a shit sandwich……Great, but it’s still a shit sandwhich. The ship progresses to land on a barren planet (the instigating plot point of all three of Scott’s Alien films, come on Ridley – freshen it up!) and the team of scientists start searching for signs of life. From this point on the film is incredibly derivative and does not explore or resolve the meaty philosophical questions it raises in any satisfying way. The stuff relating to the engineers (the muscly guy from the start of the film) and human creation is confusing and, quite frankly, boring.

In fact, the the whole section from the middle of the movie to the end is a convoluted mess. There is one crazy part where Elizabeth Shaw is having some kind of mutant alien baby cut out of her by an automated surgical pod, and it’s all tense and loud and full of body horror etc, which is fine. But i’m just sat there thinking: where are the rest of the crew? Like, what is everyone else doing at this moment? Do they know this is happening? Do they care? What do they look like again? There are too many characters and you don’t have enough time to invest in any of them. I quite liked Idris Alba’s character, but I suspect this is because I was then reminded of how good Luther is. Then I would just zone out of Prometheus and just think about Luther for a while, which would be a welcome distraction. I think one of the big issues with the film generally is that it lacks pathos. The death of Shaw’s husband, for instance, is supposed to be an emotionally charged moment, but it falls utterly flat (just like that crazy twist from earlier). I defy you to watch that death scene and care at all about…..Ben was it? Hugh, Andrew?..

To be fair, the film does look amazing. It is beautifully shot by Scott and some of the sets and visuals are truly stunning. This is the only reason that it places above Resurrection in this list. It is a better piece of film making, but the narrative is full of holes, question marks and dramatic moments that fail to really hit home. The film lacks any real drama and suspense and at the same time does not have strong enough characters to compensate. By the end of the film you are just sat trying to figure out: A) what just happened? B ) how does it link to the rest of the films in the franchise? C) who created humans and why? C) and D) what was going on with Noomi Rapace’s accent?

In general, I would say just avoid this film and, again, pretend it never happened (like Trump). It seems like Scott has taken this advice, as his latest Alien film (Covenant) pretty much obliterates the need to ever watch Prometheus again. Which is great! Thanks, Ridley!

A 2/5 ……a seething 2/5.

#3: Alien Covenant (2017) –  ★★

Now, i’m not really going to say much about this movie, as I only did a review of it quite recently. So if you want a more in depth analysis, check out this blog post.

Covenant is Scott’s Prometheus sequel and thankfully sees him return more explicitly to the world of Xenomorphs. It has far more tension than its predecessor as well as more novelty (not a lot, but slightly) and more interesting and developed characters. The film still has its issues – it suffers from similar problems as Prometheus i.e, a complete lack of narrative logic after about the the hour mark. Nonetheless, the first hour or so is great and well worth the watch. It’s definitely the best Alien film since the original two…..although there isn’t much competition.

A tentative 3/5.

#2: Aliens (1986) – ★★

Aliens is James Cameron’s rip-roaring blockbuster sequel to the original Alien and thankfully it doesn’t disappoint. For years and years this was my favourite film in the franchise and to be honest I am still uncertain which of the first two films I prefer. Aliens is a brilliant film that manages to be true to the original without being derivative. It builds on the characters and lore of the first installment, adding new and interesting dimensions that elevates the franchise to new heights.

Aliens takes place 57 years after the original, in which time Ripley (having escaped in the ejector pod in the last film) has been floating around space in stasis. By pure luck, she is picked up by her employers the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who ultimately question her over the circumstances that led to the death of her crew and the destruction of the Nostromo. The board are skeptical about the rampaging alien narrative Ripley imparts (you can’t really blame them), and then proceed to revoke her pilot’s license. Ripley is also shocked to learn that LV-426 (the very planet where the Nostromo encountered the alien eggs) is now the location of a terraforming colony comprised of over 40 families….let’s see how that ends…

Despite dismissing Ripley and her ‘the alien killed my crew’ excuse for missing the last 57 years of work, it is not long before Weyland-Yutani come crawling back seeking her help. Turns out Ripley’s incredulity at the company’s decision to set up a ‘shake and bake’ colony on LV-426 is almost immediately justified when radio contact with the commune is inextricably lost. After some persuasion, Ripley agrees to accompany a crack team of marines as a kind of ‘Alien Consultant’ on an exploratory/rescue mission to LV-426. There are some fantastic characters in the group of marines and the first hour of the film really gives you room to get to know and care about the ones that matter. Hicks (Michale Biehn), Hudson (the underrated Bill Paxton) and Vasquez (Janette Goldstein) are the pick of the bunch. The cocky yet ultimately emotionally hysterical Hudson and tough talking Vasquez in particular are brilliant characters that have some great dialogue. The following is one of my favourite exchanges between the two characters:

Hudson:
Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?

Vasquez:
No, have you?

The ‘banter’ between the marines is full of machismo and macho sensibility, but that does not necessarily mean that the film validates these ideas. Indeed, i have heard some people criticise the film for its ‘all American hero’ militarily jingoism, but i think this is a little misplaced. Like the first, Aliens is actually very ahead of its time in terms of gender politics and the patriotism and macho hubris we see at the beginning of the film is savagely undermined and exposed by the end.

After landing on LV-426, there is a nice tense build up before the marines encounter the aliens. Despite their bravado, the marines soon realize they have met their match and are outnumbered and decimated by the xenomorphs. The sequence where they are ambushed by a host of aliens “coming outta the goddamn walls” is one of my favourites. It’s tense, dramatic and well, spectacular! From this point the movie only gets better, bringing action and suspense in to perfect balance. It also looks great and is a film that, for me, validates the continued superiority of practical effects over digital. In terms of monster effects in particular, the film holds up so much better than Alien 3 and Resurrection. There is also a nice sub plot where Ripley encounters a young girl, Newt, who has managed to survive by hiding in the compounds ventilation shafts. Newt becomes a pseudo daughter to Ripley, a way to compensate for the death of her own daughter whilst she was stuck chilling (sorry) in cryosleep. This enables us to see another side of Ripley’s character and ends in a brilliant stand off with the Alien Queen.

Aliens is a fantastic film and one of the greatest sequels of all time. The only regret is that it’s legacy has ultimately been tarnished by the terrible Alien 3. Cameron left the franchise in an arguably better condition than when he inherited it and it’s a shame that his vision and characters were not taken further than this one film. Nonetheless, Aliens is still a an excellent piece of blockbuster cinema and certainly sets a high bar for any future sequels.

A wistful 5/5

#1: Alien (1979) – ★★

It was always going to be hard to look past the original. Slow, tense and violent, Alien is a different kind of movie to its successor. It is relentlessly ominous and possesses a profoundly claustrophobic quality that has you watching through half closed eyes and gritted teeth. It is not a popcorn movie, unless you intend to use the popcorn to fashion some kind corn based fear shield. Alien is definitely the scariest installment in the franchise, but the film’s real beauty comes from the simplicity of the narrative and its stunning visuals. The plot follows the crew of the Nostromo, a commercial starship comprised of seven crew members transporting cargo back to earth. This routine journey is thrown into disarray when the ship’s on board computer, mother, wakes the crew from stasis after being alerted by a mysterious transmission from a nearby planet (LV-426). As company policy dictates that all potential distress signals must be investigated, and despite the protestations of the crew, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) orders a team to investigate the transmission.

The unlucky candidates chosen to accompany Dallas are Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). They soon discover that the signal is emanating from an abandoned alien spacecraft, inside which they find the remains of an alien humanoid (the origins of which Prometheus makes a horrible job of explaining) whose chest appears to have been burst open. This is a stunning scene, one that is rumoured to have drained the majority of the film’s set piece budget. Even though it is a short sequence, this investment is certainly justified by the end product of the film.

As the team investigate the cavernous ruins of the space shuttle, they soon stumble across a creepy, smoky chamber full of eggs. Whereas at this point any normal person would shit their pants, flee the chamber and solder it shut, an overly inquisitive Kane decides to inspect one of these slimy, gelatinous object…..what a dick head. After one egg slowly and ominously opens, Kane peers inside only to be attacked by a parasitic, squidish creature that attaches itself to his face (the now infamous facehugger). The team quickly returns to the ship and, despite Ripley’s protestations, are allowed back on board by ship medic Ash (the terrifying Ian Holm). After some failed attempts to detach the creature from Kane’s face – and in the process discovering the creature has acid for blood – after a day or so the parasitic organism falls off and dies. Kane awakens hungry, but otherwise in seemingly perfect health. Then comes the dinner scene….

Despite being almost 40 years old, the chest-burster scene is still iconic, terrifying and shocking. Every-time i see it it still makes me wince, which has to be a complement to the way the scene is executed. Outside of the body horror, what makes it all the more visceral is the palpable shock on the actors faces. After having watched a documentary on the making of Alien, it would appear that this shock is relatively ‘real’. The majority of the scene was shot in one take and the actors genuinely had no idea what to expect. It’s surprising how much things like this really can make a movie.

After the Xenomorph tears its way out of Kane’s crumpled rib cage, it escapes into the cavernous spaces of the Nostromo, growing exponentially larger and hunting the crew one by one. From this point on it is a matter of survival, one that is paced, directed and acted impeccably. Alien is a brilliant sci-fi horror movie. It looks fantastic and the limited size of the crew really allows you to connect with all of them. Every death feels like a real blow to the audience as the tension builds to an irresistible climax. After watching the film again recently I couldn’t help but question why Scott hasn’t managed to replicate the same atmosphere or aesthetic in subsequent films. Scott arguably defined the sci-fi genre with Alien and Blade Runner, but he has since failed to do justice to his greatest works in his dreadful sequels. Although he isn’t directing, it does make me worry about Blade Runner 2049!! Anyway, the key to Alien is mystery. We know nothing about the creature and we only see it in half glimpses – but this makes it all the more terrifying. Scott’s subsequent attempts to explain their existence, to reveal them more fully and to make them faster with CGI just does not have the same effect.

For me, Alien ranks above Aliens for two simple reasons. One, originality; two; the fact that Scott managed to make such a brilliant looking movie on half the money of the sequel. Even in 1979, at 10 million pounds Alien was a low budget movie. What Scott managed to achieve is therefore truly remarkable. Alien is a must see for all movie fans and remains one of my favourite films, in any genre, of all time.

An unequivocal 5/5.

 

So there it is! My slightly protracted countdown of the Alien franchise films. And, with Scott planning 2-3 more sequels to follow Covenant, it looks like there will be more to dissect and probably loathe in the future. Despite the quality of the first two films, I cant help but look at the whole franchise and picture what might have been. Alien 3 was the catalyst in a long downhill spiral that appears to still be desperately searching for absolute rock bottom. Yes, Covenant was an improvement, but it was still a very mediocre film.

With the multiple spin offs and sequels, the Xenomorph has almost become a parody of itself, a pop culture icon stripped of its menace and threat. All of it makes me wonder whether the franchise would be better off left where it is. Yet, there are morsels of hope. The survival horror video game Alien Isolation (2014) is a brilliant ode to the original film with a simple story that is a million times better than any sequel since Aliens. Things like this do fill me with hope that there is another good Alien film out there, somewhere….it just needs to fall into the right hands.

15#: Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) is a true detective masterpiece. Written shortly before Tey’s death, the book offers a thoughtful reflection on the way that we construct, receive and understand history. The novel takes place almost entirely in a hospital bed, as Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant attempts to stave off his boredom whist recovering from a broken leg. In an attempt to alleviate Grant’s frustration at being kept from his work, friend and actress Marta Hallard suggests that Grant should distract himself by reading historical mysteries. When Grant dismisses this idea, she decides instead to humor his interest in physiognomy and profiling by bringing in portraits of various historical figures. He is immediately struck by the ambiguous image of Richard III, a King who has been much maligned in both history and art. Although Grant prides himself on his ability to discern ones character through a reading of their physical features,  he finds it almost impossible to reconcile the gentle image he perceives with Richards’s supposedly tyrannous and violent actions.

Questioning the reasons why Richard has been so vilified in history, Grant begins to investigate the King’s life, in particular the case of the Princes in the Tower. Immersing himself in historical documents, textbooks and testimonies provided by a researcher at the British Museum, Grant concludes that Richard could have not possibly murdered the princes. Not only does he doubt the supposed evidence, but he sees this heinous act as irreconcilable with the consistency and integrity of Richard’s character outside of this event. He concludes instead that the blaming of Richard for the deaths was part of a broader Tudor propaganda plan, a way to tarnish Richard’s name after he was supplanted from the throne. He makes similar summations concerning Richard’s supposed disfigurements (hunch back, withered arm), arguing that it would have been impossible to be the great warrior he was whilst suffering with these particular psychical ailments.

The novel ultimately explores the construction of history, particularly how certain events become cemented in the public consciousness.  In the process, it comes to the almost obvious and well trodden conclusion that history is written by the victors…..who would have thought it? Despite this, The Daughter of Time is a brilliant and thought provoking novel, one packed full of historical insight and still strangely gripping considering its almost claustrophobic setting. No matter how much you resist, you will almost definitely find yourself rooting for Richard by the end of the novel. As a detective novel, Tey’s text is excellent, but for scholars of Richard III – or history more broadly – the case exonerating the maligned King is perhaps a little shaky. Ultimately, Grant’s justification for Richard’s innocence is predicated on the somewhat faulty logic that ‘he does not look like a killer’. Although some of the evidence he unearths supports this view of the King’s character, as a reader you are still left questioning the value of such physiognomic assumptions.

Either way, The Daughter of Time is a fantastic book and a must read for fans of any form of detective fiction. The novel is all the more interesting in the context of the recent exhumation of Richard’s bones, after they were discovered buried under a car park in Leicester (oh the regal glamour). After years of academic jousting over the nature of, or truth behind, Richard’s deformities, the discovery that he in did in fact suffer from severe scoliosis is fascinating, particularly when placed in the context of the other events swirling around the rumor mill (i.e princes in the tower). Who was it that said there is no smoke without fire…..?

#16: Peter Ackroyd: ‘Hawksmoor’

At #16 is Peter Ackroyd’s unconventional historical mystery Hawksmoor (1985). The first thing to say about Ackroyd’s novel is that it can only be very loosely considered crime fiction. As is the case with much of Ackroyd’s work, Hawksmoor oscillates between two seemingly incongruous time periods and plot lines. The first of these is set in the early eighteenth-century and centres around architect Nicholas Dyer’s manic construction of seven satanic churches around the East End of London. Dyer is a fictionalization of real life architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was commissioned to construct these very same churches in 1711 as part of an attempt to rebuild London’s Christian architecture following the damage caused by the great fire. Unbeknownst to mentor Christopher Wren, Dyer draws on his deep fascination with the occult to inspire his design of the churches. Part of this involves undertaking human sacrifices on the site of each new construction.

Meanwhile, in the 20th century, DCS Nicholas Haksmoor is tasked with investigating a mysterious string of murders that have occurred on the grounds of the very same churches. The baffling nature of the crimes is further compounded by the bizarre lack of forensic evidence left by the killer. As you might suspect, one of the central themes of the novel is the circularity of time, as events from both time periods seems to swirl into a disorientating ‘perpetual present’. This becomes most forcefully manifested in the psychic resonance of London’s palimpsestic topography. As Detective Hawksmoor delves deeper into the source of the killings and history of the churches, the spectral spaces of the city become a potent source of convergence between different time periods and characters.

Part postmodern narrative, part historical novel and part detective text, Hawksmoor is a an original and thought provoking novel. A must for fans of both crime and history!

Review – Alien Covenant

★★

This is a little left field of my normal content, but i recently watched Alien Covenant and was gripped by a pressing need to discuss it. I’m a massive fan of the original Alien films (well, the first two…) and always find myself seized by an irrational excitement and apprehension every time a new film is scheduled for release. Unfortunately, more often than not this has led to searing disappointment. From cockney convicts to plot holes the size of space itself, it is fair to say that the Alien franchise has caused me more frustration than pleasure. It is not surprising then that i approached Alien Covenant with a certain trepidation, I certainly had very low expectations. This perhaps goes some way towards explaining why I generally enjoyed the film

Covenant is a direct sequel to Ridley Scott’s disastrous Prometheus, the Alien prequel film that Scott insisted was not an Alien prequel film….In this sense, Covenant represents a more clear-cut return to the franchise, centering around a colonization mission bound for the remote planet of ‘Origae-6’. When a sudden ‘neutrino burst’ damages the ship killing both the captain (a bizarrely short cameo for James Franco) and a number of the 2000 colonists in cryosleep, ship synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) is forced to wake the crew from stasis in order to undergo repairs and restore the ship’s power. Whilst doing so, the ship picks up a cryptic transmission from a nearby planet (we’ve been here before…). This leads to a discussion as to whether it is a good idea to investigate the source or not (lets face it, it never is). After assessing the habitability of the planet, new captain and religious zealot Chris Oram (played by the excellent Billy Crudup) decides to explore the source of the call, sending an expedition team to descend and assess the planet’s atmosphere, terrain and vegetation.

Of course, after landing it is not too long before a couple of expendable characters become ‘infected’. I don’t want to give too much away here, but there is a new dimension to the body horror in this movie that is both novel, grotesque and, well fun! In general I think the first third of the movie is excellent. The tension builds slowly, some of the characters are well fleshed out and the early action scenes are both gripping and atmospheric. It is when the movie attempts to reconnect with the events of Prometheus that it starts to lose its pace.

A few crew members down and unable to contact the mother ship, it is not long before the crew are rescued by David (again played by Fassbender), an older model synthetic who has been marooned on the planet since landing there with other Prometheus survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). In this section of the movie, Scott once again attempts to explore the philosophical implications of creation and existence and there are some interesting scenes containing the two synthetics ….so basically Michael Fassbender and Michael Fassbender. Unfortunately, overall this section of the movie is a little incoherent and fragmented. The tension seems to drain out of the film in minutes and the subsequent deaths seem both rushed and ultimately inconsequential. In some ways, the best thing about Alien Covenant is that, in revisiting the plot of Prometheus, it basically eliminates the need to ever watch the film again. The events of Covenant make Prometheus ultimately redundant, which, i cant say i’m too sad about.

The last third of the film is pretty much rip roaring action and i’m not sure this is Scott’s strength. The first third of the film feels much more like the original, whereas the final third seems to be attempting to emulate the action and adrenaline of James Cameron’s Aliens. There are a couple of other frustrating things about Covenant. For one, the CGI is pretty bad. Not Alien 3 bad…but still bad. It think practical effects have always been better in films of this ilk and the fast moving, headbutting xenomorph in Covenant just doesn’t have the threat and meandering menace of the one from the first film. There are also a few plot holes and continuity issues that really bug me. Without wanting to spoil too much, one character ends up with a facehugger attached to his face, which, you know, is fine. But the gestation period is so short. Viewing wise it seems to be in his chest for about 3 mins, which in the context of the narrative is probably an hour or two. This is so much shorter than Kane in the first film, not to mention Ripley’s marathon gestation in Alien 3 (the thing honestly seems to be in there for about 4 weeks). These kind of consistency things really bug me, but i guess its not that big a deal…is it?

Covenant ends on a nice cliff hanger and overall is good film. I certainly think it is the best entry in to the franchise since the original two movies. A lot has been said about the film being derivative, but in some ways i think that this accusation is a little unfair. There is a lot of novelty in the film and Katherine Waterston as ‘Daniels’ does an excellent job with a tricky role. I also enjoyed Danny McBride’s surprisingly layered performance as ‘Tennessee’. The film is not as good as the original two, that’s just a fact. But there is a lot here to enjoy if you are a franchise mega fan. It’s certainly the first Alien film in a long time that i haven’t wanted to ‘blow out of the goddamn airlock’….to quote Ripley.

#17: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: ‘The Pledge’

At number 17 in my countdown of 20 greatest crime novels is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s haunting, meta-fictional mystery The Pledge (1958)Prior to writing the novel, Dürrenmatt had long been a vocal critic of the genre and its conventions. In particular, he found it difficult to reconcile the neat and tidy resolutions often found in detective novels with the inherent chaos and incomprehensibility of real life and real crime. It is no surprise then that The Pledge is a somewhat unconventional detective novel, one that deliberately defies the possibility of logical solutions.

The novel is structured as a frame narrative, one that begins with a fictional Dürrenmatt interviewing a former “chief of police in the canton of Zurich” as part of research for a detective novel. Rather than encouraging the author, the former chief of police criticises the institution of crime fiction for creating a fantasy of order and resolution that is inapplicable to the real world:

“People hope that at least the police know how to order the world—I can imagine no more pathetic hope—but unfortunately in all these detective stories there is another quite different swindle going on—I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals will be brought to justice. This delightful fairy tale is no doubt morally necessary.  It is one of the lies that keep the state going, as does the pious saying, crime doesn’t pay—whereas in fact you only have to look at human society to see the truth on that score”

The former chief of police gradually assumes the role of primary narrator and proceeds to tell a cautionary tail of a former police inspector, Detective Matthäi, who on his last day with the department is called to investigate a brutal child murder. Although a suspect soon comes forward confessing to the murder, Matthäi’s experience and instincts tell him that the real culprit is still at large. Having promised the victim’s parents that he would find the culprit and bring him to justice, Matthäi continues his own private and unsanctioned investigation into the crime, even after the case has been officially closed.

Suspecting a connection between the crime and other child disappearances and murders, what unfolds over the course of the novel is a paranoid and sombre tail of obsession, solitude and duty. Matthäi becomes entirely consumed by the hunt for the true killer, despite the fact that other’s dismiss the legitimacy of his investigation and see his obsession as evidence of some form of early onset psychosis. In may ways The Pledge is a heartbreaking novel, one that that is gripping despite it almost plodding pace. Without wanting to spoil anything, the ending to the novel is certainly one of the main reasons to read this text. It is both brilliant and utterly desperate and certainly magnifies Dürrenmatt’s clear frustration with the myth of resolution often propagated by detective fiction.

Although a little unconventional, The Pledge is an excellent novel, one that i think would please both purists and fans of more unconventional or ‘metaphysical’ detective fiction. Sean Penn’s adaptation of the book starring Jack Nicholson (also called The Pledge) is also worth a watch!

#18: E.C. Bentley – ‘Trent’s Last Case’

In at number #18 is E.C. Bentley’s comic masterpiece Trent’s Last Case (1913). Once described by Agatha Christie as ‘one of the three best detective stories ever written’, E.C Bentley’s classic ‘whodunit’ is often heralded as the prototypical ‘Golden Age’ detective novel. Featuring an urbane, genius detective and located within the typically closed, almost claustrophobic domestic environment, Bentley’s novel very much anticipates and heavily influences the later and more fully realized works of classic golden age writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

The central mystery of the text concerns the bizarre murder of entrepreneur Sigsbee Manderson, whose body is discovered on the grounds of his country house estate with a single bullet wound through the eye. No murder weapon is found, however the body does exhibit signs of a struggle, with scratches and bruises around the wrists. There are also seemingly inexplicable clues; Manderson’s pocket watch is discovered in the wrong pocket, his false teeth are missing and he is oddly dressed in a combination of day and evening clothes. This is of course a shocking sartorial irregularity according to Manderson’s servants, who all testify to him being such a neat and discerning dresser.

With the police unable to distinguish any clear suspects or discernible motive for the attack, charismatic artist and amateur detective Phillip Trent is summoned to intervene. Bentley immediately establishes Trent as a comparable figure to archetypal armchair sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, able to solve the most impenetrable mysteries through a reliance on his superior powers of deductive logic and bizarre expertise in obscure fields of knowledge such as ‘good shoe leather’. Despite these superficial displays of genius, Trent is ultimately a comic figure, one who bumbles through the case misinterpreting clues and implicating the wrong suspects. A desperate romantic, he also makes the mistake of falling in love with a prime suspect – the dead millionaire’s widow, Mabel.

In many way’s Trent’s Last Case is more interesting for the ways it subverts the expectations and conventions of the detective format than for the ways it conforms to them. Not only is amateur sleuth Phillip Trent unable to successfully solve the central mystery, but the novel pushes the parameters of ‘fair play’ to such an extent that it is similarly impossible for the reader. Notions of logic and reason are replaced by chance and coincidence, whilst seemingly concrete clues become unstable and open to interpretation. Trent’s Last Case is  a witty and thoroughly enjoyable novel that has a complex and surprising denouement, one that deliberately defies logic and reason. The unforeseeable solution to the mystery ultimately leads Trent to bemoan the ‘impotence of human reason’ and vow ‘never to touch a crime mystery again’.

Despite such pronouncements, luckily Trent does return in both Trent’s Own Case (1936) and Trent Intervenes (1938) – the latter a collection of short stories. Featuring a number of satisfying mysteries that provide a welcome comeback for the charismatic and charming detective, these later stories nonetheless fail to replicate the ingenuity and originality of Bentley’s first Trent mystery. Over a century after its initial publication, Trent’s Last Case still remains a humorous, sophisticated and gripping masterpiece of detective fiction, with Trent himself still one of our most compelling, charming and multifaceted detectives. A must read for fans of ‘Golden-Age’ or ‘Country House’ detective fiction.

 

#19: Megan Abbott – ‘The Song is You’

In at #19 is Megan Abbott’s gripping neo-noir thriller The Song is You (2007). I first encountered Abbott whilst doing research for my PhD, after I stumbled across her excellent monograph The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hard-boiled fiction and Film Noir. Abbott’s passion for crime fiction is certainly stylistically palpable in her work. Heavily influenced by writers such as James M. Cain, Ellroy and Jim Thompson, Abbot manages to forge a prose style that is unique and engaging with a real attention to period detail. Although slightly more lucid than Ellroy, there is a comparable intensity to Abbott’s writing that makes it equally hypnotic.

Similarly to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987), Abbott’s The Song is You centres on the real life disappearance of a ‘bit-part’ Hollywood actress. In this case it is twenty-six year old Jane Spangler, a mother of one who vanished in 1949 under suspicious circumstances. As with much neo-nor fiction, Abbott depicts the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood celebrity, a ruthless, vacuous world saturated by sex, scandal and violence. Enter Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins, a smooth talking ex-reporter turned Hollywood ‘fixer’ who is paid to disguise/ bury certain aspects of celebrities private lives in order to maintain their public image. Hop’s and Spangler’s worlds collide the night before her disappearance, when the slick ‘fixer’ parties with the Spangler and one of her friends in an L.A. bar. Hop ultimately leaves Jean with a couple of celebrities rumoured to have a predatory and violent reputation, after which she is never seen again.

Two years later, Hop is still consumed by Spangler’s disappearance and ravaged by guilt for his complicity in covering up the two actors potential involvement. Although he initially justifies his actions as being part of the job, Hop eventually undertakes his own unsanctioned investigation into the disappearance in an attempt to atone for his past transgressions.

The Song is You is an excellent novel. Abbott’s prose is sharp, suspenseful and packed full of brilliant dialogue. Abbott’s work also brilliantly rewrites the codes and conventions of previous noir fiction, as she places a greater emphasis on female perspectives and female agency. Although Hop is very much built in the tradition of ‘hardboiled’ masculine heroes, Abbott’s female characters exhibit a profound understanding of the patriarchal demands of their society (be that sexual or marital) and are celebrated for their ability to circumvent, manipulate and perform these expectations. All of Abbott’s characters have a depth and complexity and the denouement of the novel deliberately subverts the typical expectations of these kinds of narratives.

I really can’t speak highly enough of Abbott’s writing, so do check her out! Unfortunately, some of Abbott’s early novels are no longer in print so it might be hard to get hold of them brand new. You can still pick up The Song is You second hand pretty easily though. Also check out Die a Little (2005), Queenpin (2007) and Bury Me Deep (2009).