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Ridley Scott has Murdered the Alien.

Horror franchises age poorly. This is a general rule and there are few exceptions. While John Carpenter’s Halloween is hailed as a classic, not many outside of horror diehards await the next installment. Ditto with genre defining pieces like The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs. Horror sequels suffer from one inherent problem: It is never as scary the second time you see it.

Now there are some ideas that are more open for exploration and can find new ways to frighten audiences. There are also some horror sequels that are carried by excellent casting, directing, and production design. Then there are some movies that abandon the horror in favor for fun, dumb or otherwise. The Alien franchise is a horror series that has done all three.

But it’s over now.

The lifespan of the alien as a horror icon has ended. Shortened by rampant commercialization and less-than-stellar sequels, the series showed a blip of life with Prometheus before flat-lining in Alien:Covenant.  Director Ridley Scott, channeling George Lucas, has returned to murder the creation that he gave life to decades earlier. Spoiler alert: I f*cking hated watching Alien:Covenant.

The Alien is No Longer Threatening

It is true that the alien design has not been scary for years. That’s what happens with eight movies, video games, and a toy line. It is simply too familiar to be terrifying in the way it was in Alien. That said, solid film-making can overcome this deficiency. But in order to do so, the alien must remain the primary threat. This shouldn’t be hard. After all, it was billed as the “perfect organism” in the first film.

Yet the traditional alien is the least threatening aspect of Alien: Covenant. Sure it still kills ‘people’ and is fast and strong, but let’s examine the other antagonists that the film provides. First off: David, the android from Prometheus appears to have scrambled his circuits and gone insane. He is deceptive, strong, intelligent, manipulative, and can blend into the party of good guys by virtue of looking exactly like one of them.

David more menacing than aliens
Is that Michael Fassbender a friend or a homicidal murder? Seems like an important and persistent paranoia-inducing question.

Alien: Covenant goes further to strongly imply that David created and can control the entire alien race. So really, he is the head of the snake, as well as a much more calculating menace.

In addition to David, we have his weaponized diseases that he took from the Engineer aliens of Prometheus. For my money, this thing is the perfect organism. It is a microscopic disease that travels quickly and is lethal upon contact/penetration with human skin. Sure, it could probably be burned up but no one ever seems to see it coming. They’re just fine until they start spurting blood and hatching monsters.

Alien Covenant Death of Alien
Not as bombastic looking but certainly more effective.

The alien comes across as nothing but a servant of a larger evil – a minion that is replaceable and expendable and, frankly, nothing more than a work in progress.  The perfect organism has fallen very far from grace. Remember that Family Guy sketch about “Bigger Jaws” – that is essentially what Alien: Covenant does. It has one-upped its monster to the point of obscurity.

Killing Prometheus and Originality

I will say this right now: Prometheus was far from a perfect movie. It suffered from a litany of problems that are very amusingly laid out in this video:

That said, Prometheus also represented a bold new direction for the Alien franchise. An attempt to distance the films from the repetitive slump they had fallen into – you know, an evil company trying to exploit the aliens for military gain. Sure we still had the evil company, but this time they’re looking into how humanity evolved and attempting to understand its origin.

Perhaps I am in the minority but I found it profoundly refreshing to not see a traditional alien in Prometheus. As I’ve said before, the design is tired. Exploring another alien race and its relationship to the aliens may be a flawed idea, but at least it was one that was open to originality.

Alien: Covenant murders this promise with the same disdain that the third Pirates of the Caribbean abandoned all ideas established in the second. The Engineers from Prometheus – they’re dead now. Any unanswered questions remain unanswered because, well they’re dead.

Ruining the Engineers in Alien: Covenant
The much more human-like engineers only make a cameo in Alien: Covenant. I have a question: why did they ditch their super advanced technology for monk robes and stone buildings? For such an advanced race that specialized in advanced bio warfare, they sure were open to attack.

But the Engineers aren’t the only open-ended story path being squashed. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw barely makes a cameo, being killed off-screen in a way reminiscent of Newt and Hicks in Alien 3. Dr. Shaw may have been a flawed character, but I spent all of Prometheus getting behind her and was genuinely curious to see where her character went.

After all, she is portrayed as an idealistic and naive scientist driven by her faith in Prometheus – a faith that is shattered by the horrific events she encounters. Logically, I could have seen her sliding into a homicidal streak more easily than the well-meaning but controlled David.

Alien: Covenant wasted Elizabeth Shaw
Instead, Elizabeth Shaw started trusting David (the android who murdered her husband) for… reasons, and then is betrayed and killed, used in David’s experiments to creation the perfect phallic monster.

Killing her off would have been more acceptable if it was to make way for stronger characters but, well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

For all its flaws, Prometheus opened the Alien franchise to expansion. Alien: Covenant was a film very determined to close off every avenue of that expansion, hastily answer the un-asked question of alien origin, and slam the series back to its tired roots of traditional xenomorph murdering space colonists.

The Lazy Writing of Bad Horror

I have been dancing around this problem throughout my review. Alien: Covenant is bad horror filled with bad horror cliches. Its cast is made up of so many characters – most of whom named – who exist without characterization. They are simply there to die. They don’t feel like people, instead serving as plot mechanics or set dressing.

Alien: Covenant does not have characters
The bizarre inclusion of James Franco (who dies immediately in Alien: Covenant) is actually one of the better handled characters in the film.

I’ll perform a test. The main protagonist of the film is Daniels (Katherine Waterson). She is our primary good guy. She is… a woman… who was a wife… and has short hair. I cannot name a single personality trait. She’s good? She kinda looks like a knock-off Sigourney Weaver?

She is the best developed of at least 13 named crew members. Even David cannot keep up with Ridley Scott’s disregard of humanity in this picture.

There is another character who I want to point out; Oram (Billy Crudup). Oram is a man of faith, someone who takes his religion very seriously. How do I know this? Not through his personality or meaningful plot action. Instead, I know this because the film tells me – over and over and over again. Literally every scene where someone says something about Oram, they mention his faith. And it is not important at all. Oram does nothing to contribute to the plot, eventually dying to face-hugger.

Poor writing Alien Covenant
“See this face? This is my religious face.”

I’m going to say this as someone who is not particularly religious: If you’re going to write about religion, treat it with respect. Do not tack it on as some afterthought. Perhaps Oram mattered in some version of the script but it just feels like his faith is there to take digs at. It is tacked on. If you want a better written religions figure – maybe try Elizabeth Shaw (whoops – too late for that).

The lack of characterization could have worked in a movie that was only interested in having fun, but Alien: Covenant takes itself too seriously. This is a film clearly far up its own ass with half-baked ideas of Paradise Lost and artificial intelligence. It postures and uses words, the best words, to sound smarter and inflate itself over all the other slasher films on the market.

Oh, one other character to mention – David. I loved Michael Fassbender‘s David in Prometheus. He is complex; a seemingly well-meaning creation who is disregarded by others and abused by his creator. Mary Shelly would have been proud by how well her creation was adapted into a futuristic setting.

In Alien: Covenant, David has ‘gone insane.’ This is the rationale used to justify his behavior. It is also lazy writing 101. Going insane is the overused excuse to get a character to do something that goes against earlier characteristics/motives. In Iron Man, the villain goes insane to switch from scheming business tycoon to rock ’em sock ’em robo-fighter.

It does not add to David’s character to make him pure evil – it detracts from it. He is no longer complex, he is just crazy. He hates humanity but loves its art and creation? Sure?

Alien: Covenant is a perfect example of how not to write an effective horror movie. If people don’t care about the characters then none of the horror can be particularly effective. I don’t care that the alien tore off a woman’s head – I’m still trying to recall who exactly she was.

10-insane-facts-you-probably-didn-t-know-about-heath-ledger-s-joker
For as often as it’s used, insanity is rarely done well in film writing. When it is, the results are truly memorable characters.

Ridley Scott is clearly bored with the alien concept and using it to explore other ideas. The problem is that he seems to have no qualms trashing a universe that has evolved past him. Yes, he directed the first film (and kudos for that) but the series has grown so much since then. If he truly wants to explore AI – then by all means make a film exploring that concept, but leave Alien out of it.

Perhaps he just wants people to see his movies but doesn’t trust his name anymore. Exodus: Gods and Kings was one of the last ‘original’ projects he did and most people remain blessedly unaware/unaffected by the lifeless mediocrity that was that film. Regardless, I have only one request for Mr. Scott: Leave alien and don’t come back. Maybe someone else can give it life. This is what you’re doing to your franchise:

Colossal Mistake: Failing to Fully Explore Abuse

I really love giant monster movies. I especially love the ones that are more than just giant monster movies. Yeah, Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla features a giant radioactive dinosaur but that film also nails a commentary on post-war Japan and the horrors of nuclear war. Peter Jackson’s King Kong, while maintaining the original’s Beauty and the Beast storyline, also manages to deliver biting criticism on the idea of zoos.

Colossal is a film where Gloria (Anne Hathaway) discovers that she is directly controlling a giant monster on the other side of the globe. Yet for all the grandeur of that premise, it is much more a film about dealing with different types of abuse. Gloria is a mess, she drinks, she lies, she cannot maintain any kind of self-sustaining lifestyle. When her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) throws her out, Gloria returns home and must try to put her life back together. When she returns, she meets Oscar (Jason Sudeikis); a “nice guy” who is anything but.

Colossal Oscar abuser
Sudeikis’ Oscar is a compelling character – a perfect union of writing and acting that does an excellent job exploring one kind of abuser.

The abusive relationship between Oscar and Gloria is the primary focus of the film. Oscar manipulates Gloria, setting himself up as her tether to sustainable living. He gives her a job, fills her house with furniture, spends free time with her. On the surface it does not sound bad, but Oscar uses all of this to control Gloria. When she attempts to do something (or someone) he doesn’t like, he gets angry and violent. In the case, the violence is not just against Gloria. Remember that giant monster thing? Yeah, turns out Oscar’s one too – only he has no compunctions against murdering people to keep Gloria in line.

Oscar is a piece of work to say the least and Colossal shines best when it is fully exploring the nature of his abuse. On this level, the movie is certainly a triumph. That said, when exploring Gloria – the movie ultimately falls flat on its giant face.

Gloria the Monster

Gloria is an abuser too. Her relationship with Tim is far from healthy. Since she cannot hold down a job, she is dependent on him. This in itself is not necessarily bad, but Gloria abuses this dependence. The beginning of the film makes it clear that she is not job hunting. Instead, she goes out drinking with friends all night – using either their money or Tim’s to sustain her alcoholism. Whenever confronted on this, she lies or gets angry at Tim for confronting her.

colossal-movie4-740x376
Gloria enjoying her typical nighttime activity.

In addition to this, the film also shows us that Gloria is further abusing Tim by taking advantage of their apartment when he’s not home. Gloria’s plan in the beginning of the movie is to placate her boyfriend out of their apartment and invite her friends in so that they may resume drinking (likely Tim’s liquor). It only falls apart when Tim announces that he can no longer cope with her destructive lifestyle and wants her to move out.

This opening is fine. What happens next creates the problems. Gloria never repairs/admits her abusive role with Tim. Instead, she continues to shut him out throughout the film, choosing instead to reveal her monstrous secret to the people she spends all night drinking with (clearly the responsible ones). This is what helps cement Oscar’s hold over her in the first place.

Tim tries to contact Gloria and talk with her. He scolds, clearly still angry from their bad relationship. He does, however, have one crucial exchange of dialogue with Gloria when he apologizes for always lecturing her and genuinely seems to care about how she’s doing. This shows a painful truth of abuse: It ultimately turns both people ugly. Tim appears not to be the lecturer of choice but by habit – his role in Gloria’s pattern of self-destruction.

We’re never sure about Tim because the movie is not interested in fully exploring his relationship with Gloria. We do know that he cares about her – maintaining contact after she returns home. We do know that he comes for her at some point, worried about her developing home situation. We do know that he lectures her, but with seeming regret that their relationship is not different.

Tim Gloria Colossal abuse
Tim and Gloria’s relationship is a good example of abuse that has become habitual. It has been going on so long that neither person involved is healthy.

The biggest failing comes at the film’s climax, when Gloria flies to South Korea to follow through her plan to neutralize Oscar. She shuts Tim out again through all of this (Tim is expressing worry and concern, even attempting a confrontation against Oscar) but that’s not the problem. The problem is her final phone call. Here is the dialogue (I’m paraphrasing) :

Tim: “I’m worried about you. You owe me an explanation as to what’s going on.”

Gloria: “No I don’t, you threw me out. You said I was too ‘out of control’ – well now I’m more out of control than ever!” *click*

In this final exchange, Gloria resumes her form of abuse. There is no scene in the movie where she really admits and attempts to discuss her problem with Tim. In this last exchange, she abandons her responsibility and throws her problems on him. Worse, she implies that everything that happened to her at home is somehow Tim’s fault.

Gloria never hits Tim but it is clear that she is the source of emotional abuse in their relationship. She is the self-destructive one who cannot handle her emotions and thus decides they are not her responsibility. By not having Gloria ever acknowledge and confront her own history of self-destructive behavior, it completely ruins the redeeming/empowering arch that the film’s writers were attempting to communicate.

Unearned Ending

The failings of Colossal hit me as someone who was a victim of emotional abuse. They also irk the hell of me as a writer. Anne Hathaway does such a fantastic job of playing Gloria that I want to be rooting for her at the end. It also seems like writer and director Nacho Vigalondo wants her story to be empowering, a rise of an abuse victim against the abuser.

And it almost is! That’s the infuriating part. Gloria and Oscar are done so well but the failings of Gloria and Tim ruin it. This, as is, is not the story of a victim rising up but rather the tale of one abuser getting the best of another and then presumably continuing her abusive journey. Who’s the next Tim? Who knows but there is reason to think there will be another.

Gloria Colossal abuse
Nacho Vigalondo clearly understands that Gloria is a monster but appears unwilling to fully explore what that means.

If you’re a writer and you want your protagonist to fix their flaw and be likable at the end, you have to make sure they earn it. Otherwise it feels like you’re forcing an unnatural ending that the story does not support.

Abuse is a complicated subject to tackle as a writer. Believe me, none of my numerous blog posts or short stories have done it justice. It is crucial to understand these basics: there are multiple types of abuse, men and women can be abusers, and abuse is a disease that infects everyone. If you’re not going to tackle all appropriately then be prepared for me to tear your work apart. We need a better dialogue on this serious issue, not half-baked ideas of female empowerment.

Colossal could have been an achievement. Instead, it is an entertaining giant monster movie wishes it was something bigger.

 

Alice: a Visit to Wanderland

Okay, it’s October and I am already well behind my horror blog writing. This month, as with every October, I will be reading exclusively horror – either books that are in the horror genre or have many horrific elements. This year I have chosen to kick things off with Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles by J.M. Sullivan. As some of my more astute readers may have already noticed, Wanderland Chronicles is another book from Dreamcatchers publisher, Pen Name Publishing. Rest assured, I shall endeavor to remain objective.

So, first thing’s first: I don’t care for Alice in Wonderland. It’s not that I hate it, I have just never invested in Lewis Carroll’s universe the way that some others have. While I’m a big fan of fantasy, I’m also a big fan of logic… something that vanishes rather quickly as we journey down the rabbit hole. It is impossible to deny the impact that Carroll has made on writing and on imagination. Nevertheless, it’s never been my tea party.

Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles
I actually liked Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I felt brought a more sensible plot to Carroll’s world. That said, I think we can all agree that the film would have benefited from less Mad Hatter.

Yes, but what if there’s zombies?

This the question author J.M. Sullivan asked when she re-imagined Carroll’s world as post-apocalyptic fantasy. Gone are the over-sized rabbits and the disappearing cats. In their place are the Momerath, virus-infected human beings with a bad temper and an appetite for human flesh.

And it’s not Wonderland anymore, it’s Wanderland – or what’s left of Phoenix. No rabbit hole required for entry. All that Alice Carroll (see what she did there?) needs to do to get in is simply walk… and not die. That’s the rules for Wanderland: keep walking, try not to die, and stay on the good side of the Red Queen.

Wonderland vs. Wanderland

While Wanderland Chronicles abandons much of Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical scenery, its characters nearly all have counterparts. Apart from Alice, Wanderland inhabitants include Chess – a boy with unnaturally quick reflexes, Bug – a surveillance expert with a passion for smoking, and Dr. Matt Hatta – I’ll let you figure that one out on your own. And, of course, the kill-happy Red Queen.

For the most part, Sullivan does an admirable job fitting these characters into their new roles in the zombie-filled wasteland. The only unfortunate side effect is that it does make the plot fairly predictable, something that takes all the air out of any tension she is trying to build. We know before she leaves what Alice will find in the Wanderland. Luckily, the book’s climax does add some twists away from the source material.

aliceinzombieland
The idea of mixing zombies into Alice in Wonderland is not new. Wanderland Chronicles, however, does a better job of it than the fanart of the internet.

Writing in Wanderland

J.M. Sullivan crafts strong characters with believable (love triangle excluded) emotions and reactions in Wanderland. Her Alice is a fun protagonist, if one who goes from introvert to extrovert very quickly. Chess, Nate, and the Red Queen round out a compelling support cast. The plot hops along at a brisk pace, never dallying in any location too long.

twdclementine_feature
If I were to compare Alice to another protagonist in the world of zombie fiction, it would be Clementine.

If I have any complaint about the writing, it is that it violates the “less is more” rule. This is author J.M. Sullivan’s first book and I could tell that she didn’t trust her language, often repeating or going too simple. I’m from the school that taught me to avoid repetitive words on a page. Never give two sentences of explanation when one will do. Lewis Carroll owned the lingo of his fantasy, but this is the area of all others where J.M. Sullivan feels like a tentative tenant.

I hope that, in the sequel, she finds a stronger voice to suit her strong protagonist.

Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles won’t make you a believer in the zombie genre – it’s not World War Z. For those who don’t care for either Lewis Carroll’s world or horrific undead cannibals, I would advise giving this one a pass. That said, any out there who enjoy a fun zombie-filled romp should sink their teeth in. Wanderland Chronicles is the perfect popcorn to open up a fun-filled October.