Fear stalks familiar territory
Thirty-eight years ago, soon after George Lucas had given the world a Saturday-matinee approach to science fiction, Ridley Scott’s Alien combined the genres of sci-fi and horror. The purity of his vision with its classical trappings — a handful of characters in a confined space threatened by a barely glimpsed monster — was a direct descendant of The Old Dark House and similar movies, except that in those films the monster was a homicidal maniac and in Alien it was something primal and unimaginable. The film became an instant classic and was followed by sequels directed by, among others, James Cameron and David Fincher until the franchise hit a low with Alien vs Predator (2004), in which 20th Century Fox cynically combined two of its creature characters in one awful movie. What next? “Alien Meets the Fockers”?
Mercifully it didn’t come to that as Scott decided to start again five years ago with Prometheus, a prequel to the original Alien, set some 20 years before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley confronted the creature. Prometheus disappointed some fans given that its philosophical trappings — its questions about the origins of humankind — tended to displace the expected visceral thrills, but with Alien: Covenant Scott hasn’t stinted on the blood and gore. He wants to make two more films that bridge the storyline gap between this and the first film, so he needs a commercial success.
The film begins with an uncredited Guy Pearce returning as Weyland, the creator of the android (Michael Fassbender) that played a key role in Prometheus. Given the name David after a reproduction of the Michelangelo statue located in Weyland’s austere headquarters, this human-looking machine is the inventor’s “son”, or so he says.
The next sequence features Walter (also Fassbender), an android that looks exactly like David but boasts advanced capabilities. The year is 2104 and Walter is aboard Covenant, a spacecraft that has embarked on a long journey to colonise the distant planet Origae-6. Apart from Walter, everyone on board is in a deep sleep, including the 15 crew members, 2000 colonists and 1140 embryos. Many members of the crew are couples looking forward to a new life in a new world. But a space storm damages the craft and the ship’s captain (James Franco in the briefest of cameos) is incinerated in his sleeping pod. The crew are awakened and Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes over as captain. Much is made at this point of the fact that Oram is “a person of faith”, but little is made of this for the rest of the movie. It is, however, Oram who makes the fateful decision to divert Covenant from its course to a nearby moon from which a faint signal can be heard — a signal that sounds a lot like the John Denver song Take Me Home, Country Roads.
This moon, it turns out, is where the ill-fated crew of Prometheus wound up, though of course Oram and his colleagues don’t know that yet. It’s a spectacular-looking place, with its mountains and lakes and forests — these scenes were filmed in New Zealand — but the audience knows there’s something wicked there, and it’s not long before an unwary crew member has trodden on one of those eggs that contain horrible creatures that enter the body through the nose or the ear and then burst out, greatly enlarged.
And so one by one the crew members are Don’t Tell, killed off as Oram and the intrepid Daniels (Katherine Waterston) struggle to survive.
All this is fiendishly well handled by one of the modern masters of cinema but it still feels a bit familiar. We know now what to expect and we can anticipate the next thrills, which tends to lessen the suspense. Only a couple of scenes come close to replicating the nail-biting horrors of the original Alien, and both are set in the confines of the spacecraft.
But there’s a major compensation in the scenes in which David and Walter confront one another. At first David, who has survived the ending of Prometheus — even though his human companion Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) did not — is easily differentiated from his double because of his long hair; but once David gives himself a trim, Walter and David look identical, even though we know only one of them is a good guy. A scene in which David teaches Walter how to play the flute is not only one of the few tranquil moments in the film, it’s also one of the most brilliantly handled, as Dariusz Wolski’s camera gently circles the two Michael Fassbenders.
Make no mistake: Alien: Covenant is for the most part a terrifically exciting ride. But it never chills the marrow quite in the way the first film did. From one kind of monster to another, far more human, form of evil. Given the appalling stories emanating from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the release of the Australian film Don’t Tell is particularly timely. For her first feature, Tori Garrett has assembled a fine cast to tell the story of what happened to Lyndal, who was 12 years old when she was sexually abused by her housemaster at the prestigious Anglican Toowoomba Prep School, and the court case that followed a decade later when Lyndal, after going off the rails and being arrested in NSW, returned to Queensland to seek justice.
“Beautiful country,” says local lawyer Stephen Roche (Aden Young) when he meets Lyndal (Sara West), but Lyndal tells him she hates the place; the memories are too raw. Her mother, Sue (Susie Porter), is fearful a court case will reopen old wounds (“I want her better, not worse”). Although Roche is at first reluctant to take the case — his most recent client hanged herself — he joins with barrister Bob Myers (Jack Thompson) in litigation. The abuser, Kevin Guy (Gyton Grantley), had suicided in his car on the day before his trial several years earlier, leaving a note that named several other girls; but the church still denies abuse occurred.
So the stage is set for a court case in which a damaged and troubled girl — West, currently also to be seen in Bad Girl, is excellent — is cross-examined by defence counsel Jean Dalton (Jacqueline McKenzie). The film, scripted by James Greville, Ursula Cleary and Anne Brooksbank, makes clear just how traumatic it is for the young litigant to undergo this kind of cross-examination, the more so because it’s carried out so relentlessly by another woman.
Garrett gets excellent performances from her cast: this is one of Thompson’s best roles in recent years; Young brings great depth to his character; while McKenzie and Rachel Griffiths, as a social worker, are also in top form. There’s a cameo from Kim Knuckey as Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, whose role as governor-general was brought to an abrupt end as a result of this case.
Don’t Tell is a sad reminder that the abuse of children can be exacerbated by the way in which an adversarial legal system works when a deeply troubled survivor is placed in the witness box. It’s a thoughtful, quietly shocking film, beautifully made.
Michael Fassbender and Carmen Ejogo in
Alien: Covenant, above; Sara West in