Fear stalks fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

left

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