For a review of “Alien: Covenant,”
When the first “Alien” came out in 1979, promising and delivering screams in space that no one could hear, more than few critics and regular humans called it a relentless, hard- driving thrill machine. In retrospect it resembles a movie with the patience of Job, taking its sweet, stealthy time before arriving at one the great moments in the history of extreme cinematic gore.
You know the scene, probably. There’s John Hurt, an actor whose face always seemed halfway to crestfallen even when he didn’t have anything to worry about, sitting around the spacecraft galley, having a jolly meal with his crew aboard the Nostromo. He doesn’t realize the steroidal tapeworm inside him, gestating, awaits the right moment to burst forth from Hurt’s chest and commence the cat- andmouse franchise spanning two centuries and counting.
That monster has been chasing director Ridley Scott ever since. Five years ago, Scott returned to the franchise he started and then turned over to others with an ambitious, messy, stimulating prequel, “Prometheus,” in which he went easy on the alien sand heavy on the originstory mythology. Fans of the earlier “Alien” movies couldn’t entirely embrace it. In recent interviews Scott acknowledged the folly of his initial disinterest in dealing at all with aliens, aka xenomorphs, in the prequels.
But fan blowback and his producer’s instincts carried the day. The new movie, “Alien: Covenant,” features Michael Fassbender times two and Katherine Waters ton under coolly controlled duress. It’s the third Scot thelmed “Alien” picture; the sixth movie overall, not counting the “Alien vs. Predator” spinoffs; and the second movie, following “Prometheus,” to betray considerable confusion and ambivalence about what sort of “Alien”- adjacent story Scott has in mind, by way of screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper.
It’s a maddeningly uneven picture, with an action climax staged and executed with the air of a contractual agreement. But as with “Prometheus,” the most elegantly wrought sequences make up for the monster stuff plainly less interesting to Scott.
A sleek, austere prologue finds weaselly Peter Weyland ( Guy Pearce) enjoying his Mahler and activating his latest android ( Fassbender), whom he names David, after the statue. The robo- lad’s head is filled with dreams of alien life forms and the glories of space exploration. Then, themovie proper: We’re aboard the Covenant, with a new, hapless crew of mortals. The year is 2104. This isa colonists’ ship, like the May flower, only with embryos and sleep- frozenhumans.
Fassbender also plays android Walter, the latestgeneration robot assisting the humans. Early on the spacecraft is hit by a neutrino shock wave, which takes the life of the captain ( James Franco, in a hilariously brief cameo) and leaving the Covenant under the command of Capt. Oram ( Billy Crudup, valiantly enlivening a role defined by insecurity).
The real star, though, is Waterston, the crew’s so- called terraforming expert and executive officer. She’s the can- do female lead evoking memories of Sigourney Weaver’ s Ripley. The crew is headed to a faraway planet, but amysterious radio transmission is too tantalizing to pass up. So it’s off to the planet where Prometheus met its doom, andw here alien spores make their unseen way into the ear canals and no strils of the crew members voted least likely to succeed.
Fassbender differentiates his dueling androids in subtle physical ways and more pronounced vocal ones. ( David sounds like HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”; Walter speaks like someone trying to imitate Heath Ledger’s Chicago- inflected Joker in “The Dark Knight.”) The auxiliary crew members are played by, among others, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, Demian Bechir and Amy Seimetz. The script makes them moderately interesting alien fodder or, for the fortunate ones, alien vanquishers.
Around the midpoint, “Alien: Convenant” takes a turn toward a “Planet of Dr. Moreau” storyline, stealing from H. G. Wells. Mostly, of course, the film steals from earlier “Alien” movies. Scott’s armful attempt to marry rousing bits from James Cameron’s “Aliens” ( the “fun” one) with the brooding tone favored by Scott and David Fincher (“Alien 3”) has led to a product divided against itself. And yet I was consistently taken with Fassbender’s work, and with Waterston. I may be as conflicted about “Alien: Covenant” as Ridley Scott apparently was. But I’ll take it over “King Arthur.”
“Alien: Covenant,” a Twentieth Century Fox release, is rated R for sci- fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/ nudity. Running time: 123 minutes. ½
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”
From 2010 to 2012, a trilogy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” films were released in rapid succession, starring Zachary Gordon, Devon Bostick, Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn. Adapted from the web comic turned kids novels by Jeff Kinney, the films featured the kinds of embarrassments and toilet humor that tend to make up most middle school lore. Five years later, a fourth film, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: TheLongHaul,” is hitting theaters, with a completely new cast making up the Heffley family. Director David Bowers, who helmed the “Rodrick Rules” and “DogDays” installments of the franchise, returns to wrangle this particular out- of- control- minivan downthe freeway.
This story of a family vacation gone wrong could have just been subtitled “Road Trip,” but it turns out “The Long Haul” is an ironically apt descriptor for this film. One hesitates to refer to it as a “comedy,” as the jokes are few and far between. No, “horror” was the word that popped into mind frequently during these grim 90 minutes.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” is a deft exploration of the horrors of modern life in the techobsessed, neoliberal, advanced capitalist 21st century America; a world where social media rules our brains and behavior, and constant connectedness means constant work. This family’s road trip illustrates how America has become a polarized nation obsessed with nostalgia, gripping tight to the construct of a “real” Americainlight of rapid cultural change. Some fun.
It’s also a terrifying cautionary tale about distracted driving— adults in the audience may cower every time one of the Heffley parents behind the wheel takes their eyes off the road or uses their phone while shepherd in gateen, tween, toddler, spouse, piglet and boat trailer behind the cursed minivan. Belly laughs? More like stomach lurches. It’s truly more harrowing than “Fate of the Furious” at times, and more frustrating, since Vin Diesel never texts while driving, and doesn’t bring a brood in the backseat.
Fittingly, the central conflict of the film is about technology and screen time. Mom Susan ( Alicia Silverstone) confiscates all electronic devices so the family can enjoy real face time on their road trip — but dad Frank ( Tom Everett Scott) hasn’t taken the days off work, while titular wimpy kid Greg ( Jason Drucker) and metalhead brother Rodrick ( CharlieWright) are scheming to get to a video game convention. Greg’s determined to clean up his online reputation after he becomes the star of an embarrassing meme, and thinks a video with his hero, star gamer Mac Digby ( Joshua Hoover) will do the trick. Their juvenile and selfish meddling takes the family trip from bad to apocalyptic.
The film seems to be aware of the terrors it inflicts on its audience in the name of a good time ( or some kind of time… the intended effect is not clear). There are several direct references to Hitchcock’s most iconic horror films, “Pyscho” and “The Birds,” for some inexplicable reason. Although ostensibly presented as an hour and a half of raucous family adventure “Wimpy Kid” is instead a dirge of unfunny scatological material, techno- anxiety and child endangerment masquerading as familial bonding. Settle in for the “Long Haul,” because this is one bumpy, miserable ride.
“Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” a Twentieth Century Fox release, is rated PG for some rude humor. Running time: 90 minutes.
Jason Drucker, left, and Owen Asztalos star in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.”