The latest in the Alien franchise sees Ridley Scott offer up a Ripley-esque female lead, lengthy philosophical musings and plenty of savage, hard-hitting violence
Alien: Covenant (15) ***
Miss Sloan (15) **
The Levelling (15) ****
Frantz (15) ****
After making a brief appearance in the final scenes of Prometheus, the eponymous monster of Ridley Scott’s game-changing breakthrough Alien once again takes title billing in Alien: Covenant. The second in a projected four-movie saga designed to park the story in the garage of the original (to paraphrase Scott), it sees the director embracing more of the traditional elements of the saga that fans have come to love – namely that HR Giger-inspired creature with its phallic, trap-sprung proboscis, its acid for blood and its nasty habit of bursting through the chests of host organisms.
Not that the alien takes exactly this form. When we first see it in Covenant it has more virulent properties – something that results in a gnarly riff on the face-hugger involving airborne spores and the aural and nasal cavities of unsuspecting victims. That’s a concept that was briefly introduced in Prometheus and rather than skirting over the divisive elements of that film – which enraged many fans with its Darwin-denying plotting, stiff performances and refusal to end where the first movie began – this film builds on a lot of the groundwork it laid, beginning with an elegant prologue that re-introduces us to Michael Fassbender’s stiff-upper-lipped android David as he interacts with his wealthy creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). It’s a sterile, sinister scene, shot with the compositional bravado we’ve come to expect from Scott and seeding the film’s major theme: the hubris of creation. Thenceforth the film jumps ahead to a point ten years beyond the events of Prometheus to yet another deep-space exploration mission. This time out the rag-tag crew of new ship the Covenant are on a quest to colonise a planet when a freak electrical storm awakens them from hyper-sleep seven years before reaching their destination – a catastrophe that results in the weak-seeming Oram (Billy Crudup) being promoted to captain and Katherine Waterston’s Daniels – clearly intended as a sort of Ripley-in-waiting – becoming his second-in-command. Alas, save for a surprisingly good Danny McBride as lovably crude pilot Tennessee (and Fassbender as an upgrade of David called Walter), the rest of the crew barely registers before the death toll starts rising.
That begins to happen not long after they intercept a mysterious transmission and decide to investigate a hitherto uncharted planet instead of continuing with their own compromised mission. This initially allows Scott to get out of the claustrophobic corridors that were such a feature of the first few Alien films and he uses the opportunity to do some world building on a grandiose scale, leading to the film’s first big calamitous set-piece, which is stunningly executed and full of savage, hard-hitting violence. Sadly that tension isn’t sustained. Scott seems intent on mixing lengthy philosophical musings with crowd-pleasing action and it’s actually the latter that proves least interesting. As more and more echoes of Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens pile up (particularly in the final act), Alien: Covenant starts to feel like a cinematic remix: delivering all the elements we’re familiar with, but in a form that’s reassuring rather than revelatory.
Jessica Chastain spends most of Miss Sloane teetering on the brink of nervous exhaustion. Ten minutes in her character’s company and you’ll know how she feels. Cast as a ruthless, type A political lobbyist, her forced mania is fatiguing to watch, something not helped by the fact that her character is a walking cliché, right down to the severely bobbed hair, angular features, high-heels and ball-breaking attitude. “All you’re missing is a dick,” a supposedly feminist academic tells her at one point – a line that says much about the film’s outdated view of what constitutes a strong female character. But forcing Chastain into such a retrogressive parody of female empowerment is not the only problem with Miss Sloane. Directed by Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden, its story about an unscrupulous political operator’s determination to take on the all-powerful gun lobby is so preposterously plotted and so full of self-righteous grandstanding it becomes laughable.
Edinburgh-based director Hope Dickson Leach makes a strong debut with The Levelling, a beautifully made drama about grief, featuring a strong performance from Ellie Kendrick as a veterinary student returning to her estranged father’s flood-damaged Somerset farm in the wake of her brother’s suicide. Evoking a strong sense of place and a stronger sense of the complex bonds that simultaneously keep families together and threaten to tear them apart, the film presents an engrossing portrait of the hardscrabble nature of modern rural life and – as Kendrick’s character tries to piece together what happened to her recently deceased brother – a subtle and sophisticated look at the way entrenched attitudes towards gender can leave people feeling trapped, resentful and desperate.
Back on serious form, prolific French auteur François Ozon’s new film Frantz is also about grief. Set in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War, it’s an intriguing story about a young woman (Paula Beer) mourning the loss of her fiancé who falls for a young Frenchman who claims to have been intimately connected with her betrothed before the war. Based on a little-known 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film entitled Broken Lullaby, what follows is a fascinating exploration of the complexities of war from the perspective of those left behind, one given an expressionistic flourish by Ozon’s decision to move from black-and-white to colour at key points to highlight the brief moments of optimism the characters manage to find in their lives.