Completely Biased Thoughts on Alien: Covenant.

When I was twelve years old, all I wanted for my birthday was the Alien: Quadrilogy boxset on DVD. It intrigued me, knowing absolutely nothing of the franchise, its iconic monster, its groundbreaking heroine, its thrills, chills, or its gore. The very first image I saw was the very first audiences were introduced to 30 years before me – an unnatural, fleshy egg and that glowing light emanating through the cracks. Alien, for me, was the mark of adolescence. There was little interest in Harry Potter, Star Wars, even less so with Lord of the Rings, but horror movies were my childhood and the Xenomorph became the centre figure of that upbringing.

So, as impartial as I try to be in my approach to every new experience cinema has to offer me, Alien is a franchise I simply cannot hate. It’s impossible. I’ve tried. People tell me that Alienor Alien Resurrection are terrible movies but I’d watch them endlessly, finding new things I like or find interesting additions to the original premise. As a young teen, Aliens and Resurrection were bosom-buddies, a perfect double feature to sate my adrenaline needs, while Alien and Alien3 gave me a greater satisfaction creatively as I grew older and more aware of the mechanics of cinema. I even liked “the sleigh ride of friendship” from Alien Vs. Predator and as for AVP: Requiem… well, nobody likes that one anyway.

When Prometheus was announced, I was nearly finishing high school and my incredulity that such an event would occur in my lifetime was indefatigable. A new Alien movie? Ridley Scott returning in the director’s chair? Returning to its horror roots? I gushed, and I talked about Prometheus for months in the lead up (even to my teachers because that’s how excited I was) until finally the big day arrived. It came to cinemas, I sat down, I took a deep breath, and loved every minute of it. That is, until the walk home, when suddenly all my adoration turned quickly into indignation, feeling cheated that what I witnessed was a hollow film that was obnoxiously smug and deluded into thinking it was ‘smart’ cinema.

It finally happened – the first Alien movie I ever hated.

Looking back, I still dislike Prometheus despite its finer points. My issues stem from its conflicted desire to divest all association with any of the franchise’s recognizable elements while also maintaining them to ensure fans won’t get irritated by the lack of Xeno. In interviews, Scott has lauded himself as having elevated a B movie premise into a A+ film, which indicated a clear disdain for the source material that could almost be felt every minute Prometheus explored creationism. Ironically, by self-aggrandizing itself as a sophisticated piece of cinema, the prequel somehow came across as the far more vapid and asinine film.

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Alien: Covenant has had a comparably low-key marketing campaign to the cinematic event of the year that Prometheus promised to be. It’s hard not to enter the film immediately aware of the previous disappointment, hoping that the same mistakes won’t be repeated. Then Guy Pearce shows up and Michael Fassbender’s David, and the warning signs flash their lights.

However, something feels different. Yes, they’re still spouting the same bollocks about who created who and why. But with its minimal, unorthodox scenery and sharper dialogue, a genuine intrigue starts to develop. Genuine characters begin to peak through and suddenly the very issues with Prometheus are no longer such. Scott has insisted that his intrigue with the franchise derives primarily from the Space Jockeys (a tall mysterious alien figure found crashlanded in the original film) and where the Xenomorphs originate from.

It was the biggest detriment to Prometheus, where the answers were simply not as compelling as the question. However the myth-making and world-building in Covenant actually works. This might be the result of so much intertextuality and cinematic universes coincidentally shaping the Hollywood landscape of today, but for whatever reason, Covenant has a story that feels as big as it attempts to be.

Ridley Scott essentially has made his answer to Aliens, the James Cameron war movie that launched the director’s career to bigger heights. It’s certainly an action film with horror elements rather than the other way round, as scenes of gunfire, explosions, and death-defying stunts are a constant throughout. Anyone looking for scares will certainly miss them here, as Covenant loses its anxious mood soon after it’s begun. Instead, it becomes a companion piece to its predecessor, but in a way that manages to improve both.

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Of course, spoilers will be avoided. And there are problems which cannot. Covenant clearly suffers from heavy editing with many scenes incongruous or excessive without their original context. Especially in the opening minutes, when an appearance from James Franco differs greatly from the preview footage shown before release. Likewise, as much as it tries to stay closer to the Xenomorph mythos it tries to create… it doesn’t make much sense. How exactly they’re created is near-incomprehensible to consider and how the film gets from Covenant to Alien still remains a mystery, if not more so given certain events.

But, did I have fun? Almost entirely. To see the Xenomorph done in interesting, new ways while they attack a cast that I actually grew to care for gave me that jolt I had loved the franchise to give me. It’s a flawed film, perhaps even a bad one, but as a universe-building sequel, it works and I frankly hope that more will still come. And apparently it will, with another prequel for production next year.

Revered critic Robbie Collins has claimed that Alien: Covenant is the third best in the franchise, preceded by the first two films of the franchise. Whether or not this is true is a personal opinion, but it’s certainly the most compelling and intentionally entertaining films of the “bad ones.” I’m probably going to go see it again, just to relax and enjoy. I think I’ll do that right now actually.

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The Double-Edged Sword of Sequels.

By now it’s firmly established the process by which Hollywood produces cinema in the 21st century. While sequels and franchising are concepts that have existed firmly in American cinema for nearly forty years now, this decade has seen the industry intensifying its number of films based on established works at an almost alarming rate. This week alone sees Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 scheduled for release, The Fate of the Furious dominating the global box-office in its opening weekend (exceeding Star Wars: The Force Awakens’s record already), and Indiana Jones 5 and Star Wars IX having officially announced their release dates, Hollywood has firmly settled itself with a reliable source to generate a lucrative profit with supposed minimal risk.

Admittedly, this comes at a good time when not too long ago, the threat of cinema’s extinction from cultural and financial relevancy loomed its head in the penumbra of this decade’s biggest success of online streaming. While cinema’s demise has been speculated ever since the 1950s, the possibility seemed ever more real in recent years when films such as Emma Watson’s The Colony were infamously reported for generating £47 at the UK box office. What such reports of despairingly underperforming films indicate more than anything is the waning popularity of movies viewed in its original surroundings, with cinema chains frequently attempting gimmicks to try draw in bigger crowds. In truth, with 3/5th of the highest grossing films of all time having released in the past seven years, the film industry has nothing to worry about.

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While those annual sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, universes, and intertextualities have been keys to the success of Hollywood today, its prevalence has certainly gathered its fair share of detractors. It’s commonly expected of these people to bemoan the quality, quantity, and frequency with which each franchise film is released. Even European filmmakers like Olivier Assayas and Paolo Sorrentino have begun inserting disgruntled jabs at the modern Hollywood industry without any irony that their own films bank on the established celebrity of actors who participate in those same films. For those who resent the current lifeblood of Hollywood cinema, the truth is that even the most egregious examples, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 or Zoolander 2, are bound to make money with or without the same numbers in attendance. By working with established brands with an equally established demographic, a studio can effectively generate a profitable source of revenue before the film even hits cinemas, through media outlets and merchandizing eager to make their own money off a recognizable name. For example, the recent T2: Trainspotting 2 was largely ignored by the general public despite the prevalence of its marketing campaign, but this didn’t impede the sequel from far surpassing the profits made by the original iconic film.

With so many sources of media, from television to YouTube and Netflix, vying to have the biggest number of viewers, it should come as reassurance to those who felt apprehensive about where cinema would be in a continually expansive market. Franchise filmmaking is the source that is imperative to cinema’s existence as one of the biggest cultural industries in the world. Even with constant speculation for when that foundation will collapse, through a critically and commercially excoriated product, Marvel Studio’s recent Iron Fist has proved a bad product is capable of generating intrigue through its own failure.

So what could possibly be wrong with the world of franchising? Well, while the most common remarks are that sharp writing, edgy subjects, and original storytelling become jeopardised in an aim to produce more sequels, the fact is that the greater concern for creative control in studios such as Disney with their films showcases that the commercial value of a film is equally reliant on its quality as much as its familiarity. The more questionable concern that should be investigated is the desire for familiarity itself from the general public.

Referring to a previous generation in pop culture history is nothing new, a technique that is largely regarded as having kicked off since American Graffiti and Grease in the 1970s. However, with the turn of the century and ever-moving transformation of modern society, it seems that revisiting the past has become a bigger preoccupation, with nostalgia becoming one of the defining sentiments of the 2010s. While it would be ludicrous to say that the recycled and revived approach to film production has a direct effect on the audiences who consume such movies, the increase demand of films that offer something familiar does indicate a culture troubled by ongoing changes in modern society.

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Nostalgic films like the examples given earlier derived from an ongoing disillusion and ennui for the political and social altercations that affected the American people during that decade – the failure of Vietnam, Watergate, recessions, oil crises, etc. Right now, the experience is similar yet intensified in its polemic for the contemporary world. While it may be almost a decade since its occurrence, the butterfly effect of the 2008 recession has had the most significant impact on contemporary opinion and culture. The nostalgia that has dominated culture as a therapeutic exercise now threatens to have the adverse effect of abetting the general public to perceive previous generations and decades as a far less complicated and better time of existence. Franchises leave their own impression by conserving their position in the mainstream consciousness, preserving characters and stories that people have fond memories of no matter how much time has moved on.

The problem is far more complex than to simply ask for Hollywood to create more original content. Continuity and revivals are indications that a greater dissatisfaction is occurring beyond the scope of the film industry, and change will only occur when society is ready to stop looking into the past for a better life. With a more palpable urgency and a clearer enemy in 2017, perhaps now is the time that change to Hollywood productions will finally occur, with demands to hear our own stories told. Or maybe independent cinema will take its place as countercultural in the same way Miramax responded to the culture of the 1980s. Either way, here’s to the future.

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Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) – Review.

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There it is. 45 frames. 7 seconds in length. The first film ever made in the United States.

…Sort of. While some may argue that the first ever film in history should be credited to Louis Le Prince for Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), the first copyrighted film happens to be from Thomas Edison for this short of Fred Ott having a sneeze. Ott, an employee for Edison, was renowned for his gags and his distinctive sneeze, which was apparently enough impetus to allow the first recorded image be of him joking around.

It’s certainly not fascinating by itself. Not much is achievable in seven seconds. If someone were to apotheosize film as high art, they’d posit that the film contains the foundations of American cinematic storytelling in a single shot – the setup (the man puts snuff to his nose); the dilemma (the man is overwhelmed by the physical need to sneeze); the resolve (the man feels relieved). However, this really is a coincidence beyond anything else.

Fred Ott’s Sneeze was the groundwork for the development of what we’d come to know as the camera. Never intended for public viewing, the sneeze that started it all began as a commission for Harper’s Weekly to demonstrate the abilities of their new Kinetoscope. Even being credited as the first copyrighted film is spurious itself. In 1894,the Library of Congress held no regulations for copyrighting films  so the 45 frames sent to Harper’s Weekly were copyrighted individually as a series of photographs.

There is some curiosity to be had about what this springboard can tell us about filmmaking itself. Cinema has always been a spectacle. The selling point of Fred Ott’s Sneeze relies entirely on the novelty of moving image (something now capable of being condensed into a .gif) and so, to us, there is nothing significant without its historical context. The most joy to be had from the film now is the derisive comments section on YouTube. Spectacle draws in the public, but its effect and appeal is ephemeral at best.

More importantly, film began as an amusement. The charm of Fred Ott’s Sneeze is its frivolity. One of the followups was The Kiss (1896), one of the earliest publicly shown recordings, and a similarity emerges almost instantly:

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No, not just Fred Ott himself. The subjects play up to the camera, amused at the act of recording, self-conscious that what they do will be permanently recorded. They become silly and that silliness makes them so amusing to watch. What occurs in those seven seconds of Fred Ott sneezing his way to fame is no different from the numerous Cinnamon, Ice Bucket, or Bean Boozled Challenges which occupy the internet on a daily basis. If anything, it’s a comedy; certainly an in-joke for the staff at Edison Manufacturing Company (including its sequels, Fred Ott Holding a Bird (1894) and the aforementioned The Kiss).

If anything can be learned from Fred Ott’s Sneeze, it’s that filmmaking never began as art, or storytelling, high/low brow entertainment, nor even with a bang. It started with a sneeze.