Q&A – Alien: Covenant Review

Alien: Covenant takes place years after Prometheus and concerns the crew of a colonization vessel bound for deep space. After a mid-flight disaster, they ignore that left turn at Albuquerque and head for a new destination, one that has green grass (presumably, beneath the grey-ish filter), oxygen, water, all that stuff. What matters is that while the planet seems OK, it is decidedly not OK at all because it’s home to both the eponymous phallic aliens that give this film franchise its title and Prometheus’s returning cyborg David (Michael Fassbender), formerly a severed head but now complete with a full body, a Hermit Cloak, and a grungy 90s haircut. The film makes Prometheus look wildly successful.

Now to be fair, I kind of liked Prometheus, but it’s been canonized as a disappointment and I don’t have too many protests. I don’t insist it’s particularly great or Secretly Good All Along, but I do believe it manages something that Alien: Covenant does not: it makes it fun to watch people die. Prometheus is like a decent slasher movie, albeit mostly sans slasher villain. You don’t sit down to a slasher looking for empathetic characters or displays of real ingenuity or the widespread triumph of the human survival instinct; no, you go to see idiotic teenagers die in absurd, creative ways.

While it’s an admittedly deserved point of contention that nobody in Prometheus is an idiot teenager under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, everyone dies quite creatively. Within the framework of a crew tripping over a different bio-weapon every few feet, Ridley Scott has free reign to throw in giant squids and mutants and a pale, bald, musclebound humanoid alien. The movie succeeds through the sheer amount of stuff it flings at the wall; the musings about faith and the place of humanity in the universe may not stick, but the horrifying C-section sure does.

That’s not to say Alien: Covenant actually needs variety to be any good, of course – Scott and James Cameron managed OK in earlier films with only the xenomorphs (Cameron did add a xenomorph queen, though that was late in the movie). But I left the theater with this palpable xenomorph fatigue. Unavoidable, maybe, when the creatures in question are over 30 years old and have, in various forms of media, tangled with the Predator, Batman, and the cast of Mortal Kombat. The bar for a creative xenomorph kill is perhaps unfairly high, but even when you correct for the raised expectations, Alien: Covenant swings low; three characters die while they’re washing up, on two separate occasions. This movie goes for a trite shower kill not once, but twice.

The Covenant’s crew is composed of thin sketches: the one in the cowboy hat (Danny McBride), the one who evokes Ripley if you squint hard enough (Katherine Waterston), the one who believes in his lord and savior Jesus Christ (Billy Crudup). This would be forgivable, as it often is in horror movies, if they didn’t meet an untimely demise with all the excitement of their number coming up at the DMV. Barring a scene with a crane that momentarily shakes Scott out of his malaise, the act of getting got in Alien: Covenant feels perfunctory, like even the film is bored of its title creatures.

The only thing Scott seems interested in is David, who’s positioned as a sort of tragic, lonely artist. He glides through the crypt-like interior of an empty city, masking contempt behind an eerie politeness. As played by Fassbender, he’s the cracked face of perfection, unpredictable and sinister and amusingly seductive when he encounters the Covenant’s resident cyborg Walter (also Fassbender). It’s David who provides the film’s core, a statement on the nature of creativity and the relationship between a work and its maker that goes down easier than Prometheus’s dead-end philosophical pretensions but nonetheless gets swallowed up when there are faces to hug and chests to burst. David and the xenomorphs wrestle for the film’s spotlight, and the ones who get it don’t seem like the ones Scott wants to indulge.

The carrot on a stick for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe (xenoverse?) has been this promise of answers to its narrow mythos. In Prometheus, it was the question of just who that elephant-headed pilot was from the beginning of the original Alien, plus the motivation of the sinister Weyland-Utani corporation. For the sequel, it’s where, exactly, the xenomorphs come from. That answer may very well be the only takeaway from a film as mismatched and miscalculated as Alien: Covenant, but it’s an empty one, and not just because it’s dull and half-formed in order to leave room for more films. For all Prometheus’s troubles in asking the Big Questions about life, Scott uses them to smartly distance himself from Alien lore. The weakest parts of Prometheus are when it invokes the lingering questions of its universe, when it tells us the elephant-headed pilot isn’t elephant-headed after all and when it uses a xenomorph as a post-credits tease like it’s a Marvel character. By going the other direction, Alien: Covenant ties itself up in lore whether we want it or not.

The strength of a fictional world is its scope, in how its bigness and mystery reflect the relationship we have with our own world. In giving us the answers, Alien: Covenant’s only essential contribution is the way it further flattens its universe into one that’s small, easy to explain, and as tiresome as the creatures that inhabit it.

Donald Trump Ruined ‘Arrival’ and All Other Alien Movies Probably

Arrival released in theaters not even a week beyond the 2016 election. It is, chronologically speaking, a post-Trump film, but it is not written as such. That’s not a criticism so much as a reality of production schedules – shooting began in mid-2015, the screenwriter turned in a draft before that, and somebody had the idea rattling around in their head even before that. If we envisioned the presidency of Donald Trump at all in mid-2015, we didn’t give it much credence, let alone construct whole films around the idea. That’s not to say Arrival is apolitical, of course. Its central conflict revolves around getting China and Russia to chill out. A group of soldiers mutiny after being radicalized by what appears to be a conservative radio show insisting that Somebody Needs to Do Something. At the start of the film, when everyone on the planet is flipping through channels in search of news about the alien landing, Amy Adams chides her mother to avoid “that other channel” because “those people are idiots.”

Because the film is informed by the current (or, at least, formerly current) political climate, the U.S. government naturally figures into the plot. They are on edge about the revelation that humans are Not Alone in the Universe, so characters must constantly reassure military and intelligence agency types that the aliens don’t mean any harm, that they won’t use such-and-such information against humanity, that the earth won’t be the epicenter of any cosmic explosions. Despite these apprehensions, the U.S. remains willing to talk to the aliens, and much of the film follows Amy Adams as she deciphers their language and develops a way to communicate.

It’s true that I can’t imagine this kind of restraint under the Trump administration, but Arrival lost me on a much more basic level than that. In sci-fi movies, we are accustomed to the U.S. government’s narrative presence, typically by one organization or another like FBI or CIA or military as representative(s) of the entire political arm of the United States – they are The Government, proper noun. Though details vary between each film’s portrayal, there is a constant: The Government is on top of things. The Government is on the scene with unmarked vans and HAZMAT suits at the mere mention of UFOs and little green men, and as viewers we are mostly OK with this. We willfully suspend our disbelief at preposterous response times and openly accept that, where aliens are concerned, all of America may as well be a white suburban neighborhood. It just makes sense.

While a single glance at the legislative process over the past few years should pretty much torpedo anyone’s faith in this weird hyper-competence and make any resulting conspiracies seem fundamentally ridiculous, we remain able to suspend our disbelief. The reason we’re able to do so is a basic faith in the government, the kind cultivated by grade school textbooks and anthropomorphic singing bills – by the people, for the people, all that stuff. Not a faith that our interests are being served necessarily, but a faith in the government’s ability to function as a semi-oiled machine at (at least) its minimum setting and thus at a basic level of competence. Regardless of in-fighting or political posturing or what have you, we believe (or want to believe) things are still humming along beneath the hood, that everything is going as planned. Sci-fi movies embellish from there, of course, but they retain this crucial basis in reality – “as planned” just so happens to include an alien cover-up.

Which all makes it very hard to watch Arrival now, at the end of March 2017. Twice Trump has been thwarted in court over absurd travel bans. Not only are the ethics of the people in his administration regarded with pretty much a perpetual question mark, but so are their most basic qualifications. We hear reports of jobs unfilled, rampant leaks, executive orders passed unread, the failed Yemen raid, the health care debacle. The list goes on. The obvious question on America’s lips: how does this administration react in your average alien movie? The Government in Arrival doesn’t even do anything that seems outside the realm of possibility, but with current political events hanging overhead, their smooth response seems absurd. It’s not a question of restraint, because let’s be honest, a Trump-led U.S. would occupy the exact spot a trigger-happy China and Russia do in this film. Instead, it’s a question of the ability to do the most basic stuff. The Government quickly arrives on the scene, sets up a perimeter, doles out information on a need-to-know-and-you-don’t-need-to-know basis; nobody gets in or out without somebody’s say-so and so on and so forth. Other countries behave likewise. It’s all just simple competence, and yet simple competence feels completely implausible.

Back in 2000, I voted for Al Gore. The fact that I did so in kindergarten because I liked the color blue should tell you how politically aware I was for the last widely-criticized presidency, so I can’t say if my reaction is unique to Donald Trump. What I do know is that observing the 2016 election has had the odd peripheral effect of dislodging a basic faith in government that movies like Arrival rely on. Fiction is a lens through which we observe reality. We distort, we twist, and we shape that reality to suit the story, but we use it as a base. And when I see The Government functioning with some level of competence, when I look through Arrival’s lens at the place where our own reality should be, I don’t see anything at all.

Inner Universe: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and Whitewashing

Note: There are open spoilers here, though they’re an open secret at this point. Plus, I think it’d be a good idea to learn about this stuff before you go about giving money to a thing that has what we’ll call a “concerning racial perspective” (and given its box office returns, you probably aren’t anyway).

If you’re reading this essay, chances are you know a little bit about the 2017 Ghost in the Shell movie’s whitewashing controversy. It’s pretty much the only reason we talk about it — the film seems to exist solely as an Americanized adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s Japanese classic, where we don’t discuss what it does as a distinct entity so much as what it changes and what it keeps from the original. Which seems unfair. But as a distinct entity, it’s a clunky, unremarkable, somewhat pretty action movie, and it doesn’t much present itself as a distinct entity in the first place. Though the plot is original, director Rupert Sanders recreates many of Oshii’s scenes, some of them shot-for-shot in ways that will surely look unflattering come the inevitable YouTube comparison video. The credits even roll over the anime’s iconic screeching chorus. And in this context, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi (here renamed Mira Killian) feels all the more incongruous. In spite of it all, producer Steven Paul rejects accusations of whitewashing, and he does more than reject them; he’s pretty sure that seeing the movie will clear things up for people. He told Buzzfeed News, “They’re going to be very, very happy with it when they see what we’ve actually done with it, and I don’t think anybody’s going to be disappointed.”

I am disappointed.

On an aesthetic level, you can tell a lot by each film’s differing approach. Oshii’s film carries an air of disrepair. Of grime. The cities are dirty and cramped and rusted, easy to mistake for post-apocalyptic if not for the crowds. The sun is rare, clouds not so much. You get the sense that technology spread like a virus, that the world struggled to adapt and still isn’t quite used to the idea; human minds have become data inside cybernetic/cybernetically-enhanced bodies at alarming risk of being rearranged or rewritten. Memories can be altered or swapped out entirely to reconfigure who you are, and the sad part is that you might even be happier that way.

Sanders goes for gleaming futurism, segmenting the grime off into slums that won’t obstruct a cityscape beset by neon and massive looping hologram-ads that’s tinted a clean blue-and-white-and-gray. You still see people do things like flip up the skin where their eyes should be to reveal plugs, but it lacks the environmental foreboding that makes it feel uncomfortable. In addition to the prettiness of it all, Sanders indulges in the kind of slow-motion that recalls Zack Snyder. And like Snyder,  Sanders is drawn to the surface aesthetics, to what looks cool, even if he doesn’t seem to understand the larger thrust of the cool source material— just look at how his film repeats many of Oshii’s vital questions about identity, memory, and individuality verbatim yet out-of-context and out-of-place in a breathless, standard action plot. Sort of like how kids will repeat what an adult says not because they get the full meaning but because an adult said it.

Ghost in the Shell 2017 (I hate that I have to distinguish between these two now) has little to say for itself, and it has even less to say about whitewashing (though perhaps more than you’d expect). We assume that although the Major is a brain in a robot body, she probably used to look somewhat like Scarlett Johansson — after all, what would be the point of changing her? Cue the plot twist: once Hanka Robotics, the corporation that built her, turns out to be a bit shady in the way all cyberpunk corporations seem to be, the Major seeks out her true past behind Hanka’s lies. Up the stairs in a grubby apartment complex, she comes face-to-face with an older Asian woman. The woman invites her in, where next to the table where they drink tea is a room still dedicated to her missing-but-presumed-dead daughter, Motoko. Guess who the Major reminds her of.

If GITS17 poorly engages with those themes of identity/memory/individuality/technology-run-amok, it at least brings them up. They are allowed to remain as capital-T Themes, but race exists only as a cheap plot twist. Hanka Robotics appears to be a rather white corporation (white CEO, white scientists, white cyborgs), and yet there’s no attempt to explore what it means for them to erase Asians from public view and stick them in white bodies. Why Asians? Why make them white? What does that say about society viewing white as the default, as the most beautiful, as the higher standard of humanity that being a powerful cyborg implies? The film isn’t interested in these questions — it’s only interested in mining race at a surface level to get a gasp out of the audience and underscore just how different the Major used to be. After all, what’s more different than someone of another race? Asians are not good enough to headline GITS17 or make up its central Theme; they’re only useful as fodder for a plot twist.

Worse, the film exploits this fact that Asians and other minorities are viewed as the Other, the very engine by which they are deemed unrelatable to a white audience and thus unfit to lead a prospective Hollywood blockbuster like Ghost in the Shell, without even involving Asians in the process. As an Asian-American, I wanted to support GITS17 because, though I disagreed with Scarlett Johansson’s casting, the film had Asian actors in other roles — Kaori Momoi as Motoko’s mother, Chin Han as Togusa, Yutaka Izumihara as Saito, the great Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki. That’s a lot of Asians for Hollywood. Turns out, they’re peripheral at best; the key players, the Major and Kuze and Batou and Dr. Ouelet and Cutter, are all white (Aramaki makes out okay but he’s noticeably fifth or sixth banana here in terms of importance, if not screentime). Chin Han gets like three scenes. Saito has one line, and before he gave it I thought they left him out of the movie. And the film even goes out of its way to obscure the faces of the Asian actors cast to play Major and Kuze (who underwent a similar process) before they were abducted and stuffed inside white people. The decision is meant to show they’re not the same people they used to be, but in practice it only further marginalizes the Asians cast in the film; they are a race, not faces.

There’s a scene at the end of the movie where the Major stands on a rooftop, giving her superhero-esque epilogue monologue about how she’s accepted who she is, as some weird amalgam of Motoko Kusanagi (her name as an Asian) and Mira Killian that’s now just “Major.” This after a scene where she stands over the gravestone of Motoko Kusanagi and walks over to her mother, tells her “you don’t have to come here anymore.” For as much as GITS17 fumbles its various metaphors in the adaptation process, this new one comes across quite clearly: Johansson stands over the grave of Kusanagi, the Asian, and nudges her mother, the audience, to move on. “Get over it,” the film says. She’s accepted herself as someone who transcends racial boundaries into something bold, something new, and so, too, should we. Of course, the character who transcends those boundaries still has the face of a white person, and in this way the film becomes the living embodiment of that person you know who insists they don’t see race and neither should you/society.

There has, as usual, been pushback, a rush to defend the system that tells predominantly white stories. People insist that Johansson’s casting makes sense in-universe, that this is not the film to pick a fight with. It’s true that Oshii’s GITS95 never specifies a race for the Major — Motoko Kusanagi is an assumed name (one key point Sanders/the screenwriters get wrong is the fakeness of the name “Kusanagi,” which sounds great to English speakers but is the name of a mythological/maybe-real Japanese sword and therefore you’re about as likely to encounter a Kusanagi as you are, say, a barista called Billy Mjölnir). It’s also true that Oshii came out in support of Johansson with pretty much this exact argument. However, Oshii speaks as a Japanese filmmaker, and it probably goes without saying that Japan, an Asian country, has few issues with Asian representation. So, the question: given the few opportunities available to Asians in Hollywood, if they can’t even get cast as the lead of an anime adaptation, what can they lead?

Furthermore, even if we ignore the Asian-as-hell setting that makes Kusanagi’s ethnicity an easy contextual guess, the argument of what makes sense “in-universe” means very little for Asians getting roles in Hollywood; instead, it means placing equal emphasis on Asian representation and the written excuse for their continued absence. People will accept one or the other. And because of how fluid the adaptation process is, because of how easy it is for writers to shift/insert things that justify the casting of a white actor, there will always be excuses. Films where the casting doesn’t make sense in-universe end up less as targets of justified outrage than scripts that lack the right excuse. The idea of what makes sense “in-universe” becomes just another obstacle for minorities, a club to bludgeon them with when they step out of line as docile consumers.

The villain of GITS17, Hanka Robotics, takes Asians and places them in white bodies. The script cynically uses race to contrast who the Major used to be and who she is now, to underscore the invasive nature of the procedure — Hanka fundamentally changes who she is. It is a dehumanizing process in every sense of the word. I submit another symbol at work here: Hanka Robotics represents the people who made this film.