Thor; Ragnarock (2017)

Once upon a time,  in the year 2000, it was perhaps possible to make a superhero film without the involvement of every A list actor in the world.  At that time, when James Cameron had been discussing his vision of Spiderman with Leonardo DiCaprio and Arnold Schwarzenegger, there were little more than rumors of what would later become Marvel’s expanded universe.

And it’s a universe which grew to include motion picture actors making cameos in films for fees that would themselves finance independent movies. No, not Stan Lee’s cameo in Fantastic Four, instead we’re talking about the moment when Robert Downey Jnr walked into a bar at the end of The Incredible Hulk to announce they were creators the Avengers. That day was a collective one of sadness for cinema ushers worldwide as they realized two things; people were now going to start peeing in their cups to avoid a bathroom break that might destroy a crucial plot point and “after credit scenes” were going to make their jobs ten times harder on Friday night’s.

Thor Ragnarock has an outstanding cast, with lead performances from Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Cate Blanchett alongside pivotal support from Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban and Mark Ruffalo. That’s to say nothing of the ‘cameo’ performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam Neill (playing the Actor Odin) who prove that like Star Wars, James Bond and Harry Potter before it there’s nothing an actor likes more than to appear in a favored franchise.

What can happen with such a huge cast, however, is that both the story and the screen time are so constantly diluted with famous names – even, albeit nostalgically famous – that we’re more concerned with the sound of their voice and reminding ourselves of the fond actors they used to be then the role they’re playing in this movie.  Thankfully, that’s not the case here, as Thor Ragnarock provides a mildly entertaining backdrop as to why all these characters have to save ‘the world’ (but not as we know it) from destruction.

Returning to Asgard after a perilous mission, Thor finds a masquerade on the throne, Loki having placed his father Odin in a retirement home. Shady Acres (the name of the Mental Hospital in Ace Ventura Pet Detective too btw) is being demolished, and Loki has lost him. Dr Strange appears because Loki is on the galactic equivalent of a no fly list and has entered New York without going through customs.  Donald Trump would be proud the Dr is doing his patriotic duty.

But even this twist is only a prelude for the backdrop of the backdrop that makes up the real stories crux, Thor believed dead in a planet which literally collects waste and refuge and sold to the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum) in order to fight like a Gladiator for his freedom against the Ultimate Champion. That champion turning out to be one of Thor’s long lost friends, certainly lost in the Marvel verse, leads to an interesting chance for further character dissection on a hero who hasn’t had his own solo movie in a while.

There’s a lot going on. Thor and Loki ultimately team to save the world and are helped by a number of Asgaurdians and like minded revolutionaries while every fifteen minutes or so there’s a few jokes thrown in for good measure. The film definitely has a look and feel of comedy to it, not slapstick but there are enough laughs while watching alone to make you feel its been made for the cinema crowd of a family event where it raises some chuckles.

That’s not a bad thing, the jokes help relieve any tension in a family friendly movie and make it light, funny and fun, but what is a bad thing is that the movie subsequently fails to follow through on so much. 

Now I know that it has a limited run time and there’s only so much that can be on screen, but hints and tips are scattered throughout the script about who characters are and where they came from. Bruce Banner is a perfect example, as he struggles with the Hulk, realizing for the first time that there is a distinct split personality in which Hulk may reign supreme and have full control. Its a revealing moment and it could have gotten much darker than it’s pushed, but in the end, the movie doesn’t answer that question at all and we’re left wondering whether Hulk has mentally grown as an independent creature. That fight is definitely for another day.

The Grand Master is also another interesting character, described as the creator of the world and the first person to come here. Nothing more is discussed of his origins and it could have been ultimately a fascinating opportunity to examine how and why. There’s a little laugh about the serious subject of slavery, with his insistence the slaves be called ‘those people with forced jobs’, yet no real discussion as to why the Grand Master created a game so resembling Roman Gladiatorial Combat.

At the end of the day though, this is a Thor movie and it’s his show. It’s not as close minded as Ant Man, it’s obvious from Spiderman Homecoming that Marvel is not able to take a single chance or even have a single storyline for a main character, so they’re squeezing as much into this flick as possible. You do learn a lot about the god of thunder and he learns more about himself, but you still can’t help feeling he brought too many people along for the ride. 

Alien: Covenant (2017)

“You can serve in heaven…or reign in hell”

There’s an ecumenical undertone running through Ridley Scott’s latest installment to the Alien franchise. The idea is the Alien, or Xenomorph as we once knew, is a creature of perfect creation. It has been brought together in order to possibly answer the greatest question of all time – at least to a human being – who created the Universe.

When Walter (Michael Fassbender) is originally created by Mr Weyland (Guy Pearce), he asks this very question, and then ultimately declares he must – by his very creation – have now surpassed his creator by being immortal. Ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant focuses on a colonist ship travelling to a new planet with over 2,000 souls.

The first thing that you’re reminded of when you watch this film is just how different Ridley Scott’s Alien is to James Cameron’s Aliens, or even David Fincher’s nihilist (and often overlooked) Alien3. You simply can’t expect the same level of action adventure driven punishment you’d find in a typical Cameron script. Scott plays very much on the idea of human frailty and this ship’s crew suffer the loss of their Captain almost immediately, leading to a mourning Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and reluctantly promoted Oram (Billy Crudup). 

A distress signal is received by Tennessee (Danny McBride) and there’s a clash between whether to help or ignore as per the conflict of the original Alien. However, unlike the threats of forfeiting company bonuses in favor of contractual obligation, the clash here comes from whether the planet is worth risking as a possible colonization site or simply returning to hyper sleep and waking up in seven long years. The Captain orders his crew down and a rather large party of virtually nameless individuals descend upon the planet. The trailer for this film gave me the impression we would see the crew happy, or at least celebrating their spaceflight, yet in the film the pacing cuts mean that you get virtually no time to know who anybody actually is and instead a random photograph is the only cutback to any sort of familial bonds.

Perhaps I’m not being fair, because from dialogue we do pick up several pieces of information, such that Captain Oram is a man of faith – something he felt he was penalized for in not being named Captain before the start of the mission. We also learn that several members of the ships crew are married, thus creating some sense of loss when these characters are killed or separated, but not really enough to make me care all that much. James Cameron added that Ripley was a mother in Aliens, for example, something she doesn’t mention once in the original film – it seems Scott might be employing a tactic to help the audience engage more with a characters profound sense of loss and grief. That said, none of the characters display this very convincingly, and there are ultimately too many members of the crew to begin with to get to know individually anyway.

The main storyline arc in Covenant focuses on David, who has been living a somewhat mysterious existence on this heretofore undiscovered planet since the Prometheus crashed a decade prior. His “brother” is another synth….artificial person, named Walter, who is also played by Fassbender but admits to having several modifications David does not. David believes these are flaws, created to make Walter more like a machine, less ‘frightening’ to humans. It is heavily implied that David has created all the planets Neomorph specimens, harvesting the biology of their creation to create a more fundamentally perfect organism.

At the same time the group is coming to terms with the death of several crew, some of whom were killed when an infected Ledward caused Faris to destroy the dropship. It’s an interesting scene in which Ledward succumbs to an infection but the characters themselves seem almost encouraging it to happen in their inaction. Both Karine and Faris are guilty of overacting and emotionally distraught behavior which causes a situation to go from bad to worse. It is clear, in some respects, that the crew are Scientists and not Marines or even the crew of the Nostromo – but their inexperience and missteps doom everyone from that point on.

To that end I was also disappointed by Daniels, who emerges as the films supposed heroine, yet her acts of bravery are always accompanied with tears and quivering lips. It seems even after several encounters with the beasts the character is still shaken to her core to tackle the films villain. Oram does provide a moment of clarity, where he takes a gun and points it at David’s head, demanding to know exactly what’s going on here. Unfortunately, this act results in his downfall, by being stupid enough to follow blindly the instructions of someone he neither trusts or understands the motives of.

Alien Covenant surprised me with the complete lack of strong characters, both male and female, as well as the presence of human frailty at all times. I firmly believe Science Fiction needs to remove frailty to a large extent, or certainly have a character learn from previous experience enough to not react in a similar way to how the audience would at home. Newt, in Aliens, is an example of a frail and sympathetic character but she is resourceful and a survivor – otherwise she’d be nowhere seen in this film.
 
I hear a lot in the media about strong female characters. I’m yet to actually see an abundance of strong, well written, female characters in modern cinema. I see a lot of films dealing with issues or scenarios from a female perspective, but surely that’s not the same thing. It is important, granted, but characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor were written as strong female roles. I don’t think they were men masqueraded as women.
 

My point is that Covenant always seemed to remind me of the dangers of the element. Nobody seemed to learn anything or grow from the experience, it was a “follow me blindly no questions asked” approach until the end. And that’s to their detriment, because ironically, Alien was one of the few films that originally broke the convention in 1979 when Ridley Scott first cast Sigourney Weaver as the lead character.

The final act of the film sees a climax in which a plot point is subtly borrowed from a recent Aliens comic story line, which I will give full credit to because you really have to be paying attention to catch it, and it was also delightful to see the return of the Facehugger in its glory. The film also provides some insightful looks at the philosophy of the Xenomorph “creator” and Fassenbenders own appearance is leading me to believe the character could easily, with age, be a dead ringer for Alien’s Ian Holm in future installments.

Ultimately this film will remind you exactly why Ridley Scott created Alien, but it will also remind you how different that vision could have been if the second film was never created in the series. I wouldn’t have condemned an additional 35 minutes to its running time and would welcome this in the Blu Ray release at a later date. For now, a superb modern addition to the franchise.