Friday, May 12, 2017

Alien: Covenant

Although touted as a sequel to the venerable first film in the franchise, the opening scene of Alien: Covenant, with a sophomoric, inconclusive discussion about God and creation between Michael Fassbender and Guy Pierce, firmly identifies it as a direct sequel to Prometheus. Fassbender reprises his role as David, the android whose motives trumped those of the human exploration crew in Prometheus; he also plays a sibling android, Walter, who is part of the crew of the Covenant. A colony ship that, after receiving a signal containing a distorted version of John Denver's 'Country Roads', diverts its course to an Earth-like planet in nearby star system and the expected xenomorph mayhem.

The film is beautifully designed and shot, with sets that nicely reproduce the workaday retro interiors of the early films, and a palette of blues and dark greens and deep shadows for exterior shots that evoke the Gothic romanticism Caspar David Friedrich's paintings. But as in Friedrich's metaphysical landscapes, the human figures are the least significant elements. Billy Crudup's acting captain makes much of the fact that he's a man of faith, but his confrontation with David's delusions of godhead is an inconclusive fizzle, and apart from Danny McBride's Tennessee and Katherine Waterson's Daniels (who nicely evokes Ripley's gritty determination), the rest of the crew are, even if you've watched the online prologue that isn't included in the onscreen film, mostly two-dimensional cyphers. Meat for the Wagnerian plans of David, who snared them by broadcasting that signal from an alien city littered with corpses. There's inventively gory body-horror, some good jump-in-your-seat shocks, and plenty of fan-pleasing references to earlier films, but stringing together variations of iconic scenes fails to create a coherent or interesting story. It's not the worst film in the franchise, but its final revelations undercut mythology with trite and unnecessary explanations, and the slingshot ending isn't aimed at the Nostromo, but at the continuation of the far less interesting and original Promethean trilogy, and David's ongoing issues with his dead dad.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Close Encounters

I encountered many fictional aliens before my only face-to-face meeting with a person from another planet; so many, back in the 1960s, when I was growing up, that I can't now remember the first. It definitely wasn't the Mekon, because I wasn't a reader of The Eagle and Dan Dare (as far as comics were concerned, I was still fighting the Second World War with The Victor), and could well have been Fireball XL5's Zoonie the Lazoon, a round-headed big-eyed big-eared precursor of Jar Jar Binks, although more than fifty years later I remember the programme only for its opening credits, with the titular spacecraft's ungainly launch along a monorail track. Fireball XL5's run ended in 1963, and my first clear memory of an alien dates from late in the same year, in the first episode of Doctor Who. Not the Daleks, who featured in the programme's second story, nor even the Doctor himself, but an unearthly child in trouble at school: Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter.

After that, it's all a bit of a blur, from H.G. Wells's Martians to Star Trek's Mr Spock and the monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was even a brief dalliance with UFO literature. My mother's family came from south coast resort town of Bognor Regis, and we often holidayed there, staying with my great aunt, who ran a traditional boarding house. Unlike the rest of her guests, we weren't kicked out for the day, a bonus in the thundery last weeks of August 1970, when it rained every day: torrential downpours that swept the beaches clean and drove holidaymakers into the slot machine arcades, bingo halls and seafront shelters, where they huddled in their pacamacs, picking at sodden chips and watching the grey windlashed waves roll past the deserted pier. There was nothing else for it: I joined the local library, one of the first in Britain with a computerised checkout; the ticket was a slab of plastic much like the memory cards Mr Spock inserted into the Enterprise's bridge computer. Most of the titles in the science-fiction section duplicated those of my home town's library, but there was a long shelf of UFO books and I steadily read my way through that, noting that the Venerians and many other extraterrestrial visitors were, much like the crew of the Enterprise, here to help. Friendly humanoid gods who'd visited Earth to impart cosmic wisdom and reassure us that our little local difficulty with the everyday threat of nuclear annihilation would soon pass. Many were caricatures of Californian hippies: Orthon, the extraterrestrial mentor of the Godfather of UFO literature, George Adamanski, had tanned skin and long blond hair, and Adamski notes that 'his trousers were not like mine.' Flared patchwork jeans, perhaps. Anyway, I absorbed this idea of helpful humanoid aliens imparting inscrutable wisdom, and more than forty years later used my own version in the two Jackaroo novels, Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere. Books I couldn't have written without the help of Mr Adamski and his otherwordly visitors, Bognor Regis library and much summer thunder.

But I was going to tell you about my face-to-face meeting with an alien. It was also in August: August 21st 1990, to be precise, in Edinburgh. One of my friends -- I'll call him Julian, because that's his name -- worked for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and I spent an evening with him before I set out for the 48th World SF Convention in the Hague. Julian had passes for one of the concerts, and as we walked through the warm twilight from the Festival's offices to the venue he casually swung a plastic supermarket bag. We badged our way to the back stage, and that's where I had my first and so far only encounter with a man from another planet: the headliner of the concert, Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blunt, in Alabama, the jazz bandleader had long ago revealed that he was actually from Saturn (which George Adamski had once visited, when he attended a cosmic conference), here to study Earth and preach peace. He was enthroned in the busy green room, inscrutable, robed, kingly, a still point amongst the bustle as members of his Arkestra came and went. After a short consultation with one of his aides he beckoned us into his presence. Julian presented the plastic bag and Sun Ra examined the contents -- twenty thousand pounds in cash, the fee for the concert. Satisfied, he handed the bag to the aide and raised his hand in blessing. A blessing from a wise unearthly observer I'm happy to pass on to you.
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