Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Alien: Covenant | review by Rafe McGregor

Scott forgets female leads and the human species in a strange sequel.

Alien: Covenant is the second in a proposed trilogy of prequels to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), following Prometheus (2012), which was also directed by Scott and reviewed for TQF by myself, Howard Watts, and Jacob Edwards. The titles of the prequel trilogy have been selected by the spaceships whose stories they tell and the story of the Covenant is set ten years after the disappearance of the Prometheus. The Covenant is en route to Origae-6, a distant planet designated for human colonisation, and is carrying several thousand settlers and embryos and a small crew, all of whom are in stasis with the exception of the ship’s synthetic, Walter (Michael Fassbender). The ship is caught in a neutrino blast, which kills the captain and prematurely wakens the crew. The captain’s loss proves significant for two reasons: it introduces his widow, Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston), who will turn out to be the only human character to make full use of her agency, and it places the second in command, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), in charge. Oram is not cut out for his unplanned promotion and makes a series of disastrous decisions, beginning with a diversion to investigate a signal that appears to provide evidence of a human presence on a nearby planet. The signal, as anyone who has watched Prometheus will realise, is from Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the sole survivor of the doomed mission to find the origins of human life.

Oram makes another poor judgement call in taking Daniels, who – like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) before her – is a third officer turned deputy, with him in the expeditionary force. The first sign of alien trouble occurs about thirty minutes into the film, when one of the crew is infected by spores. These spores and the particular species of alien that will hatch from them are new, but viewers of the series know that something nasty is coming and will not be disappointed by the eye-watering, gut-wrenching gore that ensues. Up to this point, Alien: Covenant follows the pattern of Prometheus very closely: two spaceships with command problems, two over-confident expeditions to an unknown planet, the infection of two crew members in each expedition – all of which set the scene for an exciting complication, crisis, and climax. Shortly after the emergence of the first aliens from their human hosts, however, the film makes a radical departure from both the initial prequel and the series as a whole.

No sooner has the first alien gone on the rampage, than it is revealed that Shaw is dead and that the sole survivor of the Prometheus is David (also Michael Fassbender), the sinister, secretive synthetic with a Peter O’Toole fixation. Prometheus ended with Shaw and a badly-damaged David on their way to the planet of the Engineers, the mysterious creators of human life, which is where the crew of the Covenant meet David. Curiously, the characters, plot, and themes of the previous film are all handled with complete anti-climax: Shaw is dead, the Engineers have suffered an apocalypse, and no one cares about the origins of humanity anymore. The last of these is especially strange because Alien: Covenant begins with a short scene in which billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who funded the Prometheus mission, tries to convince David that humanity cannot be an accidental result of the process of evolution. The conceptual unity in the second prequel is provided by creation rather than origin and David has become obsessed with creating life himself.

The Alien quartet was dominated by Ripley, the calm, cool, and collected warrior queen who repeatedly saved humankind from the alien menace. Prometheus appeared to be setting up Shaw to take over as she proved herself every bit as tough and resourceful as her predecessor/successor. Alien: Covenant makes a half-hearted attempt to do the same with Daniels, but Waterston doesn’t have the presence of either Weaver or Rapace and – in fairness – receives much less screen time. Fassbender, playing both David and Walter, becomes the most familiar face and dominates the film with crucial roles in the first and last scenes as well as a great deal of what comes in between. In fact, it is not just a strong female lead that is missing in this instalment, but humankind itself and the human beings in Alien: Covenant are very far down the food chain. As a sequel to Prometheus, this is a non sequitur, but as a standalone film set in the Alien universe it provides all the thrills and chills one expects from the franchise.***

Monday, 15 May 2017

Prometheus | review by Rafe McGregor

Scott sacrifices the superficial to the substantive in disappointing prequel.

Sequels and more recently prequels constitute something of a genre of their own in that the play between similarity and difference is at least as important as the director’s inventiveness and imaginativeness.  Viewers familiar with any one of the Alien quartet expect to see gut-wrenching body horror and a gutsy heroine who overcomes adversity, but will be content with neither a re-run of Kane’s exploding chest nor a mere replication of Ripley.  The demand for resemblance without replication is exacerbated in Prometheus, which is both a prequel to the quartet and a prequel to the remaining pair of prequels in the prequel trilogy.  One of the concerns of the quartet was the opposition of the capitalist imperative to what one might call basic human values or the more charitable of the religious virtues.  Some of the trouble in Alien was caused by the profit motive and all of the trouble in the rest of the series was caused by the military-industrial complex’s interest in capturing a live alien to create yet another weapon of mass destruction.  In this respect, Prometheus takes the series to new heights because the quest around which the narrative revolves, the search for the origin of human life, is completely commercial.  The venture is not only sponsored by the Weyland Corporation, but undertaken at the whim of its owner and commanded by his representative, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who treats the Prometheus’s captain like a lackey and is openly contemptuous of the scientist passengers.

The new Ripley, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), is one of those scientists and she is responsible for identifying a series of star maps that apparently guide humanity to the planet where our creators, the Engineers, live.  Shaw considers the map an invitation to meet our makers and the Weyland Corporation considers it a source of profit for the company and personal gain for an influential board member.  Once the Prometheus arrives at its destination, the scientific mission begins, albeit very much under the thumb of Vickers and with the corporation’s android, David (Michael Fassbender), clearly having been programmed to pursue an agenda that belongs to neither Vickers nor Shaw.  It is at the point of touchdown that the emphasis of the film switches from the superficial story of discovery to a substantive exploration of the human infatuation with genesis.  Underlying the literal quest for the origin of human life is a reverence for the species, creature, or being that created humanity and Scott succeeds in capturing the combination of intense curiosity and naïve optimism that drive so many adopted children to seek out their biological parents and so many of the rest of us to investigate our family trees at great financial and emotional cost.  The star map must be an invitation rather than a trap, there can’t be any need for the landing party to arm or protect themselves, and the Engineers must be benevolent towards their creations.  If these assumptions were true, the play of similarity and difference would resemble Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) rather than the Alien quartet, and they are quickly revealed for what they are – astonishingly naïve.

The problem for the film is that in exploring this obsession with origins, an exploration that is mirrored by the prequel trilogy’s apparent concern with the origins of the species after which the quartet is named, Scott sacrifices the story’s suspension of disbelief in its entirety.  The result is a film of two parts, the first third plausible and full of suspense and the rest theme-driven to the extent that the plot holes gape as wide as the inevitably self-administered hole in Shaw’s stomach.  Neither of these two gaping wounds has any recognisable effect: the plot picks up a frenetic pace that Shaw has no trouble matching once she has stapled her stomach shut.  I have been generous in my rating on the basis that Scott has not only chosen a highly significant theme for the film, but that his analysis of humankind’s origin fetish is serious and sophisticated.  I may, however, have been overly generous because Scott provided ample evidence of his ability to pose philosophical questions while maintaining narrative credibility in his first three films: The Duellists (1977), Alien (1979), and Blade Runner (1982).  Prometheus is his twentieth outing as director and, as such, viewers familiar with his work will expect more.  In a word, disappointing, but not disappointing enough to put me off seeing the next prequel.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Murder on the Einstein Express and Other Stories, by Harun Šiljak (Springer Science and Fiction) | review by Stephen Theaker

This title is part of a range intended to bring science and fiction together, which has familiar sf names Gregory Benford and Rudy Rucker on the editorial board. Their ethos is highly appealing: “Authored by practicing scientists as well as writers of hard science fiction, these books explore and exploit the borderlands beteen accepted science and its fictional counterpart.” Unfortunately this book, a short collection of four stories – “Normed Trek”, “Cantor Trilogy”, “In Search of Future Time” and “Murder on the Einstein Express” – doesn’t seem to have been copy edited or proofread. Articles definite and otherwise are frequently absent and tenses are often wobbly, making it a trial to read. If it hadn’t have been short enough to read in a couple of hours I would have given up on it. The author is clearly very clever and an expert in his field, but he is trying to get across ideas that would at times be very difficult for the general reader to follow in even the clearest prose, and that isn’t what we get. Not infrequently I was enlightened more by Kindle’s lookup feature providing the appropriate Wikipedia page (e.g. for the Monty Hall problem) than by the explanations in the book itself. As for the stories themselves: I understood very little of “Normed Trek”, but mathematicians may enjoy puzzling out its functions. “Cantor Trilogy” imagines a future where computers take over the writing and peer-reviewing of academic articles. I stumbled through “In Search of Future Time” without really understanding much more than that it seemed to concern the Turing Test. And “Murder on the Einstein Express” uses an extremely thin fictional frame to support a socratic canter through various thought experiments and puzzles. The author seems to acknowledge the book’s flaws in this story, joking that “criticism of the author’s literary style is strictly forbidden”, and having a character say: “I have always enjoyed writing. The fact that I am not good at it couldn’t stop me, since I had the will and thought it’s enough.” Stephen Theaker *

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Book of Kane, by Karl Edward Wagner (SF Gateway) | review by Stephen Theaker

Kane is a warrior, big as two of his friends put together, three hundred pounds of bone and corded muscle, tremendously strong, startlingly agile, able to see in the dark, red-haired and left-handed. He is very long-lived, supposedly the son of the original Adam, and has in the course of that life accumulated many useful abilities, some of them mystical. Time to him has no meaning, “a dozen years or as many minutes – once past, both fitted into the same span of memory”, and when he makes his entrance in a story, it is often a surprise to those who thought him long-dead, or just a legend. The five stories in this collection all find him in a pseudo-medieval setting, the longest, “Reflections for the Winter of My Soul”, stranding him in an isolated castle threatened by highly organised wolves. Reading that story, one could think Kane a hero, but later stories make it clear than he is a thoroughly bad person, a rapist (“Raven’s Eye”) and a mass murderer of men, women and children (“The Other One”). In “Misericorde” we see him at at work as an assassin, while in “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” he plays a minor role in revenge being taken upon another gang of rapists and murderers. He isn’t a character you can admire, and of course you don’t have to always admire characters to enjoy reading about them, but “Raven’s Eyrie” in particular makes for uncomfortably problematic reading, being apparently more dismayed by how Kane’s victim let the trauma affect her than by the crime itself. Perhaps this story appears out of chronological order because as the first story it would have left readers much less sympathetic to its protagonist. The ebook does have rather odd pagination, with the first story beginning on page 187, the second beginning on page 83, the third on page 143, but is mostly free of the scanning errors that have plagued other SF Gateway titles. A book of fairly decent stories with a loathsome protagonist. Stephen Theaker ***