Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Alien Covenant: Survivor guilt


Ridley Scott's latest Alien film is a cold, sharp mess, with some strong, intense moments that are as good as anything else in the entire series, fatally undermined by a desperate search for shock tactics that bulldozes any narrative cohesion. 

People die horribly after doing stupid shit and getting fucked over by corporations or technology, ripped apart by bio-tech monsters in a beautifully art-designed nightmare, which is all you can really ask from an Alien film. But then it literally loses the plot 20 minutes from the end and buries its own efforts to tell a complete story, sacrificing the whole movie to larger franchise-building needs.


It's easy to handle the stupid things in an Alien film because you wouldn't have an Alien film without somebody sticking their mug up close to a face-hugger, or people deciding they need to go "freshen up" in a necropolis, minutes after they just saw their friends and comrades die horribly. 

That's almost a prerequisite for these films, because they don't know they're in an Alien film, and they don't know that they're all going to die horribly. If anything, it's nice to see a movie these days which plays it straight, without relying on the cheap snark and irony of meta-commentary - every other big film these days has to have a smart-arse audience surrogate telling everybody what's happening with a knowing wink to the camera, but in Alien Covenant, they blunder on obliviously into hideous death.

But when the fundamental basics of narrative film fiction leads to an unavoidable conclusion, and that conclusion rips all the emotional power out of the climax of the film, it has to feel like a wrong step, right out of the airlock and into the void of space.


Deep spoilers for the Alien Covenant from here. You have been warned, but feel free to stick your face in closer if you've already seen the film.


So towards the end of the movie, after most of the main characters have suffered the usual monstrous fates, Fassbender and Fassbender are beating the shit out of each other for several minutes, a bad android versus a good android, with the fate of the humans at stake.

You never actually see the resolution of the fight, and then one runs out to save the day and gets away with the survivors, and it's another long sequence before it's revealed that it's David - the bad 'un - who has survived, and now he's free to do his biological experiments on thousands of helpless, sleeping people because the idiots have happily assumed he was the good 'un. The end.


The intent behind all this is easy enough to figure out. The filmmakers want to show how serious and hardcore they are by refusing to give this part of the story a pat and happy ending. Life is pain, and life in the Alien universe is immeasurably more so.

But the first problem with this is that it's so fucking obvious - of course it's David hanging around for the final few minutes of the movie, long before they reveal it. All he had to do was rip off his own hand to convince them he was the good guy, and he's a robot, so that's no bother.

It's not just the rampant foreshadowing of it all - David was the first character seen in the film, he's not suddenly going to be disposed with off-camera. This is a basic rule of film fiction: if there is no actual depiction of the villain's destruction, he's obviously alive and kicking, and the refusal of the film to give his story apparent closure is the only clue that's needed.


The 'twist' itself isn't really the issue - it's the fact that it makes the crucial climactic part of the film nonsensical, because you end up wanting the two remaining characters to fail. You're supposed to give a shit about the final survivors, but when their success will result in the deaths of thousands of oblivious colonists, their fight to get off the planet is hollow and mean-spirited.

So when the film is racing towards the end credits, and you get a bonkers action scene with a maintenance space ship trying to take off while an alien mega-fiend is scuttling around, and the lead character is flailing around at the end of a rope, any triumph or relief from the humans' inevitable victory is hideously undercut.

And the film continues onward, and because this is an alien film, it all ends with things getting sucked out of the airlock, and the final hero dragging her arse back from oblivion, but who cares about these fools anymore? They've condemned everyone they're ostensibly responsible for to a hideous chest-bursting death. Nice one, fuckers.


We all like a good, dark ending that shatters everything we know, but it's no coincidence that the two obviously best Alien films both end with Ripley surviving to live another day. You need someone hanging on long enough to defeat the monster, or it's all for nothing.

It could be saved for the inevitable sequel, but this latest example is like tacking the start of the third Alien film on to the end of the second - the cheap shock of  'it was all for nothing because Newt never woke up again' is one way of starting a new film, (and not a very good one), but if Aliens had finished like that, it would have been a colossal bummer.


It all diminishes Covenant as its own film, because it's only part of a dull multi-film cycle that is determined to mine all the mystery out of the original concept. It's just another step in the evolution of these extraordinarily angry alien creatures, not a story with its own purpose or point.

Alien Covenant looks magnificent, is supremely moody and gets a lot of mileage by introducing the couple's dynamic to this meat-grinder of a franchise. But it ends with a flat thud of nihilism, and when you're actively hoping the last few members of the main cast fail and die in their efforts to survive, what's the point of it all?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

State of comics 2017

Buying a brand new comic book is still one of my great pleasures in this vast and terrible world. There is a narcissistic buffoon in charge of the biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet, so we might be a bruised ego and a hand twitch away from Armageddon. And the general coldness of this unblinking and unceasing universe is a genuine drag, but those kinds of worries fears can be happily buried beneath the thrill of a good new comic.

Comic books remain my favourite of all pop cultures, because you can do anything with words and pictures. It appeals to my half-arse punk-rock philosophy – just get a pen and paper and just fucking do it – and are a gateway to universes of wonder and excitement.

It's also home to huge amounts of absolute trash, but after decades immersed in this shit, I know what I like - I want comics that are smart, stylish and intense, and I know how to find at least some of them.


It's relatively easy to avoid the ones that are dumb, generic and boring, and just go for the regular, ongoing comic books that hit my sweet spot. There are, admittedly, a lot less than there use to be in the box at my local comic shop, but I honestly can't tell if that's because most comics are so shitty, or because I'm just another boring old fuck.

Probably a bit of both.


I still get every single issue of the two best comics in the world - 2000ad and Love And Rockets -  and always will. Both deliver the kind of thrills I've been enjoying for years, and getting a new issue every week, or every few months, is still a highlight of my dull, grey life.

2000ad has been celebrating its 40th anniversary in the past few months, with some brilliant special issues, and the regular weekly title is as enjoyable as ever. The Dredd strip remains in the capable hands of several writers, and every now and then creator John Wagner still comes in and shows everybody else how it's done.

Love And Rockets remains, as ever, the fucking jam.


The other comics I still get on a regular basis are painfully predictable - a bit of Batman here and there, some slightly idiosyncratic adventure comics, a bit of dopey humour and some good ol' gross-out horror.

Even this far into the 21st century, even though I live in a town with multiple comics shops, it can be hard to find anything even remotely outside the mainstream comic book scene down here at the arse end of the world. You can still get a hold of anything published by the big boys, but smaller, more personal works are like diamonds in their rarity.

Even finding comics by reasonably high-profile alternative creators like Sammy Harkham and Kevin Huizenga can be a total pain in the butt, and while they can be ordered in specially, I usually just wait for the collected editions. Their comics are always, always rewarding, and often much better than the other regular comics I get, but I still wait for a decent chunk.


My tastes for superhero comics have been almost squeezed dry by the ongoing mega-epics and crossovers the big publishers put out, and after decades of this shit, I can barely keep up anymore.

The only Marvel comics I bother getting are short-term things by creators I enjoy, like Genndy Tartakovsky's Cage and Warren Ellis and chums' Karnak. Anything longer than six issues looks like a bore and a chore.

I still get some Bat-action, because the best Batman comics are the best superhero comics. It's somehow 2017, and the latest Frank Miller Batman comic remains my fast food of choice, especially when it all got a bit 300 with the Amazons in the most recent issue.

I tried out the new All-Star Batman for a while, because it looked the least connected to the overall mega-saga, and had some great artists involved, but the second story arc just got too damn ponderous, and I'm out.


As a Vertigo Kid of old, I still have a soft spot for the slightly skewed superhero comics, and DC is still producing a few of them that I get every month.

The latest edition of the Doom Patrol is stupidly entertaining. It's got some lovely art, and understands one of the key things you need in a DP comic - as weird a shit gets, it's all okay if you have Robotman telling everybody to cut the crap, before beating up some existential monsters with his robot fists every now and then.

Meanwhile, the latest version of a Wildstorm reboot has Warren Ellis bringing in the brains, even if the new comic isn't as immediately charming as his previous ball-busters like the Authority and Planetary. It's all a bit grey so far, with the usual black-op corporate shenanigans, but has moments where it's ready to fly, and almost got away with a decent explanation for the awful WildCATS moniker. Almost.


Back at the Wildstorm crew's original home, Image manages to produce a bunch of stylish and focused ongoing series, with a strong success rate - I'm fully on board for the reasonably long lives of comics like Lazarus (for the world building), Stray Bullets (for the extraordinarily good pacing) and Kill or Be Killed (for the Brubaker/Phillips), and I'm always trying something new, thanks to the publisher's bloody smart idea of having super-cheap TPBs of the first few issues. I need something to replace the Prophet in my life.

I also remain enamored with the sprawling mess that is Mike Mignola's corner of the comic multiverse, to various degrees. I never miss an issue of Hellboy or BPRD, in whatever incarnation, and dig the short, one-off stories like The Visitor, Frankenstein or Black Flame comics. But I also wait for the trades on the Witchfinder, Lobster Johnson and Baltimore spin-offs, because they never feel quite as essential.


I'm not sure there is really any excuse for still getting a Cerebus The Aardvark comic in this day and age, especially when it's just a bunch of really dumb jokes on clip-art illustrations, but shit, Cerebus In Hell still makes me laugh.


I know I'm missing a lot, and I feel particularly guilty about the way my tastes run towards Boys-Own adventure strips, but comics are still expensive as fuck, and I can only ever justify spending any money on things I know I'm guaranteed to enjoy. Life's too expensive for shitty comics, but it's also too expensive for the unknown quality. I usually find it in the end, but it can take a while.

And there is always the old stuff, decades and decades of great comics to read, re-re-read and savour. I just got through a complete reread of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I'm about to get stuck into Charles Burns' Black Hole for the first time in years, and I'm definitely eyeing up some kind of 2000ad prog slog.

There are just so many good comics to get through, both new and old. There isn't enough time for everything, but there is still always room for some more great comics, even now in the year 2017.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

You can still like Star Wars when it feels like the world is burning down around you


A particularly callous and cruel piece of legislation was recently passed by the US House  of Representatives, on the same day as 'Star Wars Day', a celebration of the space movie saga based entirely on the dumb pun linking the date to the movie's catch-phrase.

As a fan of both those films and really bad puns, I'm all for Star Wars day. While not quite dorky enough to actually do anything for it other than watch 10 minutes of The Force Awakens on the TV, I certainly didn't begrudge anybody else their celebrations.

But other people appeared to be genuinely upset about the frivolity of May the Fourth, and let everybody know all about it on social media. You can understand where those people complaining about this are coming from, with all the fear and uncertainty crowding their lives, but I would argue that this is also exactly the right time to soak in some invigorating and useless pop culture.


On a personal level, it's the stupid shit that gets me through the serious shit. During times of misery and proper despair, I retreat into four-colour fantasies, and really do feel a lot better for shutting out the dark for a little while. It doesn't totally cure the blues, but it certainly helps.

On a societal level, it's a lot more complicated, because we all like different shit and have different tastes and have different levels of emotional attachments to our entertainments, but we should still be able to talk about the dumb movies and TV and books comics. They're not important, but they still matter.


Winston Churchill was a grotesque old-world creature who was just what the world needed when it was time to face up to the fascists in World War 2, and even though he had a love for slaughter running through his blood, he also knew the importance of art.

The story that he said 'then what are we fighting for?' when asked to slash the arts funding during the war is, unfortunately, a load of old bollocks, but the sentiment still rings true. Art and literature and pop culture is how a society is remembered, and it just doesn't stop because everything in the real world is turning to shit.

Even during the darkest days of WW2, Hollywood pumped out classic crime movies, dumb horror flicks and screwball comedies, and they were gladly lapped up by a public that was dealing with unprecedented death and destruction on a daily basis. Life goes on, and so do the movies.


We're not in the middle of a world war at the moment (even if it sometimes feels like it), but culture is as important as ever was. This is part of how the history books will judge us all.

Part of it is the escapism thing, stepping away from this world, into a darkened space, which can take you away with fantasy and drama. It's not a luxury to turn off the mind every now and then, and calm the raging voices inside your head, it's a goddamn necessity.

You can't go around worrying about everything all the time, because A) nobody will ever want to talk to you, and B) it's not fucking healthy. It's all right to surrender to the occasional bout of dark and troubled thoughts, but if you stay in that head space, you can get stuck in a downward spiral into true despair.

You can't shut the horror out forever, and that new Scott Adkins film might not fill the gaping existential hole at the centre of your soul, but again - it'll help.


But it's not just all about the escapism from this grey and hate-filled world. This kind of thing is also important because even the silliest fictions can speak some deadly serious truths.

Truth has never been more valued, probably because it's being heavily out-weighed by all the bullshit in the world, but all the best fictions manage to articulate a universal truth, whether it's a meditation on loyalty, or honesty, or love, or a million other subjects and emotions.

The silly entertainments that we use to escape this world invariably bring a little bit of the world with them, and can leave us wiser and more informed, even if they're surrounded in the cloud of storytelling.

And when people in power seem to get away with terrible things, day after fucking day, they can be held accountable in the satire of entertainment. They're still fucking up the world, but it also helps the soul to laugh at them while they do it.


This is why we keep talking about this rubbish, even as horrible things happen to good people in the real world. But it's important to always, always remember that the dumb fictions aren't worth getting genuinely angry about.

You're allowed to be disappointed in the latest episode of The Leftovers or Doctor Who, or the new Guardians of the Galaxy film, but you just look like a prat if you start crying about it. When there is so much to get genuinely upset about in this world, that would be the acme of foolishness.

Save the rage for the shitshow in South Sudan, or in flagrant abuses of human rights all over the globe. It is literally not the end of the world if you don't like the latest issue of The Walking Dead.


My sympathies are always with all those who are worried about the future, especially when cruel and callous legislation has the potential to really fuck up your life.

But don't hold it against anybody else who just wants to talk about the new Star Wars trailer, or the latest comic crossover, when there are obviously far more important things to worry about. We need the distraction, and the metaphors, and all the entertainment we can get.